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USDA Listening Sessions Public Comments

Wendell Berry and Community Farm Alliance Protest NAIS in Kentucky

Are they listening?!
USDA N.A.I.S. "Listening" Session, Louisville, Kentucky, May 22, 2009
By Stephen Bartlett
Community Farm Alliance, Posted May 27, 2009
Straight to the Source

It is not everyday you get the opportunity to garner good free press while speaking out forcefully in a broad alliance against the follies of a hijacked department of the government, in this case the U.S. Department of Agriculture!   But Friday, May 22 was just such a day for the Community Farm Alliance (CFA) and their allies in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana.

That warm, sunny day at the Crowne Plaza hotel wedged in between the Louisville International Airport, the State Fair Grounds and the Chang Roller Coaster, some regional USDA staffers held a public hearing regarding the National Animal Identification System (N.A.I.S.), a program now in its fifth year of being promoted by corporate backers and their compliant allies inside USDA.  This so-called "listening session" was one of a modest string of such hearings being held in various regions of the U.S. for the new Secretary of Agriculture, Vilsack, to supposedly take the temperature of USDA clients, America's "farmers", on this issue.  The temperature thus far? More or less a roller coaster of passionate denunciation by angry farmers and consumers, some driving hours and hours for the opportunity to vent against N.A.I.S.

And just what is the issue?  Is it about animal disease control, as claimed by USDA officials, or is it a scheme to simultaneously further marginalize small-scale farmers while assuring an illusory façade of safety for exporters of US beef, milk, chicken and pork on international markets?  Is it benevolent government looking out for the health of the society, or a clique of corporate raiders inside and outside of USDA gunning for a more tilted playing field where the family farmers could be made liable for food borne illnesses and food recalls?  Most present felt this was an absurdity. Doesn't everyone know that nearly all such cases originate in the Confinement Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO's) and in the slaughterhouses? Why would antibiotic resistance be an issue, due to overuse of antibiotics in feedlots and CAFOs, but not animal disease?   These facilities, one or two speakers pointed out,  are truly sweatshops for the underpaid, mostly immigrant, non-union, exploited line workers.  In the case of beef slaughterhouses documented by Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation such workers must render into cuts of meat up to 400 head of cattle per hour in some facilities and suffer one of the highest incidences of work place injuries from the knives they must take home to sharpen nightly!!

For the large numbers of farmers and their allies wearing large bar codes with red circles and lines through them and who spent a good part of the day at this affair, the message boiled down to this.  We would see NAIS scrapped or face another grave blow to the possibility of a healthy food system with a more equitable sharing of benefits among producers, as compared to far more of what we have now, unsafe, unsustainable and socially unjust industrialized agriculture, not to mention bad food that makes you sick before long.

You could tell that this USDA dog and pony show had already hit on the reality on the ground:  massive and passionate rejection by 90% of farmers across the country, well represented in the first listening sessions in Pennsylvania, Washington state, Alabama, and Texas.  This representation of angry farmers at the listening sessions came despite the very short notice provided by USDA (two weeks) and the choice of the absolutely busiest month of the farm year, May!!  This tactic was roundly denounced by farmer after farmer, noting the hardship for farmers of having to take most of a day off to drive hours to Louisville to attend this session.

The opening DVD speech by Secretary Vilsack was played, some ground rules stated on the 3-minute interventions, an eastern region veterinarian bureaucrat of USDA made a short speech, and the first speaker was called to the podium, Mark Haney of the Kentucky Farm Bureau.  Was he the first to register that morning, or just the guy with the nicest suit on and best haircut? But following close on his heels was the young and newly elected CFA president Adam Barr, and not far behind him was none other than Wendell Berry himself, a farmer/writer with such a profound literary and social following across the U.S. and internationally that the blank looks on the face of the USDA facilitator seemed out of place.   Did she not know who Wendell was?  Well, she was soon to hear of what Wendell is made!

Of 42 speakers who stood behind the podium for their allotted 3 minutes, all but six were opposed to N.A.I.S.  Those in favor were, as Rae Stroebbel later observed during the CFA press conference, without exception paid lobbyists of industry representatives and of corporate-cozy cooperatives like the Dairy Farmers of America or the Pork Producers Trade organization. State USDA veterinarians were also onboard in favor of NAIS, a fact denounced by one speaker.  Speakers ranged from farmer's wives to urban consumers to a 12-year-old home-schooled farm girl, whose eloquence and wisdom spoke volumes when she said:  "Having electronic chips placed in animals is not what God intended.  First they will put chips in animals. The next step will be to place chips in human beings.  Some people are doing that already with their children."

