[permaculture] Old Big Brother Had a Farm

Saor Stetler saor at ycbtal.net
Fri Mar 10 16:18:23 EST 2006

  Old Big Brother Had a Farm

    USDA ID-tag plan for farm animals has some small-scale farmers unhappy

By Amanda Griscom Little
10 Mar 2006
If only Orwell could get a load of this.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is promoting a system that would have 
farm-animal owners and livestock handlers attach microchips or other ID 
tags to their furry and feathered charges so they could be monitored 
throughout their lifetimes by a centralized computer network. The 
National Animal Identification System, as it's known, has been in 
development by the department since 2002, with help from an agribusiness 
industry group that represents bigwigs like Cargill and Monsanto.

Is the USDA's ID-tag plan a baaaaad idea?
Is the USDA's ID-tag plan a baaaaad idea?
Photo: iStockphoto.
Sounds like Animal Farm meets Big Brother. Yet, while some small-scale 
farmers are outspoken in their criticism of the scheme, many in the 
agriculture community say it's high time the U.S. more carefully tracked 
livestock. The question is how best to do it -- and the devil, as 
always, is in the details.

The vision, says Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, is to create a 
comprehensive high-tech tracking system that would eventually know the 
whereabouts of every cow, llama, hog, catfish, ostrich, and other farm 
critter in the nation so that animal-borne diseases such as avian flu, 
mad cow, and foot-and-mouth disease could be easily and systematically 
kept in check. If an animal were discovered to be a carrier of a 
disease, this system could supposedly track every location it had been 
in through the course of its life and the other animals it may have come 
in contact with; those exposed could then be killed before the disease 
spread out of control.

Some independent farmers are concerned that the costs of NAIS would be 
particularly burdensome for small-scale operators, who are already 
struggling to stay afloat. "It's horribly insidious," says Lynn Miller, 
editor of Small Farmer's Journal. "The USDA is poised to push us off our 

Dore Mobley, spokesperson for the USDA, counters that such claims are 
greatly exaggerated. "It's simply not true," she says, explaining that 
the department has no intention of putting any farmer, no matter how 
small, out of business. And though she acknowledges that farms of every 
size will have to share the costs of the program, she reasons that it is 
"an investment in the future of animal agriculture from which all will 

Martha Noble of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which advocates 
on behalf of midsize and small-scale farming, acknowledges that some 
form of tracking system may be necessary for public-health reasons. "We 
are not opposed to a tracking program, per se," she says. "We understand 
the need for effective monitoring of animals and disease, but there's a 
lot of disagreement about how is it going to be implemented, who is in 
control, and how is it going to be paid for."

Some small-scale farmers also suspect that the program was designed by 
big industry, for big industry -- and, indeed, there's no denying that 
industry had a heavy hand in it. According to Glenn Slack, president of 
the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a trade group, "The 
program is largely based on a plan developed in 2002 through an 
industry-government collaborative effort facilitated by NIAA." NIAA 
represents, among others, the biggest meat producers in the U.S., 
including Cargill Meat Solutions and the National Pork Producers 
Council, and the makers of high-tech animal-ID equipment, such as Micro 
Beef Technologies and Digital Angel. The latter group, needless to say, 
could benefit directly from a nationwide animal-ID program.

Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society of the United States has taken no 
position on the program, but argues it could actually be better for the 
animals than current tagging methods: "If anything, microchips may be 
less invasive to animals than branding or ear-clipping, which has been 
going on for eons," he says. And according to Mobley, the ID program 
would enable officials to be more prudent in choosing which animals are 
killed in the event of a disease outbreak, rather than wiping out herds 
and flocks on a large scale, as has generally been the approach 
heretofore. (Granted, most of the animals are destined for the 
slaughterhouse anyway, but that's another story.)

      I'm Going to Have to See Your ID

The program -- which is thus far voluntary, but could eventually become 
mandatory -- is designed to unfold in three stages. First, farmers and 
producers would register the barns, factories, slaughterhouses, and even 
homes where their animals -- be they 10,000 cows, a dozen chickens, or a 
single potbellied pig -- reside and are processed.

Second, animals born or living on those premises would be assigned a 
15-digit federal ID number and a tag -- in some cases, an implanted 
radio-frequency identification (RFID) device. But producers of certain 
species such as chickens and swine that are bought, moved, and 
slaughtered in big groups could be allowed to identify an entire lot 
with a single ID number -- a less time-intensive and expensive process. 
Critics argue that since factory farms are in the business of mass 
production of animals, this would present them with a cost advantage. 
Miller says this is a loophole that effectively "renders the whole 
program moot."

