Electronic tags on hold

National has promised farmers they will not commit to the National Animal Identification and Tracing scheme until after a full cost-benefit analysis. This is very good news. NAIT is a big-brother style scheme that would see every cow and deer in the country recorded on a central database, with the facility to record every sheep and goat as well in the future. Every animal must have an electronic eartag.

The idea behind NAIT is to provide full “paddock-to-plate” traceability of meat for European consumers, because such traceability is something the EU has implemented and EU farmers don’t find it fair that they have such regulation thrust on them yet their competitors (such as NZ) don’t do the same. And certainly, it isn’t fair. The EU should be ditching it, not expecting us to follow suit, but that is another story.

Anyway, paddock-to-plate traceability of meat is a myth. The tags get chopped off along with the head as soon as the animal is slaughtered in the works and it is very difficult to know what animal the meat coming out the other end actually came from. And for some cuts (like mince), the meat comes from hundreds of different animals all mixed together anyway, with traceability being completely impossible. We already have tags in all cattle, and plenty of farmers have stories about animals they believe have been mixed up in the works. Electronic tags won’t change that at all.

The system could also be used to help control disease outbreaks as theoretically the location of all animals would be known on a central database. In practice this won’t work, because as soon as you bring in such a system there is a motivation for people to not record some animals for various reasons such as home-kill meat – these are known as “ghost sheep” in Ireland and are very common. This completely undermines the value of the database.

One major concern is that the database could be used for other purposes, possibly against farmers. There is a strong precedent for this in New Zealand – in 1974 the firearms database was used to confiscate legally owned pistols from many people for example. The Federated Farmers have been concerned that the data could be used to enforce the ETS, or do who knows what.

I have no problem with the market providing a voluntary scheme if that is genuinely what consumers want. But I have yet to meet a consumer who cared about what precise animal their steak came from – most would prefer to not think about it coming from a cute cuddly animal at all. They just want to know that it is safe. This is a socialist scheme being pushed by the EU, for political purposes, and I hope National has the guts to leave it voluntary.

UN says eat less meat

The UN is calling for people to eat less meat, to combat global warming. This is because animals produce more greenhouse gas emissions per kilogramme of food produced than plants, as a rough rule.

This has major problems however:

  • This is only a rough rule. Rice causes high methane emissions. Greenhouses (especially in cold climates) cause high emissions (oil consumption to heat them, construction of the greenhouse in the first place etc.). Some vegetables may be transported by plane to get them to markets fresh (high emissions), while meat is frozen and transported by ship (lower emissions). You cannot assume vegetables are low-emission simply because they are vegetables.
  • It completely ignores the fact that large areas of land, such as the New Zealand high country, are completely unsuitable for cropping. If you were to crop them (assuming you could get a tractor on the slopes), you would have massive problems with soil erosion and water pollution. However this same land can be grazed extensively by sheep and cattle with far fewer environmental problems. So for much of NZ it is more environmentally friendly to produce meat than vegetables.
  • It ignores the relative importance of different kinds of pollution. Are carbon emissions worse than water pollution and soil erosion, or are they less important?
  • It could have serious implications for our export sector, if people actually listen and buy less of our meat.

It is unfortunate that the UN, a body which we should be able to trust, can make such flippant recommendations which would have little benefit but a large potential to cause harm.