by Judith McGeary
This article was originally published in the December/January 2006 issue of Countryside magazine.
Countryside readers are by now familiar with the National Animal Identification System, or NAIS. Most people who own livestock animals are opposed to the NAIS as soon as they hear what it would be require, but others often ask, “What’s so bad about it?” If we are to succeed in stopping NAIS, then the majority of Americans – who rarely see, much less own, livestock animals – must understand the issue. With so many causes that people can put their energies into, what makes this one special and worthwhile? While there are many possible answers, the fundamental reason that everyone should care about the NAIS is because it will dramatically affect our food. Next to water and air, there is nothing more basic to our survival and health.
For the last several decades, we have been grappling with basic issues in our food supply: who produces it, who controls it, and what options are available. America has never faced a famine, so few Americans really think about the security of our food supply. And yet the images from Hurricane Katrina hopefully have awoken some awareness in the public’s mind. When food is trucked and flown in from the other side of the country, and frequently foreign countries, our cities and towns are vulnerable to disruptions of all kinds. In contrast, a robust local foods network provides food choices throughout the year and serves as a safety net for the entire population.
All of us are familiar with the refrain: Diversify your investments. We are told that it is the key to economic security, that we should never put all our eggs in one basket. And yet our actual eggs come from a very small handful of corporations that operate highly concentrated operations! Large and corporate farms account for 92% of all hog production and 96% of all poultry production in this country. While the cattle industry is decentralized at the base (lots of people raise small herds of cattle), it quickly consolidates as it moves along the process.
Between 80 and 90 percent of grain-fed beef cattle production is concentrated in less than 5 percent of the nation’s feedlots. What would happen if just a few of these facilities suffered a natural disaster? Contamination, whether by terrorists or just someone who wanted to make trouble (remember the Tylenlol tampering)? Or the companies decided to cooperate in illegally fixing prices? A handful of corporations have an almost complete monopoly on the food supply for the majority of Americans.
The issues surrounding the food supply are not limited to its basic availability. The nutrition in food is a key factor in our health. The organic food market, established and still driven by small farmers, is growing rapidly because of the scientifically-supported health benefits in eating foods that have been raised without harmful chemicals and in a manner that increases the vitamin, mineral, and nutrient content.
Grass-fed meats, from animals that are not part of the high-density feedlot system, provide myriad benefits: low fat, increased Omega-3 fatty acids, increased beta carotenes, increased Vitamin E content, etc. These nutritious foods are not available from companies seeking to raise animals at the lowest cost possible. Local foods provide environmental benefits as well, improving the health of the land and reducing our reliance on foreign oil to ship foods globally.
Food security and quality both rest with diversified, local farms. The ability to choose what food you eat – what you put into your body to nourish it – only exists if there are options to choose among. Even those who choose to buy their foods from the corporations at mainstream groceries benefit from the simple existence of alternatives, as in any marketplace. So the continued ability of small farmers to raise food affects every person. But the NAIS threatens to destroy that.
Many who choose to farm are independent individuals who seek less involvement with the government, not more. Imagine if people were told that they had to register their toolbox and report every time they bought a new hammer, lent a tool to their neighbor, or threw one out because it was too old. The prospect of this level of government intrusion is enough to cause many of our farmers to get out of the business. No small farmer does it for the money; we do it because of a passion for the land, for food, and for people. It’s a way of life, not a job. And when the government intrusion reaches a level that fundamentally conflicts with our way of life, many will quit.
Even those that are willing to endure the government intrusion for the sake of continuing to farm will face significant hurdles. The NAIS will require each person to register their property with the government, individually tag and identify each animal (in most cases with electronic identification), and report all kinds of “events” to a database. The NAIS will apply to everyone who owns even one of the listed species: horses, chickens, cows, goats, sheep, pigs, deer, elk, bison, turkeys, pigeons, even fish ponds. Small local farms, hobby farmers, and homesteaders – even people who own just a few chickens because they like fresh eggs – will all be burdened with these government requirements.
