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The Agriculture Gestapo

Jan. 21, 2008

You have read, in this space among many others, of the sinister nature of genetic modification and the patenting of seeds. I have ranted endlessly about the dangers of the food system being in the hands of just a few corporate land barons. No reason to stop now.

For about five years now the USDA and many large corporate interests have been pushing a program called the National Animal Identification System. NAIS is touted as an effective tool in battling the spread of livestock diseases such as cattle tuberculosis and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow. It provides methods for tagging livestock of any kind with RFID, the same sort of microchip that many people have put on their pets in hopes of recovering poor Fido if he ever gets lost. The thinking is that if a side of beef in a Greeley, Colorado meatpacking plant tests positive for mad cow, authorities can quickly and easily identify said cow, trace it back through the system, and discover other animals with which it may have made contact.

Currently, at the federal level, NAIS is a voluntary program overseen by the USDA and administered by the several states with help from organizations like the Future Farmers of America and the Farm Bureau. Farms, feedlots, and confined animal feeding operations apply for and receive a formal numerical designation that is then applied to microchips injected into or ear-tagged onto each animal. According to the USDA, in 2007 the state of Iowa went from 11,000 registered sites to more than 20,000, an increase of over 80 percent. All this despite a lack of any sort of government funding to participants for the program. Farmers must buy in if they choose to participate.

Setting aside for the moment that this system feels like a perfect bureaucratic method for closing the barn doors after the mad cows get out, all this seems fairly innocuous until we look a little deeper. The state of Texas has recently passed legislation requiring NAIS tagging for all dairy cattle. It goes into effect March 31. Wisconsin, Michigan, Virginia and Tennessee now require participation for goats and sheep. In Michigan, farmer and now reluctant revolutionary Greg Niewendorp has endured visits from the sheriff reminiscent of scenes from and old Billy Jack movie.

The voluntary system is becoming perversely mandatory in many other states as well. In Colorado, according to Judith McGeary, Executive Director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, two families who refused to register their properties were kicked out of the state fair. In Idaho, the state included a NAIS premises registration form in the packets for registering one’s brand (which has to be done every 5 years). The form was not clearly marked, and appeared to be simply part of the required brand documents. In Tennessee and North Carolina, where drought has made hay assistance necessary, you can’t get any unless you register your property.

This has induced howls of outrage from a growing and vocal group of opponents, notably FarmAndRanchFreedom.org and NoNAIS.org, bringing together an odd-bedfellow mix of left-wing radicals and libertarian property-rights activists. They both feel that while such draconian measures may be necessary for an industrial food system that causes the very illnesses it now seems to need to track down, such procedures are overly-invasive, perhaps even Orwellian, for small family farms. The government is saying NAIS is voluntary while subsidiaries are making it mandatory. One needn’t register one’s guns, but goats are another matter. Seems we’ve met Big Brother, and he is us.

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