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.
“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.