NAIS Slinks Forward
The 2008 annual meeting of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA), in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 1st to 3rd, revealed Big Ag’s and USDA’s plans for implementing the National Animal Identification System (NAIS).
The meeting pointed out a seminal problem with the pro-NAIS community: an inability to comprehend the fact that some people view the world differently, and that those people can and will exert control over Big Ag, and its confinement animal production methods, whether Big Ag likes it or not, based on moral principles. Big Ag’s failure to comprehend and respond to ethical challenges is what gives farmers in the sustainable and organic agriculture community the edge—and what can lead us to win against NAIS.
Big Ag’s Next Ethical Challenge
The first two days of the NIAA meeting focused on the way NIAA members raise and treat livestock and how the animal rights movement is challenging them. Four speakers started off by tracing the history of the animal rights movement and outlining the factors that make it continue to grow. One speaker stated that only 2 percent of the population is truly vegetarian. All the speakers pointed out, though, that the other 98 percent, while eating meat, expect animals to be treated essentially the way they treat their pets.
Charles Arnot, a well known pork industry consultant, spoke about Lawrence Kohlberg’s ethical hierarchy and how it applied to livestock handling. Even into the evening after his presentation, the attendees were discussing his speech. Putting aside the fact that Arnot is deeply identi- fied with the vertically integrated pork industry we abhor, it’s interesting to examine his message: the “animal agriculture” industry is missing the animal rights movement message. This message is that ethical decisions are more important than so-called scientific or profit justifications for the industry’s methods. I caught him after his speech, and explained I mostly worked with small operators running sustainable or organic operations. Imagine my surprise when he said, “Well, then, they own this issue!”
So what are the animal industry people missing, that we own? And how can it apply to fighting NAIS? Let’s look at Kohlberg’s ethical hierarchy. Kohlberg proposed six stages of moral development:
- Naïve moral realism, where your motivation is primarily not getting punished (you steal the cookie and hope not to get caught).
- Pragmatic morality, where actions are based on maximizing reward, for example, making money, and minimizing negative consequences.
- Socially shared perspectives—your actions are based on approval or disapproval from others.
- Social system morality, where actions are based on anticipating formal dishonor and guilt over doing harm to others.
- You are driven by human rights and social welfare morality—you act based on what you view as the values and rights that ought to exist in society, because you want to maintain community and self-respect.
- Universal ethical principles—you expect all people to act based on a moral view of all human beings and your actions are determined based on their fairness, equity, and concern for maintaining moral principles.
Arnot added that people who believe that animals are sentient beings then substitute or add in all animals for “human beings” in Kohlberg’s hierarchy, and that the animal rights movement is operating at the sixth level. Animal rights activists believe that doing the “right thing” for animals’ welfare outweighs the fact that animal agriculture’s methods are still legal (level 1) or can be scientifically shown to be healthy.
Most of us would argue those methods aren’t healthy, but what’s interesting here is that Arnot was speaking to his constituency, and they didn’t “get it.” Arnot also posited a theory of “social license” which allows animal agriculture to operate as it has until it breaches these higher-level ethical values held by the larger community. The point of all the speakers together was, “if you don’t recognize the fact that this movement is shaping the way the general populace will require you to operate and voluntarily change your practices, then you will get regulated into it.”
Predictably, during the remainder of the conference, discussion centered on the moral dilemma of confinement agriculture. “How can I continue to operate the way I want, just tweaking things enough to not be punished?” was the major topic. Back to Level 1 on Kohlberg’s scale!
Meanwhile, small farmers and opponents of confinement agriculture remain at levels 5 and 6. We raise food and buy it based on its ability to nourish ourselves and the land and to minimize harm. We go to bed at night knowing our animals are living as well as they can, as close to how they would live naturally, and still produce food. Some of the things we do to animals—de-horning, for example—might be judged improper by animal rights activists, but in general, the way we raise our animals would meet with approval from many city and suburban dwellers unfamiliar with farm life. As Arnot said, we own that moral high ground, and we should capitalize on it. He recommended farm tours and educating people regularly on how we handle our animals in order to avoid the attacks that are leveled at industrial animal agriculture.
So, do these insights apply to fighting NAIS? After witnessing the blind spot on animal rights—the same speakers have been making animal agriculture industry presentations for at least the last five years—it wasn’t a surprise to hear the following comments from state agriculture officials on NAIS:
- “The only problem was how they presented it. They shouldn’t have just jammed it down people’s throats.” In other words, it’s not the program that’s a problem but how you present it.
- “It never occurred to me that people would be against it.” This statement came from a state official whose NAIS plans for 4-H youth have been attacked aggressively.
Anyone who has attended an NIAA conference over the last few years will tell you that participants, including animal agriculture officials from multi-national corporations, state agriculture departments, and the United States Department of Agriculture, (USDA), feel destined to bring forward NAIS. You might think this comes from some higher moral level, such as creating a safe food supply. Instead, I heard things like, “It will make my job easier. You have no idea how hard it is to deal with a disease outbreak.” Back down we go on Kohlberg’s scale —level 2, perhaps? Why? Because there is no moral justification for NAIS. It is impossible to support it and occupy that higher ground.
