By Shannon Hayes
Ed Note: A shorter version of this article was published by The New York Times on March 11, 2009. Click here to read the Op/Ed at “Tag, You’re It.” Shannon Hayes is the author of The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook and The Farmer and the Grill.
On Wednesday, March 11th, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry will hold a hearing on the proposed National Animal Identification System (NAIS). On the surface, NAIS is a marvel of technological wizardry whereby we farmers tag every head of livestock in the country and the USDA electronically tracks their whereabouts. In the event of a disease outbreak, they plan to identify within 48 hours which animals are involved, where they are located, and what other animals might have been exposed.
After an outpouring of farm and ranch protests, NAIS was made “voluntary at the federal level,” but the status is precarious, because funding to states can be contingent upon mandating compliance. For us as consumers, NAIS may sound like a legislative dream, assuring the American food supply is safe. But for us as citizens, NAIS is a nightmare. Policy opponents argue the program cannot deliver on its promises to thwart di sease contagion; it does nothing to contain food-born illness; it threatens the civil liberties of farmers; it infringes on the religious freedoms of many, like the Amish, who object to the system on grounds that it represents “the mark of the beast.”
Any benefit of this specious proposal goes to big agri-business by making factory farming practices, where contagious livestock diseases are most likely to occur, seem safe; moreover, it establishes costly barriers for the ever-growing local food movement. It may help the feedlot beef industry improve its image for the export market.
Other beneficiaries include manufacturers of animal identification and tracking systems who stand to garner hefty profits. The program seeks to protect an industrial agricultural system that, through the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics, confinement farming and unnatural feeding practices, exacerbates the threat of diseases within it, and has spurred the local food movement that rejects its products.
At the same time, NAIS will devastate the alternative local farming system many of us, both as farmers and consumers, have given our life energy to create. By virtue of our farming practices, small pasture-based livestock farms like ours do not suffer the same disease risks as factory farms; in fact, our grazing practices and natural farming methods actually help to thwart them. Pathogenic microbes are less likely to thrive, replicate or develop antibiotic resistant strains when animals are kept in a natural environment, outdoors, on grass. Further, when small farms are full participants in a local food system, tracking a diseased animal doesn’t require an exorbitantly expensive national database.
The burden for a program that will safeguard agribusiness interests will be disproportionately shouldered by America’s small farmers, rural families, and local food consumers. Worse yet, the burden for administering it will force many rural Americans to lose our way of life.
For factory farms, the costs to implement NAIS protocols are negligible. These operations already use computer technology to monitor their systems, and in the case of confinement swine and poultry operations, all the factory animals that move through a production chain at the same time can be given a single number. On small farms like ours, every single animal will require its own number. That means the cost of tracking a thousand animals moving together through a factory system will be roughly equal to the price that a small farmer will incur for tracking one animal.
In an article for Mother Earth News, Jack Kittredge reports that ID chips are estimated to be somewhere between $1.50 and $3 each, depending on the quantity purchased. A rudimentary machine to read the tags may be $100 – $200. It is expected that most reporting will have to be done online (requiring monthly internet fees), plus there will be an added cost of the database subscription, resulting in about $500-$1000 (conservatively) per year per premise for the fixed costs. The variable costs, the number of animal ID tags, and the frequency of data entry, would be added to that figure. I estimate the combined cost for our farm at $10,000. That’s almost 30% of the average income in this county.
Many of us farmers live on the dark side of the digital divide. At Sap Bush Hollow Farm, dial-up is our only internet option, and it is difficult to maintain a connection. The frustration is compounded when the NAIS requires that we report the movement of every animal on the premises within 48 hours. Imagine the reporting nightmare we will face each May, when 100 ewes give birth to 200 lambs out on pasture, and then, six weeks later when those pastures are grazed off, the entire flock must be herded one mile up the road to a second farm that we rent. Add to that the arrival every three weeks of three hundred chicks, the three 500 pound sows who will each give birth to about 10 piglets out in the pastures twice per year (and who will attack anyone who comes near their babies more fiercely than a junkyard pit bull), then a batch of 100 baby turkeys, and the free-roaming laying hens.
Additional tagging and record keeping would be required for the geese and guinea fowl who nest somewhere behind the barn and in the hedgerows, occasionally visiting the neighbors’ farms, hatching broods of goslings and keets that run wild all summer long. Double that accounting figure each time one of those animals is sold, dies, or is trucked to a slaughterhouse. Then, factor in the penalties for non-compliance if we fail to account for a lamb quietly stolen by a coyote, or the added costs if we suffer injury when trying to come between a protective sow and her piglets.
For my family, the upshot is more out-of-pocket expenses, less time stewarding the land and animals, mutual stress and danger when tagging these animals, less time with our customers and community, and a lot more time swearing at the computer.
Yet another scar to be left by this program will be on rural America’s cultural and economic landscape. Rural families have long been able to thrive on wholesome local food while subsisting on incomes well below the national average. They do this by keeping a flock of chickens in the backyard, feeding out a pig, milking a family cow or goat, or teaming up with a neighbor to raise a beef animal. Rural youth take on backyard livestock for 4-H projects, learn more about a future in farming, earn cash for college, and make a contribution to the family’s food security. The annual fixed costs of participating in NAIS will exceed the value of the livestock for these families.
If we want to step up measures to secure our food supply, then the first step should be prevention. In a March 8th 2005 letter to the Committee on Homeland Security, the U.S. Government Accountability Office openly discloses that “the highly concentrated breeding and rearing practices of our livestock industry make it a vulnerable target for terrorists because diseases could spread rapidly and be very difficult to contain.” The big factory farms are the problem, not the little dispersed operations and that dot the countryside. Thus, to heighten our food security, we should place limits on industrial agriculture and stimulate the growth of small farms and backyard food production around the country – not try to put them out of business.
In a white paper on NAIS alternatives, the nonprofit group Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance points out that the GAO report on Agro-terrorism identified no deficiencies in our current animal tracking practices, which include, among others, the brand system, sale and slaughter records, producer records, and numerous disease tracking and prevention programs. Nationwide educational efforts to train farmers and veterinarians about proper management, bio-security practices and disease recognition would be a far more effective and less costly alternative to the prohibitively expensive NAIS.
Anyone who has taken a drive in the country can attest to how the small farms and little backyard operations, run on a shoestring budget, define our landscape and our way of life. The institution of a National Animal Identification System will effectively remove one of the most defining features from the American countryside. NAIS will slam small farmers. But it reaches further than that, to the rural poor who put food on the table through subsistence livestock production, to the local feed and supply stores who service us, the slaughter houses, the livestock truckers, the sale barns where we trade, and the county fairs and community celebrations that showcase our efforts and encourage our youth to consider a future in farming.
The official comment period for the current USDA proposed rule to require all farms and ranches where animals are raised to be registered in a federal database under NAIS closes on March 16th. To comment on the program, go to: www.regulations.gov/fdmspublic/component/main?main=DocketDetail&d=APHIS-2007-0096.
Shannon Hayes, Ph.D. is the host of grassfedcooking.com and author of The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook and The Farmer and the Grill. She works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm, a diversified pasture-based livestock operation in Upstate New York. Shannon’s newest book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming domesticity from a consumer culture, is due out in April 2010.