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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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Global Scramble

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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Intentional or not, an uncanny number of cutting-edge animal biotechnology projects intersect at NAIS.

At a recent animal genetics conference in Switzerland, a team of geneticists described how NAIS-like animal identification systems had "huge potential for a genetic improvement programme where lack of individual identification is one of the main hurdles."

Agribusiness is in a global scramble to secure intellectual property rights over the next generation of biotechnology products. China, Brazil, India and many other countries have accelerated animal biotechnology research. In Canada, Aqua Bounty Farms has patented the first transgenic salmon, which grows to adult dimensions in half the time it takes conventional salmon. Regulators are considering whether to approve the salmon for sale.

The National Animal Genome Research Program, which pioneered the first disease-resistant transgenic cow in 2001, describes NAIS as "a key user" of its national network of genomics resources.

"I'm not really at liberty to say anything about [NAIS] because I don't know how they will be using the databases," said Muquarrab Qureshi, USDA-CSREES program leader for the National Animal Genome Project. "The genome information could be used to identify all the animals there and all the way up to the meat you buy at the grocery store."

Qureshi's comments capture the most maddening aspect of NAIS: it's so vague that it's hard to pin down exactly what it will do or how or even why. The USDA has left NAIS open-ended so stakeholders can maximize the program's potential value by using it as a platform to develop additional processes or systems. NAIS is a set of open-ended standards and protocols that can support a wide range of operations and processes--including genetic tracking--many of which have nothing to do with disease surveillance.

Some NAIS databases may already be tracking genetic data. In 2005, AgInfoLink partnered with Viagen, an animal genomics company that cloned the first dairy cows, to develop a NAIS-compliant data system for the beef industry. In addition to meeting NAIS requirements, the system allows producers and ranchers to "collect, sort, analyze and store genetic information instantly." This information can then streamline "documentation of age and source verification information being demanded in the marketplace today," according to an AgInfoLink press release.

Also in 2005, MMI Genomics, a company affiliated with Cargill and Monsanto, described, in a presentation at an NIAA conference in Kansas City, how NAIS could create "forensic barcodes" for meat products with DNA samples. The samples of every production animal could then be stored in a long-term DNA archive. Other companies have designed radio frequency chips that allow genetic tracking.

"NAIS is going to truly coalesce the food supply," said Bergener. "All the people who like to go to a nice farmers' market so they can buy fresh eggs and chickens from a farmer they can look in the eye won't be have anywhere to go. We won't be there anymore. We won't exist."

But NAIS might destroy far more than farmers' markets. In the past fifty years, industrial agriculture has promoted a handful of high-performance breeds so aggressively that the genetic diversity of livestock has been decimated in developed economies and is rapidly accelerating in developing countries, according to a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Since 2000, at least one livestock breed has disappeared every month, and roughly 20 percent of the world's livestock breeds are at risk of extinction, according to the report. Perhaps the cruelest irony of NAIS is that by hastening the demise of genetic diversity it may ultimately expose the food supply to catastrophic and irreversible risks.

"The security of America's food supply and the resilience of livestock in the face of diseases are best served by the decentralization and dispersal of food production and processing," said Mary Zanoni, during testimony against NAIS before the Texas Animal Health Commission. "[T]he agricultural sciences have demonstrated time and again that the least-cost and least intrusive method is the most effective and protective of health."

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