Adam Barr, president of the Community Farm Alliance and 7th generation Meade County farmer, laid it out concisely:  this program was being pushed by industrial ag interests like CAFOs, trade organizations and meat packers. Let the program serve them, if they want the program so badly, Barr argued. A distinction needs to be made, Barr said, between those whose unsafe agricultural practices created the pretext for implementing extraordinary measures such as NAIS, and the family farmers with their animals out on pasture, who rarely have disease outbreaks.

Wendell Berry, also wearing a nice suit, said that the problem N.A.I.S. was supposed to solve was a problem caused by agricultural industrialists themselves, who now intended to use that problem as a pretext to further marginalize and limit the possibilities of small-scale agriculture.  He said it was insulting to rural Kentuckians that USDA had hired policemen to be present at this listening session.  He noted that USDA's fear of the people they were supposed to be serving made it clear what N.A.I.S. was all about. And he said that if NAIS were implemented, USDA was going to need far more than a couple of policemen to deal with the resistance and civil disobedience that would result.  Naming Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as honorable examples of the tradition of non-violent non-compliance, Berry said he would absolutely not comply with N.A.I.S.   As an older person, he said he had little to lose by going to jail for the sake of the younger generations whose lives and livelihoods would be threatened or eliminated by such oppression, and who still did have much to lose.

Ralph Packard, another CFA member farmer, said that like Wendell Berry, he too would prefer going to jail than obey a program as harmful, intrusive and unconstitutional as N.A.I.S.

The Pork Producers Trade organization representative made xenophobic comments about what he called the misnamed "swine flu" caused by "foreign animal disease."  He said that N.A.I.S. was necessary to control such outbreaks.

During my own comments, I pointed out that the swine flu was indeed of swine origin, but not in Mexico and not "foreign", whatever that might mean in the context of illnesses like influenza.  In a recent article in Scientific American virologists from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were quoted as having studied the genetic material in the H1N1 influenza and finding that the DNA of the swine portion of that flu was first seen in pig factories in Nebraska in the 1990s. Wrapping up N.A.I.S. in a fear of what is "foreign", seeing US agriculture as being threatened by what is outside our borders, is part of the nationalistic spin for promoting this program.   

US-owned Smithfield corporation, I pointed out, owned the massive pig factory in Veracruz, Mexico where the mutated avian-human-swine flu most recently emerged threatening a pandemic, in horrendously un-hygienic conditions no longer permitted even in the de-regulated U.S., but that impacted 75% of the residents of the nearby town of La Gloria who suffered from an acute respiratory illness caused, they believed, by the swarms of flies in town coming from the raw pig waste in open excrement ponds.  N.A.I.S. could not have prevented this outbreak, I observed. Reforming the health standards and practices that allow for the unhealthy existence of such massive CAFOs would be far more productive in preventing such outbreaks.

Another strong critique of the N.A.I.S. was that most of the costs, for the electronic chips, the software, and the massive data base upkeep and monitoring, would be borne by the farmers or the taxpayers (a double whammy for farmer taxpayers).  Speaker after speaker asked USDA to get their priorities straight:  hire more inspectors for the slaughterhouses!  The surest and most direct way to avoid food borne illnesses is an aggressive system of inspections.  In Japan, one speaker noted, every single beef cattle is inspected for diseases like "Mad Cow" at the slaughterhouse.  In contrast, an infinitesimally small number of US beef cattle are even inspected, and even fewer for "Mad Cow."  USDA is the victim of the revolving door with corporate ag executives intent on de-fanging its regulatory function, and making it easier for agribusiness to reap high levels of profit.

At High Noon the CFA left the beginnings of the breakout sessions that had begun early because the "listening" finished mid-morning, and joined their allies out in the parking lot for a Press Conference.  About 150 CFA rural and urban members and their allies gathered in front of a coterie of pickup trucks adorned with banners saying: NO NAIS, CLEAN UP USDA, NAIS Sucks, No Animal Is Safe (NAIS), etc  and took a microphone to reiterate their opposition to NAIS for the journalists present, including local television and print media outlets.

Wendell Berry again stated that USDA's hiring of policemen to hearings called to listen to farmers belied the real motive of this effort.  He said USDA was cowardly to do so. The CFA speakers called for a shift away from the unhealthy and economically exploitative system of industrialized agriculture toward a localized food system that as members of the National Family Farm Coalition and Via Campesina International is known as "food sovereignty."  Family farming, community-based production and marketing are the future for humanity, with a low carbon footprint, a direct accountability for food quality and sustainable agricultural practices, an equitable distribution of the wealth (and life giving food) produced, and the economic development and resilience that comes from getting more people out on the land for productive work. And as the 12-year-old farmer's daughter said:  to raise animals as God intended.

A great day in Louisville, Kentucky, one from which it is hoped the USDA and Secretary Vilsack were listening to, for real!!



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