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16 January 2009

Feds opposition will test NAIT comms


Federated Farmers may come to  regret its decision to oppose the national animal identification and tracing system (NAIT). It has called for the abolition of the NAIT governance group and says it won't support the system until it is supported by a majority of livestock farmers in a referendum.

Its stance will test the strategic communication skills of those who support the initiative, including Dairy NZ, Deer Industry New Zealand, Meat & Wool New Zealand, meat exporters, European customers and MAF. But ultimately, because of trade pressures, the system will go ahead – referendum or not.

Electronic animal identification and tracking is complex, technical and involves many sectors, which is why planning was largely devolved to a group representative of all players. This governance group has done a good job of keeping stakeholder organisations informed and with the support of their representatives, was moving toward a scheduled roll out of a national electronic ID system for cattle and deer in 2011.

The trouble is that some farmers rebelled. So without a blush, the new feds leadership under Don Nicolson and Frank Brenmuhl has abandoned its commitment to the NAIT process, leaving chairman Ian Corney (a former feds meat and fibre section chair) to cop the grenades and mortars from the ranks. Never mind that Brenmuhl is a senior Feds office-holder and as a governance group member has been party to all important NAIT decisions.

The feds have a history of backing causes that appeal to the emotions of their more vocal members, in the same way that Greenpeace plays to the emotions of its supporters. The causes may sometimes be based more on prejudice than reason, but they build loyalties and encourage supporters to pay their membership dues. 

However, in this case the ‘enemies' the feds are seeking to defeat are rival farming organisations and the major exporters (most of which are farmer-owned). Most farmers hate it when their representative organisations scrap publicly with each other.

The feds are also thumbing their noses at the long-standing clearly expressed wish of customers in affluent overseas markers.  After successive animal disease and food contamination scares – most notably the human variant of BSE (‘mad cow disease') - they are demanding full traceability from suppliers.

A better system for tracking livestock movements is also needed by New Zealand so that it can rapidly trace, isolate and eliminate animals exposed to any exotic disease incursion. Existing systems are fragmented and can't be used to track the movements of stock from farm to farm over their lifetimes.

The European Union, our most important market for lamb, venison and some dairy products, already requires full traceability for all EU farm animals from birth to slaughter as a first step in the development of a system that extends from paddock to plate. Major supermarkets there and in Japan also demand it from their international suppliers.

EU beef and dairy cattle are tracked on an electronic system from birth to slaughter, with data entered manually. The Australians have had a similar system for cattle for more than a decade and from 1 January this year have started tagging all sheep before they leave their farm of birth. The EU and Australian cattle systems are much better than the Animal Health Board has here for cattle and deer, but they are still far from perfect. Because data is captured manually there is a high error rate – some say up to 30%.

To ensure accuracy and efficiency, from 1 January 2010 the EU will go electronic, starting with sheep and goats. From that date, every lamb and kid born in the EU will need to be identified by both an ear tag and an electronic identification device. 

This will leave New Zealand dangerously exposed. We don't have any sort of national identification or tracking system – a shortcoming that was highlighted by the hoax foot and mouth outbreak on Waiheke Island in 2005 – and the EU is hardly known for allowing overseas suppliers to operate at a lesser standard than it requires for its own producers.

In the words of Silver Fern Farms chief executive Keith Cooper, "Large international customers, within the European market in particular, [are] becoming impatient with the livestock industry, which they feel is dragging its heels in comparison to other food industries in terms of identification and traceability.

"Federated Farmers seems to be translating the entire issue into short term dollars and cents without taking into account the national good. [They] seem to believe we should be extracting a premium from the market to pay for this.

"The premium is in ensuring ongoing market access, conforming to consumer trends and being proactive. It is appalling that Federated Farmers are not grasping that the supply chain must change, and that's about innovation and leadership in our aspiration to protect and improve returns."

While our farmers squabble over traceability, Cooper says Australia has stolen a march over New Zealand with its ability to offer customers traceability for both sheep and cattle. This he says is a tactical move designed to get more quota for Australian lamb in the EU at New Zealand's expense.

In the face of what appears to be an overwhelming case in favour of NAIT, the feds' Don Nicolson simply says the merits of the scheme have not been proven. "It's not going to put another dollar in farmers' pockets this year, next year or in 10 years' time," he told his Meat and Fibre section at its November meeting.

The motivation for a statement as fatuous as this is hard to interpret other than with extreme cynicism. While it has won populist support from some backwoodsmen in the federation's ranks WHAM believes it has caused considerable damage to the feds' reputation among a much greater number of farmers, in particular those who are well-informed about market realities but who don't feel inclined to attend federation meetings.

Indeed, this statement and others by Nicholson have so raised the temperature of the NAIT debate that new agriculture minister David Carter was moved to issue a media statement in January effectively calling for all involved to cool off and see reason.

At a farmer level, concern about NAIT is centred on a number of issues including:

o        The cost of tags: $2–3 each, plus the purchase of a tag reader for perhaps $3000.

o        Compliance costs: The government is expected to pick up the $10.1 m price tag for scheme set-up costs, as well as 35% of operational costs over the first five years. The rest will be met by farmers.

o        The possible use of NAIT data by government departments and quangos to impose new controls over land use and emissions trading.

o        Technical concerns: Deer farmers are yet to be convinced that low frequency electronic tag readers are capable of reading the tags on a mob of deer hurtling down a race and of meeting NAIT specifications for performance. Also the tags available commercially are challenging to attach to the sensitive deer ear.

o        Logistics: The wish of farmers for tags to be recorded as animals are offloaded at slaughterhouses, versus the insistence of meat companies that recording will be only take place at the start of the slaughter chain.

o        Why not sheep? The questionable logic of introducing EID for cattle and deer, with sheep to come at some ill-defined time in the future - especially when the EU goes electronic for sheep and goats next year.

Concerns about costs are understandable. For hard-pressed sheep and beef farmers any extra cost, no matter how well justified, seems like a cost too far. However, the reality is that the extra cost over and above the current Animal Health Board requirement is slight, with the exception of deer and cattle going direct to slaughter which the AHB exempts from double-tags. Besides, if not having electronic tags means you lose your markets, quibbling over the cost of tags is an absurd distraction.

Also David Carter has made it clear that the government won't make a final commitment until a full cost/benefit analysis of the scheme is completed in June. He says the scheme must be affordable.

As for the remaining issues, it's hard to believe they can't be resolved by people of goodwill and reason.

This will be the biggest challenge faced by the organisations remaining on the NAIT governance group. Their representatives will find it extremely hard to respond dispassionately to farmer concerns given the bad blood caused by the opportunistic departure of the feds from their board. 

But that's exactly what NAIT must do. Controversial new policies very rarely move in a straight line from conception to adoption. Indeed, a circular process is more typical, with those most affected often leaving their opportunity to have their say until the 11th hour. NAIT's strategic planners should have anticipated this likelihood.

As for the feds, some soul-searching is badly needed. As an NGO, they rely on the dues paid by their members for their survival, but at what point does the pursuit of populist causes become destructive of their members' interests?

We'll address that topic in a future commentary.


- Trevor Walton

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