11 March 2009

Stop the NAIS!

Many of you may already be familiar with the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) that the federal Department of Agriculture has been trying to set up. Under this system, every location which raises pretty much any species of livestock must obtain a "premises id number," and then get a separate fifteen-character number for every individual animal. Then, every animal will be tracked every time it leaves the premises. The idea is that if a diseased animal shows up at a slaughterhouse, it can be tracked back to its farm of origin in 48 hours. The system is currently "voluntary," but everyone knows it's only a matter of time before before it becomes "mandatory." It already is mandatory in some states, including Indiana. We have turned down the trade/purchase of a couple of Icelandic rams from Indiana, because we would have had to be registered with the NAIS for the seller to have transferred them to us.

As you might suppose, this is a program we strongly object to and refuse to join. Other organizations, like this one and this one, have done an excellent job compiling and documenting various problems with it, and I'd encourage you to browse these if you want to know more. What's particularly heartening to me is that the ACLU has also gone to bat for some farmers against the NAIS --- concerns about this system seem to bridge the political spectrum.

Our most fundamental objection to NAIS is the invasion of privacy. Quite simply, it isn't any of the government's dang business what kind of animals we have, or how many. We moved to the country precisely because we wanted to be left alone, and to raise some livestock for our family's own consumption. We do not want to implant our animals with RFID tags, or microchips --- and we certainly do not want to send reports to the federal government every time we take a goat kid to the vet.

Apart from privacy concerns, compliance cost is one of the big issues for small producers. The NAIS is being pushed by big agribusiness lobbies; most of the enormous livestock producers already have sophisticated computer systems to track their animals, already have the RFID hardware in place, and in any event have a large herd over which they can spread fixed costs. The NAIS represents a much larger relative cost for the small producers. Small ranchers, like the neighbor from whom we buy beef, are already operating on a very narrow profit margin; adding these additional costs would make his beef significantly more expensive --- just as consumers are becoming more cost-conscious. It's hard to escape the conclusion that the NAIS is being pushed by large agribusiness concerns precisely because it makes it more difficult for smaller producers to compete.

Cost aside, I'm generally quite suspicious of governmental "national databases" of any kind (apart from those related to criminal offenders), because the opportunities for abuse are legion. Should a disease break out on a farm a mile down the road, the government may decide (as happened in some places with Mad Cow disease) to exterminate every piece of livestock within any radius it decrees --- regardless of the health of our individual animals. A national database would only make it easier for the feds to find and kill our healthy animals.

And remember the Depression-era programs which slaughtered millions of young pigs, in an effort to increase commodity prices? And the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation which directed these "excess" agricultural commodities to the poor? Just imagine the opportunities for mischief if the federal government determined that, based on the NAIS records, our family had "too many" sheep and goats...and that a "fair share" of these needed to be "redistributed" to those who had not made adequate provisions.

What can you do? The Department of Agriculture is currently pushing for a set of new rules that will further advance the NAIS. However, there is a public comment period open until March 16th --- so, by all means, please weigh in and let them know what you think. If you follow this link, it will take you to a page with all the comments that others have posted thus far; they're currently up to over 196 pages, which translates into more than 4,900 individual comments. The very first line on the very first page says "Proposed Rules." Click on the bubble in the far right ("Add Comments") column of that line. That will open up a form, where you can give the Department of Agriculture your own two cents about the NAIS. It will take awhile for your comment to post to the site, but it should show up within a few hours.

You can also click on individual comments, to see what others have written. I browsed through a random selection of several of these, and every single one was negative. Generally speaking, I think the more effective comments --- like good letters to the editor --- are more brief, and do not try to make too many individual points.

I'm honestly not sure how much of a difference folks like us can make in slowing down this regulatory leviathan. But let's not allow that uncertainty to stop us from trying.

No comments: