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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.

13 COMMENTS

  1. The good thing about all this triplicate record keeping and redundant redundocracy is that when the Bolshys have deep-sixed the last remnant of the Republic under a vast machinery of Industrialized Waste, there will be a fine record of the farrago that will read like a suicide note authored by the American Accountancy Society. Totalitarians always enjoy bean counting and carbon-copying their various murderous schemes…it automates the violence of it for them, sanitizing it somehow and giving it standards to live up to.

  2. This is, of course, the history of regulation. The regulations are drafted so as to become a burden to those who can least afford them, and a mere nuisance to the large producers, who can only get larger. When they cannot overcome their competition in the marketplace, they do so via the gov’t.

  3. “USDA represents the interests of USDA, period.”

    Well said.

    “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.”

    Who knows where the food we eat comes from, or what dark chemicals lurk within? I’ve taken to just growing my own vegetables and have even looked into raising shrimp, since I’d have trouble killing rabbits or chickens (I’d end up with a dozen new “pets” whom I’d feed rather than the other way around).

  4. The ‘homeland security’ business became a cozy little racket following September 11th…

    That’s for sure! Remember that Sherriffs department (Texas? Louisiana?) that spent the money on riding lawn mowers and were having races with them? Wow! That really protected the citizens of the good ol’ USA!

    If the money is there, a bureaucrat or an “independent contractor” (as in “privatization”) manages to spend it!

    (Grrrrr…)

  5. It’s articles like this that make people whom want to defend local farmers sound like conspiracy nitwits. In a couple hundred words we’ve managed to somehow connect the war on terror, an attempt to collectivize farms, and a bunch of other nonsense onto what is an admittedly ill conceived attempt at overseeing disease spread amongst livestock herds. Which despite what someone insinuated up above, simply knowing your food comes from down the street does little to tell you, or your local farmer, if there is a potentially economically ruinous livestock disease bounding through herds which can still happen, though certainly with less spread, amongst non-CAFO livestocks.

    I think NAIS is a poorly though out program whose financial implications on smaller farmers have not been taken into consideration. But the simplistic rejoinder that there needs to be no attempt at trying to control livestock disease is a public health and economic disaster waiting to happen.

  6. Sean S.,

    Conspiracy mongering aside, your rebuke of dissenters to industrialized food goes wanting on the basic count that the mode of production itself is uniquely suited to the kinds of disease the new program intends to “protect” the public from. Once again , big-government seeks to treat the symptoms as they arise rather than the disease itself.

    I don’t believe anybody is suggesting that there be “no attempt at trying to control livestock disease” .

    As to “conspiracy”…..the citizenry is so distracted and so attuned to a dysfunctional life mode that there is no need for conspiracy. Aggressively idiotic and sometimes essentially evil programs occur in broad daylight, propounded by statist perpetrators a corporate freebooters who are far too dim to pull off a proper conspiracy. Would that the problems were indeed “conspiracy”, then they could be rooted out .

  7. “your rebuke of dissenters to industrialized food goes wanting on the basic count that the mode of production itself is uniquely suited to the kinds of disease the new program intends to “protect” the public from. Once again , big-government seeks to treat the symptoms as they arise rather than the disease itself.”

    This is only partially true; livestock diseases have been with us from before the advent of vertical, factory dominated agriculture. It is true, as you say, that this is a situation of trying to deal with the symptomatic problems that result from CAFO’s. But that doesn’t mean that livestock disease, or larger agricultural problems, would not arise amongst smaller farms. It is not immediately apparent why, as the author states, knowing that your meat comes from down the road somehow means it hasn’t been contaminated. I would imagine few meat consumers are expert in animal-borne diseases or veterinary medicine. Hell, I would argue most farmers aren’t either.

  8. Thank you, Mr. Salyer, for writing about this meeting (which I missed). Mr. Berry has said for years that so-called health regulations frequently result in yet more pressure on the small producer, and this is another case of it, and one that seems (like others) very unlikely to prevent diseased meat from getting to market. The purpose seems to be to trace and hence contain rather than prevent disease anyway.

    The money would be far better spent supporting local markets (as seed loans for small processing plants, for ex.), that would enable farmers more easily to process and sell their meat locally. The meat would then be far easier to trace in the event of a problem. Farmers may miss the first day or two of an illness but can generally tell when an animal is sick. We, however, are eating meat from individual animals (and in the case of hamburger, multiple individuals) that nobody has really looked at in weeks, other than under the pressure of loading and forcing into the fast-paced slaughter line. And then this sick meat gets shipped region- or nationwide, and goes right to the groceries and school lunches. That’s the problem.

  9. Ms. Dalton: I’m grateful to FPR for giving me an outlet. I’d hope to see you next time — though more hopefully there’ll be no next time!

    As to Sean S., it seems he has three objections:

    #1. Deals with my assertion that “knowing that your meat comes from down the road somehow means it hasn’t been contaminated,” and that there should be “no attempt at trying to control livestock disease”.

    #2. Is that I am a conspiracy-monger; also that I “managed to somehow connect the war on terror, an attempt to collectivize farms, and a bunch of other nonsense” to NAIS.

