Thursday, February 7, 2008

The National Animal Identification System, or NAIS

As a small hobby farmer, you would think I have nothing in common with large factory farms. In theory, that would be correct. But in reality, we have one large connection, and that's the National Animal Identification System.

It's a complicated notion that sounds simple. Identify every animal on every farm, ostensibly to be able to track the progress of disease, and find its source, should it occur. That's a laudable goal, but the manner in which the USDA is implementing the program they've developed is nothing short of draconian.

I don't want to get into a huge discussion about the NAIS, there are lots of websites with excellent information about it, no need to reinvent the wheel. Go to for an overview of the system that will make your hair curl. But I will give you my brief take on the plan.

The premise is simple. Each farm which has livestock is given a number (trackable by GPS.) Each animal on each farm is given an individual number at birth, and then any time any animal goes anywhere off the farm, the movement of that animal is reported to a centralized database. So if illness in a horse, let's say, shows up at a show, the USDA could track all the movements of the horse, and find all of the other horses which had been exposed to the disease, and deal with them. Each farmer must tag or otherwise electronically identify all his animals, at his own expense (and the RFID chips that are being proposed are not cheap, costing between $2 and $5 each, depending on species.)

In actual practice, such a system would be a nightmare for the small farm owner. Any time I go on a trail ride with my horses, any time we cross over the land of another farmer, or enter any show ring, or public place, each and every one of those "movements" would have to be recorded, by me. My horse would have to have an expensive microchip implanted (which some studies have shown cause cancer, especially in light-skinned horses, of which I have two.)

So let's say I go out on a ride, travel just four miles down the road. I pass twelve farms. Each movement onto a farm, then off the farm, has to be logged (hard to do while riding, but I suppose I can write while my horse walks.) On off, on off. For each farm we cross, and each horse we're riding (we like to go out as a family.) So for four horses, which go on and off twelve farms, that's a total of 26 individual movements per horse (have to count on and off our own farm), times four, for a total of 104 movements. Each must be entered into the central database with the day and time (possibly including minute!) All for just one simple trail ride.

Under the NAIS as it stands now, we'd have to do that with every single animal we own, anytime they leave the farm, (and return, if they do.) And it gets even more silly when it's applied to animals such as chickens. Under the current draft proposal, each and every chick will have to be tagged, with a multi-digit number (something like 12 or 14 digits), identifying it for life. Now anyone who knows anything about chicks (especially bantam chicks) knows there's no possible way to do this. Any such tag would be much too large for a tiny chick. And chickens would tear the tags off each other, even if we could figure out how to get them on. I hatch between 100 to 300 chicks a year, how on earth will I be able to log all those numbers and report any movements such birds make? Even if I had the time to do so, how would I afford the cost for that many animals? It's not like I'm getting rich selling chickens, I assure you.

The program gets really interesting when it compares how an individual farm, such as ours is, fares against the big factory farms such as those owned by Purdue and Tyson. Those corporate giants are permitted to log whole barns full of birds with just one number, under the logic that they all move "as a lot" through the chain from hatch to slaughter. Very convenient (and cheap!) for them.

The system as it is proposed is overwhelming for small farmers. Many folks like us feel it's a move by big corporate farms to put the small farmholder out of business. Many are concerned about the loss of genetic diversity which would come if only the big factory farms were left to raise animals for the food chain. Not to mention the fact that in most, if not all cases, incidences of bird flu are directly attributable to the large factory farms, not the small farmholder (who generally raises his animals in ways which are much more humane and easier on the immune system than factory farming.)

I don't want to rant forever here. I do encourage all of you to read the following blog for some interesting information about how past government administrations have impacted our environment and health by allowing the FDA and USDA free reign with our food and livestock. See this link for some interesting comments, and if you'll pardon the pun, food for thought:

I encourage all of you to do some research before you vote this fall, and make sure the person you're voting for is going to do the right thing for you, your children, and (without sounding too preachy), our planet.

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