So what do these pragmatists have up their sleeves? How are they going to promote NAIS now? In a final workshop, on the day devoted to NAIS, the attendees bemoaned some of the hurdles they’re facing in getting people to sign up for NAIS. The costs are a problem for some farmers who have found out from anti-NAIS fighters, of course, that it’s not just about a $2.50 tag. Or, in Wisconsin where registration of farms (“premises registration” in NAIS-terminology) is mandatory, that getting animals registered and tagged (stage 2 of NAIS) and tracked (stage 3 of NAIS) will be a challenge because packers indicate the market for sourceveri fied meat is already met. And, worst of all, said one attendee, there are those pesky “state statutes” blocking state mandatory animal identification programs!
Make no mistake, these people intend to go forward, and aren’t going to let any minor setbacks like state statutes get in their way. What are they going to do if people fighting NAIS continue to succeed? They all admitted that they can get perhaps 70 percent participation voluntarily, but if they want 100 percent participation … something will have to be done. Their newest tactic is one we’ve been predicting for some time: convert existing disease programs into NAIS-compliant ones. Here are two examples:
- Scrapie. Scrapie registrations have always had a farm-based registration, usually a combination of letters that refers to the state and then the farm’s name. The animals’ tags were linked to the farms. Over time, the existing tags will be “converted” to electronic tags, and the farm registrations will be linked to 7-digit NAIS-compliant premises registration numbers. Then, eventually, the old numbering systems will be phased out. This is common knowledge among people in the scrapie program. One of the major manufacturers of the current tags said at the NIAA conference, “I accept that all the tags will be electronic eventually.”
- Coggins. The USDA Business Plan to Advance Animal Disease Traceability issued in December 2007 states that by January 2009, horses that require a Coggins test to detect Equine Infectious Anemia should be using the NAIS standard RFID technology. This will be implemented through “all industry organizations that provide services to horse owners/breeders” (Plan, P. 55).
The AMS Plan
The same week as the NIAA conference, USDA announced its Agricultural Marketing Service’s Business Plan to Advance National Animal Identification System (the AMS Plan). The AMS Plan confirmed what many of us have known: participation in any agriculture program will be predicated on participating in NAIS. Perhaps the most egregious of these instances to date occurred when North Carolina farmers, crippled from a drought were forced to register their farms in order to obtain hay from the State of North Carolina.
The AMS Plan outlines how the current Source Verification and USDA Quality System Assess Programs will have their identification requirements converted to NAIS compliant methods. The programs will be required to include a “NAIS Recommendation” in their new applications. The AMS Plan calls for the United Egg Producers to adopt NAIS premises registration as part of their animal welfare program. How tagging chickens improves their welfare is lost on most farmers, but, of course, USDA found some way to claim they’re connected!
The AMS Plan goes on to show other abuses of agriculture programs in the name of NAIS implementation. Check-off funds are to be used to fund premises registration. Feedlots that become part of NAIS will be listed as members of the “National Disease Response Network” which apparently is one of the new NAIS aliases. AMS staff attend meetings of the beef, dairy, egg and pork promotion boards and are to “aggressively educate and inform the Boards regarding NAIS” and “facilitate the Boards’ further promotion of NAIS to producers.”
The AMS Plan lists a variety of ways that our tax dollars can be spent to “encourage” and “ensure” NAIS participation by all livestock producers. You can find the plan, a mere two-pages with a wealth of information, at www.ams.usda. gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5 068314
To combat NAIS we must meet these people on the level where they operate. We can fight their “I won’t get punished” thinking by challenging their assertions of right. We do this when we ask an official, “Which law, rule, regulation or other basis do you have that allows you to do this?” This tactic is especially important as they attempt to convert existing programs into NAIS-compliant schemes. We can bring lawsuits and work to have their actions declared baseless under the law.
When they declare that their program is scienti fically based (“it will improve animal health or food safety”), we must continue to ask for the studies that prove this assertion. Many activists have asked for those studies. The pro-NAIS forces have been unable to produce even one!
When they say, “it will be more efficient” we must show the real costs of NAIS, the inefficiencies and mislabeling of livestock that have already occurred in Australia and the UK. We must continue to demand a complete cost benefit analysis. We must require them to account for the damage to the environment that NAIS will bring. We can and will address each of their false claims for NAIS.
While we use each of these approaches to fight the specific NAIS battles, we must not lose sight of the moral basis for our fight. We operate on the basis of universal moral principles. Even when shown that the rest of the world puts moral issues above pragmatic approaches, Big Ag can’t hear the message. They will continue to function on the plane they are on, and we must answer them on each specific claim. Our strength is in knowing we’re right.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2008.