Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Microchips on the Farm

I've been watching the growing controversy about the microchip tracking of farm animals for about six months. This week it made national news in a NYTimes article:
A federal effort to quickly pinpoint and contain outbreaks of disease among livestock is coming under attack on farms, in Internet chat rooms and at livestock markets, ranches and feed shops across the nation.

Although the effort, the National Animal Identification System, intended to trace a sick animal to the property it came from within 48 hours, is still in early, voluntary stages, the United States Department of Agriculture has had to retreat from a proposal to make it mandatory. Officials now say that further participation will result from financial incentives and market pressure.
I'm glad that the feds are backing off the program, which I suspect was propelled in part by microchip manufacturers looking for new markets. (There has also been a similar push to implant US servicemen with microchips). Once again, we see policy makers who have very little knowledge of the various ways in which people interact with animals.

When I get day-old chicks, they cost about $1.25 each, shipped in the US Mail in lots of 25. They are remarkably hardy, but I still expect to lose two or three in those first few days. (We have to carefully remove them from the shipping box one at a time and dip each one's beak in the water to teach them how to drink, else they'll die of thirst.) According to the proposed policy, I would pay an additional three dollars per chick to buy them each a microchip, plus whatever it cost to get the microchip implanted. When a bird died, I would have to report the death and somehow scan the microchip. When we took birds to the fair, or sold them, it would require a permit. When I have a broody hen who raised her own chicks I would have to get them implanted, if I could find out where she was hiding them.

I suspect that more regulations, imposed by a federal bureaucracy that can't afford to do the job right, will burden the good farmers and be flaunted by the few who don't give a hoot. Why bother to keep your fences mended if all of your cows can be located by GPS when they stray?

Profit margins in agriculture are not that great, and it's not clear that small farms will be able to absorb the new costs of this program. The microchip program is being promoted as a remedy for concerns like avian flu and mad cow disease, that are arguably the result of the globalization of our food chain. We need small local farms now more than ever.

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