The National Animal Identification System (NAIS) would have gathered and introduced a huge amount of new data into the food supply chain. Data is very valuable in any supply chain and would certainly be valuable to food. USDA had the power and resources of the US government and support of multinational corporations that dominate the U.S. meat market. Under these circumstances, getting data into the food supply chain should have been like shooting fish in a barrel. Instead it was an amazing failure. Why?
I submit that USDA and their industry partners have a common flaw in structure, leadership and management. The flaw causes them to be blind to social, cultural and economic values of food and farming. After several years and hundreds of millions of dollars, USDA continues to face fierce public opposition to NAIS and members of congress have declared NAIS a failure and have moved to eliminate funding. The failure of NAIS reveals a flaw and its potentially negative consequences for the food supply chain.
For at least four decades the U.S. consumer and producer have expressed a preference for a food and farming system that is consistent with their social and cultural values. In the 1970’s the American Agricultural Movement radically protested the loss of farms. In the 1980’s FarmAid lamented the loss of farms. The 1990’s saw the growth of organic foods and specialized stores like Whole Foods and Wild Oats. The 2000’s have movements such as local food, real food, raw food, slow food, vegetarian, and vegan. All of these movements and many more are vocal, national, well-publicized and they express the desire for food that is consistent with social and cultural values. Even the Pope writes about the lack of social and cultural values in our food system.
The only way to add social and cultural value to food is to provide consumers with information about their food. Valuable information would include where it was produced, by whom and under what conditions. This would permit consumers to know if the food they purchase is consistent with their values and enable them to act on those values.
When USDA and its multinational corporate partners under took the implementation of NAIS, they ignored virtually all of the value information might have to the food supply chain. They focused on only one objective — to track and, if needed, control the movement of every animal in the U.S. They claimed that in the event a disease was discovered in the U.S. every exposed animal could be identified, located, and quarantined or destroyed. This ability would benefit only one segment of the food supply chain, the large meat packers. By controlling the movement of animals, the slaughter facilities could continued to operate with as little disruption as possible. Theoretically, saving the packers as much downtime would justify the cost of the system.
Despite a ubiquitous desire for food that is consistent with social and cultural values, USDA and the multinationals designed NAIS so that any information about the animal was lost at the slaughter facility. Information about the source of the animal would never be available to a consumer. Information about the customer’s satisfaction could not be available to the farmer.
It is apparent that USDA and the multinationals failed to consider that information would be valuable to the producer or the consumer. This failure is inexcusable. The values of food and farming are throughly addressed in books like Fast Food Nation and Omnivore’s Dilemma and films like Food, Inc. and Fresh. It is undeniable that there is a widespread concern, and in some cases outrage, that industrialized agriculture is responsible for the decline of rural economies and communities, economic oppression of farmers, environmental degradation and mistreatment of animals. Yet USDA and the multinationals act as if information about where, by whom and how food is raised is irrelevant to the food supply chain and the value of food.
USDA and the multinationals failure to recognize the value of information about food is really a failure to recognize the value of food. USDA and the multinationals failed, I submit, because they do not know why food is valuable. Food is not valuable because of its nutritional content. Food is valuable because it comes from one of many economically viable farmers who live nearby and can produce a supply of food that is safe and secure for the long term. It is valuable because it is provided through supply chain that functions freely and is not subject to foreign, corporate or governmental control. Food is valuable because it comes from animals and crops that are genetically diverse so that they are not all susceptible to the same disease. Food is valuable because it is produced with farming methods that preserve the productivity of the land and produces offspring and seeds for the following year. Food is valuable because it is consistent with moral, social and economic values that sustain communities indefinitely. The amazing failure of NAIS indicates that the USDA and the multinationals do not understand or do not share these values.
Due to USDA’s power and the multinationals to influence the nation’s and world’s food supply, this lack of understanding of the value of food is a huge obstacle. Nonetheless, the challenge and opportunity in agriculture and food markets is to provide this value despite USDA’s policies and the market power of multinationals. Each food recall, each disease outbreak, each bankrupt farmer, and each contaminated water body is a new and better opportunity and a greater challenge to provide food of greater value.