Agricultural traceability initiatives in Canada, NZ and USA

RFID ear tag and reader

[image credit: Biomark]

The first RFID livestock tracking device was developed in 1979, but increasing public concerns over food safety coupled with decreasing technology costs have recently made RFID-based agricultural traceability both more desirable and more feasible. A good introduction to global traceability efforts can be found in this Review of Selected Cattle Identification and Tracing Systems Worlwide (pdf), but I’d like to take a closer look at Canada, NZ and USA here because I see their responses to traceability efforts running on a continuum from support to acceptance to opposition. I’m interested in unpacking the politics embedded in these responses, and wanted to gather a few things I’ve been reading into one place.

According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, animal traceability systems have three main goals: “the identification of animals or products, the ability to follow their movement, and the identification of departure and destination premises.” Canada’s National Agriculture and Food Traceability System (NAFTS) will make RFID-based tagging mandatory by the end of 2011, because “the ability to rapidly trace an animal throughout its life cycle is essential to isolating animal health emergencies and can help limit the economic, trade, environmental and social impacts of such emergencies.” Agricultural traceability has enjoyed a good deal of university and government support–although Canada recently received a food safety grade of “poor” in the area of traceability–and IBM was instrumental in testing a new “farm to fork” traceability system as part of its broader Smarter Planet: Smarter Food initiative in Manitoba. However, some Canadian farmers were less convinced of the benefits last year when the National Farmers Union said “the initiative will do nothing to increase farmers’ profits because it doesn’t include labelling regulations, yet will be more time-consuming and create more paperwork” and Liberal agriculture critic Wayne Easter said “If we don’t deal with the income situation that hog and livestock farmers face, we’re not going to have anything to trace.” Currently, the National Cattle Feeders’ Association “welcomes the national traceability program” and the Canadian Pork Council has created the PigTrace traceability program.

"Food is now followed from farm to fork."

[image credit: Noma Bar]

New Zealand’s National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) programme will also make cattle and deer tagging mandatory in 2011 and 2012, respectively, using a similar rationale: “NAIT will safeguard the New Zealand brand and farmers’ income by protecting market access for New Zealand animal products through enhancing regulatory and consumer confidence in New Zealand’s ability to manage biosecurity and food safety.” However, NZ’s Federated Farmers claim that the biosecurity claims are overstated, there is no market demand, the on-farm costs are too high, and there are data validity and protection issues; they do not currently support the implementation of a compulsory system. However, the NAIT Information Document (pdf) claims that consulted “farmers are supportive of a mandatory traceability system, with a far greater number expressing support (58 percent) than those against it (17 percent).” Interestingly, the same document also points out that regardless of whether or not these efforts are supported, “eighty percent of farmers believe animal traceability will become mandatory in New Zealand at some stage.”

The United States Department of Agriculture recently dismantled their National Animal Identification System (NAIS) and is currently negotiating state-level animal disease traceability efforts. The NAIS was unpopular amongst farmers, in part because of a generalised and farther-reaching resistance to perceived government intervention, ownership and surveillance. The NAIS STINKS website sums up their opposition with the following statement and posters:

“The proposed draconian NAIS protocol is of a more severe degree than surveillance required by a convicted pedophile or child molester in the USA. Please join in opposing NAIS for the freedom of all to raise livestock without complicated government enforcement and oppression.”

However, the use of RFID microchips as livestock anti-theft devices has received rather greater support, although government absence may also be required for its success. As Curt Hopkins explains:

“I believe the key to any future adoption of tag-based livestock control, the kind of control that would have rustlers where they belong – running in place at the end of a spar – will require the participation of independent entrepreneurs and developers. A rancher is a lot more likely to trust an indie dev than a government rep, a federal investigator or a salesman from some software chaebol. Perhaps kids that were raised in the sticks and still have an affection for it, who do not want to see this way of life dead and who don’t want to see either the rustlers or the agricultural conglomerates determine how we eat, will apply some of their unique technological know-how – and a little of their grandparents’ elbow grease to the problem and come up with a way to read, record and retrieve information that ranchers could get behind. Maybe they could create a nation-wide, but decentralized and privately-held national cattle ID database, utilizing cloud computing and available to law enforcement as a tool that the ranchers themselves, and their indie tech partners, hold and control. Anything that doesn’t have their brand on it, they won’t touch. Amen to that.”

There’s a lot going on in all these programmes and people’s responses to them and it helps me to see it in one place. At first glance I recognise risk management, acceptance of new technology, national pride, support for government, skepticism about new technology, resistance to government, concerns over farmer welfare and technology management.

Questions for further research:

  • What are the primary benefits (e.g. food security, market participation, etc.) and issues (e.g. cost, data accuracy/reliability, data privacy, changes to work, etc.) associated with traceability initiatives?
  • How can multiple, and possibly contradictory, concerns be represented (e.g. infographics, stories, objects, etc.) to stakeholders? Which distribution channels, sites and/or events are best suited for public engagement?