The NAIS was designed by and for these large corporate agri-businesses. The issue of economies of scale, investment capital, and labor costs mean that the small farmers will face much greater challenges complying with the NAIS than will these large businesses. For example, what will be the cost of the RFID tags when purchased in small quantities rather than 1,000 tag lots? Unlike large, corporate farms that employ cheap, migrant (and frequently illegal labor), small farmers provide their own labor or pay fair wages to local workers – so how much will it cost for the labor to actually apply each of those tags to each animal? What about those $1,000 scanners for reading the tags?
We’ve been reassured by government officials that each farmer will not have to own their own scanner — enterprising people will undoubtedly establish businesses, scanning and recoding tags for the farmers. So just how much will those services cost? And don’t forget that the factory confinement farms for poultry and hogs will be able to use group ID numbers, thereby avoiding individual tags, and reaping a huge savings in both time and money compared to small farmers.
Some people have responded that farmers can simply raise their prices to cover the costs of the NAIS. But since the large operations will enjoy lower costs, the small farmer will be placed at yet another competitive disadvantage caused by government over-regulation. And for some farmers, the program simply is not feasible, regardless of cost. For example, consider the case of a farmer who has 100 laying hens in a movable shelter in the pasture. These laying hens are of different ages and were purchased as day-old chicks from different “premises of origin,” so that they do not qualify for a group identification number; they must therefore be assigned individual identification numbers and physically tagged.
One day, the farmer finds a pile of feathers in the pasture, where a coyote or other predator carried one of the hens away. The farmer will now have to catch each of the 99 remaining chickens and note their identification numbers so that he can report which chicken has gone missing. The farmer will be faced with the option of breaking the law or spending all of his time simply counting the chickens. Farmers raising cattle and sheep will have to tag their animals with duplicate tags, to ensure traceability if one tag is lost (a rather common occurrence when animals are out on pasture), and file reports for every sale, local exhibition, joint grazing agreement, or death, even if they are simply processing an animal for their neighbor. There aren’t enough hours in the day for this program, on top of the real work a farmer has to do.
Corporations have one, and only one, legal duty: Make the most money possible for their shareholders. Do we want an item critical for physical survival controlled entirely by corporations that are not driven by a sense of moral purpose? By corporations who will force multi-national food trade solely to make profits – even if it threatens America’s security? Whoever controls a country’s food, controls that country. And the US is now a net importer of food. The corporations’ control of the market will allow them to simply pass on the cost of NAIS compliance to consumers, while destroying consumer choices by driving small farmers out of business.
And, if consumers don’t pay the full tab in higher food costs, taxes will pay the rest. A huge new federal and state bureaucratic web will be created. Even if the databases are privately held, the state governments and USDA will still have to hire new people and buy equipment to manage the databases for premises registration. Personnel will be needed to handle people’s questions. For instance, the “help lines” for Australia’s program have required dozens of staff. The government will need equipment and personnel to manage the metadata portals into the private databases, a massive undertaking in and of itself. (As of last year’s Government Accountability Office report, the USDA and other federal agencies had still failed to integrate their databases, a task they were ordered to do 4 years ago.) While many of us are numbed to the misuse of our tax dollars and the growth of the government bureaucracy, at some point we have to draw the line. Where better than when it affects the safety and quality of our food supply?
What can you do?
Become an educator. Reach out to everyone you know, everyone in your community, to explain how NAIS will impact them. There is still time to stop this program. USDA has chosen not to issue federal regulations at this time, and is encouraging states to implement NAIS. Call and write your state legislators, urging them to oppose NAIS. You can find sample letters and information on how to contact your legislators at www.farmandranchfreedom.org and www.libertyark.net, along with other tools to help you educate your friends and neighbors and take action.
Those of us who own livestock animals are a tiny portion of the population and cannot carry this battle by ourselves. And we shouldn’t have to. Our food supply is important to everyone, and every American has a stake in who wins this fight.