This past Friday I attended a USDA-sponsored “listening-session” concerning the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). NAIS is, in the words of USDA, “a modern, streamlined information system that helps producers and animal health officials respond quickly and effectively to animal disease events in the United States.” By monitoring livestock populations nationwide via conventional eartags, radio frequency identification devices, and transponder implants, the program will allegedly allow USDA to respond more effectively to epidemics while ensuring market access for overseas agricultural exports. Better still, NAIS is an aegis against bioterror attacks on the food supply: Though Iraq’s WMD program was finally thwarted by a timely cakewalk there are still plenty of other threats to our freedom out there.
To say there has been grassroots criticism of NAIS is like saying that the eruption of Santorini was rather on the noisy side. The initial 2003 proposal was to impose NAIS on all farmers by federal writ. President Bush’s USDA backed off from this only when compelled by overwhelming public backlash, which was later expressed quite nicely by maverick Congressman Ron Paul:
Agribusiness giants support NAIS, because they want the federal government to create a livestock database and provide free industry data. But small and independent livestock owners face a costly mandate if NAIS becomes law.
Larger livestock operations will be able to tag whole groups of animals with one
ID device. Smaller ranchers and farmers, however, will be forced to tag each
individual animal, at a cost of anywhere from $3 to $20 per head.
The listening-session here in Louisville was typical of other such events around the country: One speaker after another mounted the platform to denounce the project, as Kentucky’s rural yeomanry was backed up by a motley crew of libertarians, hippies, Baptists, and localists. Poet-farmer Wendell Berry was in attendance, and wondered caustically at the ensuing press conference why the USDA reps felt the need for a heaping helping of police protection. Since when do benefactors need to be shielded from the people they represent?
In this regard the federal apparatchiks instinctively grasped a point which eludes far too many, too-trusting Kentuckians: USDA represents the interests of USDA, period. Like any virus, America’s centralizing managerial-regime incessantly and insatiably seeks to expand and spread, and those who make their bread-and-butter from bureaucracy can always find rationalizations and justifications for promoting the plague. The “homeland security” business became a cozy little racket following September 11th; swine flu is now the hysteria-of-choice for functionaries seeking career enrichment.
You see, NAIS contributes to the Global War On Terror (GWOT), is critical to our Gross Domestic Product from Agriculture (AGDP), and is absolutely indispensible to many other Very Important Capitalized Nouns and Acronyms (VICNA) that I can’t quite recall at the moment. Set aside the fact that globalization and the factory-farming system the USDA has pushed for years is by far the greatest potential source of devastating epidemics, and that a locally-based food economy in which people actually know where their food comes from would be far more secure than any federally-planned Wile E. Coyote strategem.
In Darwinian terms, NAIS catastrophically rigs the environment even further in favor of industrial agriculture and even further against independent farmers. But at least freeholders ruined by these new expenses can look forward to retraining, followed by employment with one of the many fine technology-contractors who are cashing in on (and eagerly lobbying for) the NAIS-craze.
At best, NAIS demonstrates Americans’ perennial conviction that shiny new gadgets and shiny new administrative offices are the answer to everything, and that the US government elite regards the fate of old-fashioned farms and communities with indifference. Although the Beltway bright-boys may not lose much sleep at night fretting over the fate of the little guy, they probably aren’t deliberately trying to run the little guy out. The charitable assessment is that they are merely stupid and callous.
Then again, USDA’s track record vis-à-vis the local farmer hardly inclines one to give bureaucrats the benefit of the doubt. Maybe NAIS really does represent an actual agenda, however inchoate, against independent economic activity. After all, why believe that, after decades of suffocating local agriculture, USDA has suddenly transformed itself into an institution neutral (much less friendly) toward the family farm? Why believe the leopard has changed its spots since Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Benson told farmers to “get big or get out”? Why believe that USDA has become any less hostile to traditional farming since Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz brusquely told farmers to “adapt or die”?
Oh, I know. Because our current Obamalicious Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, is… oops, a genetic-engineering enthusiast.
Even in the unlikely event that the former Iowa governor is anything more than a toady, the fact is that an institution’s culture is rather like a battleship: It can’t turn on a dime.
It is laughable to claim that the USDA’s efforts to peddle NAIS are being conducted in good faith. USDA officials’ declarations of goodwill at the conference reminded me of the bug-eyed-monsters from Mars Attacks!, who repeatedly offer dovish reassurances to earthlings even while incinerating human civilization: ZAAAP. “We come in peace!” ZAAAP.
In the “myths & facts” section of USDA’s website we are told that the program is
voluntary at the Federal level. There are no Federal penalties or other ‘enforcement’ mechanisms associated with the program. You will not be penalized by USDA at all if you choose not to participate in the program.
Keep in mind that the only reason it wasn’t made mandatory “at the federal level” is because USDA officials got caught, and discovered that they couldn’t get away with making it mandatory. Those who cannot have their way by the direct, aggressive approach are apt to shift to more slyly seductive tactics. As the Georgia Satellites put it: My honey, my baby – don’t put my love upon no shelf…
No, there are no federal penalties (yet). But if state agencies decide to make NAIS mandatory – say, in exchange for a bellyful of federal pork-barrel funding – why, don’t blame the innocent spring lambs over at USDA. They’re just trying to help you. (“We come in peace!”)
This is precisely what happened in Wisconsin with the “2003 Wisconsin Premises Registration Law”, which made NAIS compliance mandatory for all Wisconsinites. This includes the state’s Amish dairy farmers who, to everyone’s great astonishment, have deemed the program intolerable for religious reasons. In Texas, state agricrats announced that yes, penalties (but not federal penalties, mind you) would indeed be imposed on NAIS-noncompliant livestock owners. The scheme was only stopped by an outbreak of the sort which worries USDA’s minions a great deal more than mad cow disease: I.e., pitchfork-populism forced state politicians to intervene on behalf of farmers.
Here in the Commonwealth our own legisweasels did something right for a change in preemptively passing HB-495, which forbids any state agency to “Deny, revoke, or limit services, licenses, permits, grants, or other benefits or incentives to a person if that person does not participate in the national animal identification system.” Yet as that bill itself notes, state regulatory officials “may promulgate administrative regulations necessary to carry out the provisions of the national animal identification system” in the future, “if the system becomes mandatory through final federal action.” Gee, I thought USDA said it wouldn’t dream of making NAIS mandatory on the federal level?
Neither Kentuckians nor Texans nor anybody else can afford to relent in this fight. Like Moloch, all-consuming demon-god of the Carthaginians, the National Animal Identification System cannot be satisfied by concessions or appeasement. It must be plowed under by patriots – the sooner, the better.
Jerry Salyer spent 5+ years as a US Navy fleet officer, and travelled to 23 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Persian Gulf. He also worked for a summer as a crewman aboard the oceanographic research vessel Atlantis, out of Woods Hole Massachusetts.
He has a B.S. in Aeronautics from Miami of Ohio and a master’s degree via the Great Books Program of St. John’s College in Annapolis. He was born in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Currently he lives in Kentucky; his family is originally from a little town in eastern Kentucky called Salyersville, named for a distant ancestor. He’s written fiction and essays for Chronicles Magazine, Antiwar.com, Hereditas, Catholic Men’s Quarterly, The Southern Arts Journal, etc. He is a member of the Elizabeth Madox Roberts Society.