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USDA Bets the Farm on Animal ID Program | The Nation

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USDA Bets the Farm on Animal ID Program

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In winter 2006, faced with a mandatory program that required him to attach electronic tracking tags on his animals, Michigan farmer Brad Clark sold his cattle herd, and nearly forty years as a cowboy-style rancher came crashing to a halt. Now he's a full-time electrician.

About the Author

David E. Gumpert
David E. Gumpert is a writer specializing in health and business. He covers nutrition and food issues at his blog.
William Pentland
William Pentland is a fall 2007 Nation intern.

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"Cows lose tags like crazy," said Clark. "They get caught in tree limbs. You get an 1,800-pound bull that doesn't want to be tagged, it's an ordeal."

In March, when Michigan became the first state to make parts of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) mandatory, requiring farmers to attach radio frequency identification ear tags on cattle and dairy cows, Clark was already among the casualties.

NAIS, which the US Department of Agriculture has been rolling out in concert with many states since 2003, is stunning in its projected scope. Over the next few years each of the nation's 1.4 million farms (plus thousands of veterinary facilities, export/import stations, livestock barns and genetic facilities) will be affected, with all their approximately 95 million cattle, 1.8 billion chickens, 60 million pigs, 93 million turkeys, 6.3 million sheep, 2.5 million goats and every other livestock species, including bison, camelids, cervids, horses and llamas. In all, more than twenty-nine species and more than two billion animals are slated to be fitted with the ID tags or be injected with transponders that transmit, to a national network of databases, information as basic as date of birth and as sophisticated as DNA profiles and chemical-residue measurements in the bloodstream.

NAIS, ostensibly intended to contain disease outbreaks among livestock, has sparked the most severe political backlash rural America has seen in decades. The controversy stems primarily from the backhanded way the government has imposed a deeply unpopular policy. By introducing NAIS as regulatory changes, the USDA has short-circuited the democratic processes designed to protect the public from government overreaching. Congress has never debated NAIS, and few elected officials have been held accountable for its consequences. The USDA has backed off the original plan to make NAIS mandatory and fully operational by 2009 and now describes the program as "voluntary." While it may be voluntary on the federal level, the USDA has pushed states to make NAIS mandatory for their local farmers.

"Farmers like us, we don't want handouts or disaster payments or loans," said Kim Alexander, who raises livestock in central Texas. "We just want to be left alone to raise clean and healthy food for people who will pay a premium because they know it's clean, healthy and local and not contaminated with a bunch of poisons."

A handful of industry stakeholders have cast their shadow over nearly every component of NAIS--past, present and future. A consortium of industry leaders--Cargill Meat Solutions, Monsanto and Schering-Plough, among others--pushed for NAIS for more than a decade and finally won the USDA's approval shortly after George W. Bush took office in 2001. The consortium, the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA), designed NAIS for the USDA and includes the USDA's NAIS coordinator, Neil Hammerschmidt, among its alumni.

Critics contend NAIS will be the death knell for small farmers, some religious minorities and organic agriculture generally in America. Although the program will amplify American agriculture's influence in global markets, it will give commercial agriculture an unprecedented monopoly on the future of food--a brave new era of synthetic agriculture and genetically engineered animals.

This era is not beyond some remote horizon. It has already begun. On December 19, the leading cloned livestock producers announced a program designed to monitor meat and milk products from cloned animals as they moved through the food chain. NAIS is the "tracking system" the industry will use to commercialize cloned livestock on a mass scale.

"The industry's proposal to track cloned animals ignores consumers' concerns about the offspring of cloned animals, creating a false sense of security, said Judith McGeary, founder of Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance in Austins The entire NAIS plan is much the same, by creating a false sense of security instead of addressing the real problems. NAIS was designed as a marketing program to increase consumer confidence domestically and abroad, without changing any of the industry practices that have created the lack of confidence in our mainstream food supply."

The USDA compounded public skepticism by encouraging states, with the enticement of federal funding, to impose the program on local farmers. Several states have followed Michigan's lead and implemented various aspects of the program in different ways.

In May, Wisconsin required dairy farmers to register their farms (the step preceding registration of animals). Those with livestock are given a unique number keyed to a GPS monitoring system before they can receive dairy licenses. Many of the state's estimated 10,000 Old-Order Amish claim that participation would violate their religious principles, which bar participation in government programs.

Scores of Amish farmers have abandoned dairy production and others have refused to participate, often forfeiting their licenses to sell milk as a result. Some of Wisconsin's most conservative Amish groups have reportedly considered a mass migration to Venezuela. The Christian Legal Society plans to challenge Wisconsin's registration law as an infringement on the Amish's religious rights.

"It's hugely painful to them," said Karin Bergener, an Ohio-based attorney and farmer who has spent two years raising awareness about NAIS among Amish communities and others. "The thing that comes to all of us is the brutality of treating these animals like widgets. That's probably the way large corporate confinement operations see the animals, but anyone who has raised them--even if you're going to slaughter them--knows that they're not widgets."

In Pennsylvania, a Mennonite poultry farmer sued Pennsylvania's Agriculture Department in June for violating his religious rights by registering him in a state NAIS program without his consent. The state settled the lawsuit a few weeks after it was filed. The settlement terms have not been made public.

Many farmers suspected NAIS would meet stiff opposition from the start, but few realized how aggressively the USDA and state agencies would pursue it anyway. When opposition blocked one means of implementation, some states merely changed tactics, often pushing registration through lower-profile policies. In 2006 hundreds of farmers and ranchers descended on a Texas Animal Health Commission hearing to protest a plan to make premises registration mandatory. A few months after the high-profile defeat, the commission notified farmers and ranchers in a press release that, due to a low-risk bovine disease incident, it would require "identifying all Texas dairy cattle--regardless of age--with an official or TAHC-approved identification device prior to movement within the state."

Similar stories have surfaced in Massachusetts, Missouri and Tennessee.

"What is really unique about the NAIS is that people from the far left to the far right find it appalling," said Bergener. "As long as you're a populist, as long as you believe in independent people running the country instead of big corporations with conflicts of interest, you find the NAIS pretty appalling."

The USDA dismisses many of the program's critics. "Folks tend to make it more complicated that it really is," said Agriculture Undersecretary Bruce Knight in an interview. "The important thing is to have a system whereby in the event of catastrophic animal disease, we can identify everyone in the community and let them know what's going on, and do it within forty-eight hours. It builds off a long tradition of cooperation between American farmers and the federal government."

But Knight acknowledges that NAIS isn't just about protecting livestock. Being able to guarantee in the global marketplace that American farmers can quickly track disease "is a desirable factor with some of our trading partners, certainly in the Japanese export market. Countries like Australia have been marketing their (animal) traceability to gain market share."

Some worry that NAIS technology may be good at tracking animals but not at preventing epidemics. In July a General Accounting Office report said NAIS may not be able to achieve its stated purpose, largely because the USDA has raced to implement a system larger and more ambitious than any other in the world.

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