Third, data on each animal's whereabouts would be compiled and regularly 
updated in a centralized computer network, which the USDA expects to be 
up and running on a national scale by 2009 at the earliest. The 
department has suggested that animals' RFID tags could eventually be 
tracked real-time by a Global Positioning System, but there is no clear 
time frame for this scenario.

Many producers have voiced concern that if the government controls this 
kind of proprietary information about the purchase and sale of their 
products, the IRS or a competitor could get ahold of it through a 
Freedom of Information Act request. That's presumably much of the reason 
why, though the first two stages of NAIS are intended to be carried out 
by federal and state agencies, the USDA has decided that the third stage 
of the program should be overseen by private entities. Exactly which 
entities remains to be seen. (Johanns, who happens to be the former 
governor of a big beef-producing state, Nebraska, had at one point 
supported a proposal that would have a spin-off of the National 
Cattlemen's Beef Association take a leadership role in overseeing the 
database for much of the program. That didn't go over so well.)

Already some 200,000 large-scale facilities are voluntarily 
participating in stage one, having registered themselves on the state 
level, perhaps believing that a tracking program will eventually help 
demonstrate the safety of their meat products to overseas customers. 
Says NIAA's Slack, "In addition to providing a much-needed national 
emergency-response capability in the event of disease outbreak, NAIS 
will help enlarge the international market for U.S. livestock products."

A draft plan released by the USDA last April proposed making the program 
mandatory as soon as 2008, and indicated that there would be no 
significant federal funding assistance for the tagging process. The 
proposal ignited a firestorm of opposition within the farming community, 
and Johanns has since backed off the mandatory aspect.

Spend Your $.02
Discuss this story 
<http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2006/3/10/122847/811> in our blog, 
The USDA hopes to release a revised plan by the end of this year, and it 
will likely leave to state officials decisions about whether to make the 
program voluntary or mandatory. The agency's NAIS coordinator, Neil 
Hammerschmidt, said in a speech last month to the cattle-industry group 
R-Calf USA that USDA isn't sure whether it has the authority to impose a 
federally mandated program that requires producers to report to a 
private entity.

In the meantime, states are moving on their own to put the 
animal-tracking system in place. Minnesota and Wisconsin have approved 
measures that make stage one of the NAIS program mandatory, according to 
Mobley, and Maine, North Carolina, Texas, Vermont, and Washington are 
considering similar legislation. The USDA has allocated more than $60 
million to help states implement the animal-ID program, Mobley says.

      Not Safe, Just Sorry

What irks Mary Zanoni, executive director of Farm for Life, which works 
to protect the rights of small farmers, is that she believes the current 
USDA proposal would not make the U.S. meat supply appreciably safer. 
"Basically, the NAIS system would be of no use at all in dealing with 
the most common types of meat contamination in the U.S., the occurrence 
of pathogens such as listeria or E. coli in processed meat," she says. 
That's because when contaminants occur in industrial-scale quantities of 
meat -- as is often the case -- and are not discovered until the meat 
has been distributed through the supply chain, it is all but impossible 
to find the source. "There is no way to identify individual cows from 
one million pounds of hamburger," she says.

But would the NAIS help control the spread of mad cow or avian flu? "We 
have reams of scientific data that tell us without exception that by far 
the highest incidence of any transmittable contagion happens in 
industrial farm applications," says Lynn Miller. "That's where animals 
are in cramped, unhealthy conditions, and vulnerable to widespread 
disease outbreak." If the USDA wants to control disease, he says, it 
should develop standards for healthier animal conditions and then put in 
place a monitoring and tracking system solely for factory farms.

Zanoni sums up the views of many independent farmers: "Real food 
security comes from raising food yourself or buying from a local farmer 
you actually know. The USDA plan will only stifle local sources of 
production through over-regulation and unmanageable costs."

Muck it up: We welcome rumors, whistleblowing, classified documents, or 
other useful tips on environmental policies, Beltway shenanigans, and 
the people behind them. Please send 'em to muckraker at grist.org 
<mailto:muckraker at grist.org>.
- - - - - - - - - -

Amanda Griscom Little writes Grist's Muckraker 
<http://www.grist.org/news/muck/> column on environmental politics and 
policy and interviews green luminaries for the magazine. Her articles on 
energy and the environment have also appeared in publications ranging 
from Rolling Stone to The New York Times Magazine.

More information about the permaculture mailing list