NAIT moves slowly towards implementation

Similar to the gestation period of an elephant, the implementation of NAIT’s animal ID and traceability scheme is finally getting close to a final decision for cattle from 1 July 2011, with deer to follow 12 months later.

There was a meeting of the Minister of Agriculture and the Governance Group in late November when the Minister was keen to hear unanimous support for the scheme’s introduction. This was forthcoming apart from the solitary objection of Federated Farmers who remain unconvinced of the cost benefit to farmers. The word is the Minister will take it to Cabinet before the end of January, when a positive response will see the implementation programme approved to be passed into law by mid 2011.

Feds have fought a strenuous rearguard action to protect their members from being compelled to bear yet more costs, because, as Bruce Wills told me, on farm inflation is running at 3 times the CPI at a time of a complete lack of profitability. If the Minister recommends the implementation of NAIT, Feds are resigned to its inevitability, but they are satisfied it’s now a much lower cost version than when it started and will work closely with the Governance Group, or Stakeholder Reference Group as it is now called, to ensure the best outcome. However Feds are determined to fight vigorously to prevent the scheme’s extension into sheep, until it’s proved to be absolutely necessary.

NAIT will form an establishment board with responsibility for getting the programme up and running, assuming Cabinet approval. However the core system has not yet been chosen, so there is no decision on whether it will be an off the shelf system or developed from scratch which is a bit of a worry after all the project work and testing that’s been done over the last three years. A local software company developed the system for the meat plant trials last year, but expressions of interest for building the whole database will be sought once approval is given.

Much of the reason behind Feds’ objections lies in concerns about the actual cost to farmers and the fact nobody has yet given them satisfactory answers to the questions posed by Charlie Pedersen when he was President. These specifically relate to the benefits to farmers relative to cost, the biosecurity benefit if other species (read sheep) are excluded, and confirmation of the premium available from the international market. Obviously Feds are privy to the cost benefit analysis in the business case, but remain unconvinced by the figures.

They say farmers don’t need a mandatory traceability scheme to capture on farm benefits for which many, especially dairy farmers, already have systems in place. Therefore, in Feds’ view, it’s all about income to consultants and government agencies which make money by, in Don Nicolson’s words, “farming the farmer”. Feds are very strongly of the view the costs of NAIT should fall where the benefits lie, believing the scheme’s compulsory nature is not commercially driven, but designed to comply with a biosecurity requirement which is largely the Government’s responsibility.

There is general agreement among the rest of the industry on the need for a mandatory ID and traceability scheme which, if implemented sensibly, ought not to cost an enormous amount. The major initial investment will be the building of the animal recording database linked to the FarmsOnLine property database, to be owned and operated for the first 21 months by MAF which will also bear 35% of subsequent operating costs. There is an alternative view farmers should own the database, but in that case they would have to pay to build it too.

After the initial implementation period other parties, notably farmers, will need to pick up the remaining 65% of operating costs, probably through a small per head charge on the kill sheet. My impression is the tough negotiations on cost sharing and system specifications were the main reason for the delay in completing the Business Case for which Federated Farmers can probably take most credit. In fact Don Nicolson actually offered to resign from the Governance Group because he was the only dissenting voice, but was persuaded to stay on as Feds are seen to represent the conscience of the farming sector.

Other significant costs will be the readers to be installed at meat plants and sale yards linked to the national animal movement database, while farmers will incur no direct costs apart from the RFID tag, the levy to cover their contribution to database maintenance, third party data services or 0900 line if necessary, and their time input. However they may choose to install their own hand held or static tag readers, in which case they can upload animal details to the central database via the internet.

On balance I think Feds have served their members’ interests well, but it’s now time to get in behind the national scheme.

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