A Beeper For Every Cow 

Tracking Bossy with the National Animal Identification System

The proverbial question about when the cows are coming home may soon be a legal matter.

If the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) becomes mandatory this year, Idaho farm operations large and small would be required to tag, register and report the births, movements and deaths of every creature in the barnyard. The activities of cattle, horses, goats, pigs, and even chickens and turkeys, have become an issue of national health security during the age of surveillance. The new system would require GPS locations of farm premises and radio-frequency microchip monitoring of millions of animals across the United States, posing a new challenge to small-scale farmers.

Hatched in 2004, largely in response to the threat of Mad Cow disease--which cost the American beef industry billions of dollars in lost sales overseas--the NAIS framework was announced by Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman as "a computerized animal identification and tracking system that will be used in all states and operate under national standards."

The NAIS Northwest Pilot Project--a $1.16 million, 12-month project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered by the Idaho Cattlemen's Association--includes the states of California, Oregon, Hawaii, Utah and Washington. According to the Department of Agriculture, the program will "demonstrate the effectiveness of premises and animal identification, provide outreach and education, and evaluate methods for identifying and tracking animals." Public comment on the NAIS program will end in July, after which NAIS is expected to become mandatory.

According to the NAIS Web site, the system "will be capable of tracing a sick animal or group of animals back to the herd or premises that is the most likely source of infection. The sooner animal health officials can identify infected and exposed animals and premises, the sooner they can contain the disease and stop its spread."

Under current NAIS rules--now voluntary--horses, cattle, goats, poultry, sheep, swine, alpacas, llamas, bison, deer and elk are assigned a unique 15-digit Animal Identification Number. Anyone with any animal from the current list, or future ammendments to that list, will be required to get a seven-digit Premise I.D. Number, trackable through Global Positioning System devices. All data from farm premises will be stored in a permanent federal database, the disposition of which remains unclear.

But Diane Greentree and Tom Sadoski of Greentree Naturals in Sandpoint see no need for the NAIS on their farm. As Certified Organic Farmers since 1992, they raise chickens and turkeys for local sale through community supported agriculture programs and farmer's markets.

Typical of many small-scale farmers, the Greentrees grow obscure varieties of vegetables that might otherwise disappear from the environment altogether, including 37 different kinds of salad greens, 60 culinary herbs, 15 varieties of squash, eight kinds of peppers and seven varieties of eggplant. Greentree carrots come in four different colors: orange, yellow, red and purple. Manure for fertilizer comes from her goats, which may soon require radio frequency transmitters.

"I do see the reasons for the identification program for large-scale producers who sell their animals far and wide," Greentree says. "But all of my customers already know where their food is coming from. It's all in my sales receipts."

Greentree also buys 10 cows per year from another organic producer nearby.

"If I have to tag 150 chicks each year, this is going to be economically unviable," she said.

The Greentrees are one of more than 100 small-acreage farmers in Idaho who will feel the pinch of NAIS far more than the large scale dairy cattle and pig producers with herds numbering in the thousands.

Industrial farm herds can be tagged as one animal within the writing of the NAIS program, while small-scale and hobby farms will be required to track the daily events of every animal throughout the year, and pay for the expense of doing so.

Mary Zanoni, the executive director of Farm for Life and a critic of NAIS programs, said the original push for a nationwide animal I.D. program came from a private group called the National Institute for Animal Agriculture. The members of the NIAA, Zanoni said, include household names like Cargill Meat Solutions, Schering-Plough, the National Pork Producers Council and Monsanto Company. Zanoni said NIAA members hold vested interests in the software companies poised to implement NAIS.

According to David Daigle of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta Georgia, the NAIS's 48-hour trace-back system will be of "tremendous value" in the control and tracking of zoonotic, or animal-to-human, diseases.

"It will be helpful in controlling outbreaks of everything from rabies and flu to hoof-and-mouth and mad cow disease," Daigle said.

Yet critics of NAIS point out that these diseases are already under control; mad cow disease was derived from irresponsible feeding practices that have been banned for 10 years. Terrorist biological threats presumably would target large industrial farms.

Critics also add that local, small-scale farmers with the most to lose from NAIS implementation are the least likely to spread untameable diseases. Local, genetically diverse populations, they say, are the surest bet against wide-scale infections and blights among plant and animal species. Yet NAIS is more likely to serve the global sales interests of industrial agriculture with centralized means of production, often involving the use of antibiotics, pesticides and whatever else industrial farmers might rely upon to increase production.

Brandon Mimbs at Prancing Pony Farms in Bonner County sees the NAIS program as more than an economic inconvenience. Mimbs uses draft horses to farm row crops and hay.

"I am very much against the NAIS Program because it violates the First and Fourth Amendments, for starters," Mimbs said.

What helps the beef industry make sales overseas may well jeopardize the survival of Mimbs and others who don't have the time to enter data into a computer each day. Mimbs prefers horses to tractors because, he said, they don't use petroleum, they provide fertilizer for his crops and they mow the lawn.

"The whole philosophy of small-scale organic farming is to have an open door policy for people to come and see where their food is coming from," Mimbs says. "There is no need for NAIS here."

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