I am obsessed with farms and farmers markets. People that read my work probably know that by now. Did I mention that I sometimes go to three different farmers markets in a single week? One of the things I love is that in addition to fruits and veggies, my local farmers markets have vendors selling milk and cheese, whole chickens, eggs of various types and sizes, pork and beef. I don’t eat most of that stuff, but I love that it is there and that it comes from local farms.
Soon, however, there may not be meat at farmers markets, or meat raised by small farmers, at all. That’s because of the roll out of the National Animal ID System (NAIS), requiring farmers to attach radio frequency identification ear tags on cattle, dairy cows, pigs and chickens.
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.
In addition, the resulting database won’t be managed by the government, but by private companies, some of which helped design the NAIS program as part of the Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA). Critics see this as a large flaw in the system, and also point to the use of the database to quell fears about meat from the offspring of cloned animals in the food supply. Such meat products will all be registered through the NAIS and thereby designated as safe, so long as there is no food borne pathogen outbreak.
While the federal NAIS program is voluntary, the USDA has been encouraging states to make the program mandatory for local farmers by offering federal funds. Farms that don’t complete forfeit their license to sell meat and dairy products. And the program may not even be effective in disease prevention, according to a General Accounting Office report from July 2007. Most nefarious, though, it punishes non-factory farms, when it is actually the factory farms that have been the causes of most food-borne disease like e-coli. Here’s how, say Gumpert and Pentland:
The risk of epidemics that spread between animals and humans has grown primarily because of the “inappropriate use of antibiotic drugs,” which has fostered the evolution of “resistant forms of bacterial disease,” according to a 2006 report by the Center for American Progress. An estimated 70 percent of antibiotic usage occurs in agriculture.
NAIS allows large factory farms whose animals spend their entire lives in feedlots to register large groups of animals as a single unit, but farms whose animals are not confined must register animals individually. As a result, most small farms could pay as much as $20 or $30 per animal to comply with NAIS, compared with $1 to $2 per animal for large farms.
“People don’t realize that they’re going to have to tag every single chicken,” says Gail Damerow, a Tennessee farmer who is editor of Rural Heritage magazine. “When you look at the cost of a chicken or goat and the cost of a tag, it’s not going to work economically.” Indeed, if the radio frequency tags cost $2 for a chicken that sells for $3 or $4, the thin margins that keep most small farms afloat will vanish. – The Nation
Essentially, small and free range farms are financially punished, while factory farms are rewarded. The result is likely to mean that small farms using sustainable practices to raise animals will be put out of business and locally raised meat and dairy products will disappear from farmers markets and specialty food stores.
March 16th ends the USDA public comment period on the National Animal ID System. You can have a say at http://lavidalocavore.org/showDiary.do?diaryId=1034 and let the USDA know what you think.
Image Credit: Food.change.org