    #3. Is related to #2; namely, the implication that I should use more temperate language to avoid making “people whom want to defend local farmers sound like conspiracy nitwits” — akin to those insane, lunatic Ron Paul folks who audaciously say that the US government respects neither the spirit nor the letter of its own Constitution.

    As to #1 — a straw man. I did not claim that local food economies would lead to a Shangri-La utopia in which all animal disease magically disappears. Nor did I say that there should be “no attempt at trying to control livestock disease”.

    My claim was that local food economies “would be far more secure” than a system in which food is industrially-made and processed under federal supervision.

    This is not at all the same thing as claiming that local food economies will somehow produce a perfect arrangement in which pathogens have been eradicated. The distinction between saying local food economies “would be far more secure” and declaring that there should be “no attempt at trying to control livestock disease,” is even more abundantly obvious.

    My implicit reasoning is that decentralized systems are inherently less vulnerable to disastrous events than centralized ones. I was in particular thinking of vulnerability to bioterrorism; it strikes me as self-evident that it would be more difficult to effect widespread, catastrophic contamination of many little local food-economies than to find an Achilles’ heel in a centralized distribution network.

    As to #2 — yet another misrepresentation of my position. Mr. Medaille already concisely addressed the connection between corporate influence and new regulations, and Mr. Sabin already ably addressed the “conspiracy question”. As Mr. S. deems their observations on these points not worth his time, I will add an additional 2 cents.

    To begin with, I noted that there are very prosaic reasons for these sorts of bureaucratic expansions, such as the modern American faith “that shiny new gadgets and shiny new administrative offices are the answer to everything”. If Mr. S. denies the prevalence of this attitude then he is either very unperceptive or very sheltered. If he regards this attitude a non sequitur vis-a-vis a discussion of culture, society, and public policy — why, in that case he is an idiot.

    As to conspiracy-mongering, my actual suggestion was that “Maybe NAIS really does represent an actual agenda, however inchoate, against independent economic activity.”

    In future I suggest Mr. S. look up the words with which he is unfamiliar, like “inchoate” — or, for that matter, “maybe” — before composing replies. He might also do writers the courtesy of reading what they write, thinking about the actual words in the text, and chewing upon the reasoning which said words symbolize — rather than trying to assume the role of FPR’s designated token, even-keeled centrist. (A lone voice of sanity and moderation among all these reactionary agrarians, Wendell Berry readers, and Distributivists… how poignant…)

    Why, yes, of course — only a paranoiac, pot-smoking moonbat could possibly think that a former US Department of Agriculture Secretary telling farmers to “get big or get out” reflects some sort of animus against small farmers on the part of USDA.

    Statements like that mean nothing — NOTHING! (And anyone who suggests otherwise is a loon, and probably thinks the moon-landing occured in a back lot at Hollywood.)

    I mean, thinking that “get big or get out” means that there is a preference for “big” as opposed to “small” — why, that’s some Dan Brown-esque crypto-goofiness for you, right there.

    One would have to be even more of a tinfoil-hat-wearing madman to argue that “an institution’s culture … can’t turn on a dime,” — i.e., to argue that longstanding attitudes ingrained in an institution are not likely to change overnight.

    And even crazier to rely upon the insane thesis that human beings (such as the experts in Washington) very often tend to employ “rationalizations” in order to further their own interests.

    Meanwhile, to claim that corporate lobbyists may have some sort of influence over public policy … well, that’s clearly just the mother of all lunatic-fringe hypotheses.

    Mr. S. is apparently unable to distinguish between conspiracy-theory on the one hand and pattern-recognition (a function of basic human intelligence) on the other.

    One point that even Mr. S should be able grasp, vis-a-vis trying to “connect the war on terror” … again, if Mr. S. had the simple courtesy to read what I wrote, he might have realized that proponents of NAIS are the ones who brought up the connection to the “war on terror”.

    Let me repeat that again: PROPONENTS of NAIS are the ones who brought up the connection to the “war on terror”.

    The program is being touted partly as a countermeasure to bioterrorism. Am I allowed to retort to this touting?

    Not in the well-balanced and reasonable world of Mr. S.

    Nor am I permitted to draw analogies between various instances of government unscrupulousness and/or incompetence. Such rhetorical methods would be fruitier than a nutcake. Again, Mr. S. is apparently unable to distinguish between analogical reasoning (yet another function of basic human intelligence) and conspiracy-theory.

    As to #3 … if one makes the truth-claim that our society is screwed-up on a funamental level, there is no way to make one’s case without giving offense. The message IS offensive. The only way a serious critic of the status quo could avoid giving scandal is by failing to get his point across.

    Of course if he’s blunt and direct — as in this case — he is also unlikely to get his point across to very many people, since the bluntness invariably triggers Pavlovian panty-bunching.

  10. I have a small herd of Angus Cattle. By the time the electronic tracer is installed it will probably be in the range of $75 to $150 in cost. Cattle prices are so low today it’s not worth the trouble anymore. The taxman is posted and waiting for me to get rid of my cattle, then my small farm becomes an Rockefellerian type estate.

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