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.

Compulsory tagging of animals

The NAIT scheme, which would mandate electronic tagging of cattle and deer and provide the potential to extend this to other livestock, is receiving a mixed response from farmers. It is european-socialist style agricultural policy, pushed by Jim Anderton, and having been in Europe I am immediately suspicious of such schemes.

The uses of the scheme include:

  • Identification of animals for biosecurity reasons, such as if there was a foot & mouth outbreak. The current tagging scheme does achieve this too, but in less detail.
  • Theoretical tracking of food from “paddock to plate”. This could be a marketing benefit in Europe. However the accuracy is debatable as the tags are chopped off the animals at the works and there is no guarantee which animal is ending up on your plate, and many farmers have stories of animals they believe have been misidentified using current tagging schemes. Cuts like mince come from hundreds of different animals mixed together so this would be irrelevant anyway.
  • Farmers could use the data for their own purposes if desired, but they can put tags on themselves and do that anyway if they like.
  • The information could be used by the government for other purposes, such as enforcing the Emissions Trading Scheme. This is extremely worrying, as there is a lot of possibility here for the data to be abused. There is a strong parallel with the use of the gun register to confiscate pistols in 1974 from people who until then were legally owning them.

As you can see there are benefits and disadvantages, my gut feeling is that there are more disadvantages than benefits, but it is a very complicated issue. The primary reason for farmers to support it is to gain marketing advantages for our produce in Europe over competing countries such as Argentina. Federated Farmers does not appear to have an official position on it yet probably for this reason.

I disliked the tagging and central recording systems of all livestock in Ireland, and some Irish and British MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) are currently resisting plans to extend electronic tagging to sheep and goats there (they already have mandatory tagging, just not electronic tagging). The major problem with such tagging schemes is that there is always a motivation to have a few animals that are not on the system (‘ghost sheep’ in Ireland), and this natural inclination to avoid the rules greatly reduces the biosecurity benefit of such schemes, which is the major reason for them in the first place.