Going dark on the farm: Farm Bill could cloak big ag in even more secrecy

by Anne Havemann

January 14, 2014

As congressional negotiators reconcile the House- and Senate-passed Farm Bills, they are considering two provisions that would cut off access to information about federally subsidized farm programs and threaten public health and safety.

The Farm Bill will provide farmers with billions of dollars in federal subsidies, crop insurance, conservation payments, and other grants.  The vast majority of the farms that qualify for these federal dollars are incorporated businesses that turn a profit by working the land.  Yet, by conjuring up idealized images of a family sharing an old-fashioned farmhouse at the end of a country lane, the farm lobby managed to convince House lawmakers to pass two provisions that would prohibit federal agencies from revealing much of the basic information about the farms.  The government does not take such a hands-off approach with any other recipient of federal money.

This information can be critical to maintaining public health and safety. For example, massive livestock operations, which can dump fecal bacteria, hormones, nutrients, and other waste into waterways, can threaten the health of families who live nearby.  Basic information, such as the location of the farm, is often available from state agencies—CPR and the Chesapeake Commons recently developed a map of industrial animal farms in Maryland using information from the Maryland environmental agency, for example.  Under the House-passed Farm Bill, useful projects like this would never be possible at a national scale.

Waste and fraud also plague farm subsidies—just as they plague other federal aid programs.  The following are just a couple examples of waste in farm subsidies:

  • The Farm Service Agency (FSA) distributes over $5 billion annually in farm program payments “to individuals and entities that are actively engaged in farming.” In 2013, GAO questioned “the reliability and integrity” of FSA’s methods of determining whether an individual was actually engaged in farming.  It warned that “the federal government risks distributing millions of dollars to individuals who may have little actual involvement in farming operations” [PDF, p.36].
  • A 2012 GAO report recommended eliminating a type of farm subsidy, known as “direct payments,” because they “do not align with principles significant to integrity, effectiveness, and efficiency” [PDF, Executive Summary].

These examples demonstrate why more transparency in federally subsidized farm programs is vital.  Yet congressional negotiators are now considering two provisions that would cloak farm subsidies in even more secrecy.

One provision, Section 12325, would require the Environmental Protection Agency to withhold basic location and contact information about agricultural and livestock operations.  Proponents of this provision argue that it’s necessary to protect the personal information of individual farmers.  Yet FOIA’s Exemption 6 already protects this personal information and agencies routinely rely on it to withhold email addresses, phone numbers, and other similar information of non-government individuals.

Even more troubling is the breadth of the provision.  It mixes information about corporate farms with small farm operations and would withhold crucial information about huge livestock operations and their public health impacts from families who share waterways with them.  Congress has never extended FOIA’s privacy exemption to corporations and passing this provision would set a very dangerous precedent.

The other provision, Section 1613, was originally passed in 2008 (then as Section 1619) and prohibits the government from disclosing certain information about farm operations, land, and practices.  The provision being considered now would apply not just to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), as the 2008 provision did, but to all federal agencies subject to FOIA.

CPR scholars examined the impact of the 2008 version of this provision in Agricultural Secrecy.  They warned that an understanding of “where [federal] money is going and for what purposes is key to holding USDA accountable for administering public funds and to holding the agricultural sector accountable for the water pollution it causes in rivers, lakes, and coastal waters across the country.”  Enlarging the scope of the prohibition would further impede the legitimate exchange of information between state, federal and local governments.

If these provisions were to pass, the secrecy surrounding government-funded agricultural operations would expand, to the detriment of the taxpaying public.  Watchdog groups would be unable to determine whether federal aid was warranted or whether farmers were using it correctly.  Agencies enforcing health, safety, and environmental laws would be denied data that would make their routine oversight of the industry’s compliance efficient and effective.  And members of the public would be cut off from the information they need to keep themselves healthy and safe.

These provisions aren’t the only anti-regulatory goodies that corporate farming interests are trying to sneak into the conference farm bill; they are also pushing for a so-called “sound science” provision that would further gum up agencies’ efforts to issues new regulatory safeguards.  CPR Member Scholar Wendy Wagner published a piece about the provision in Roll Call, and CPR Senior Policy Analyst James Goodwin blogged on it here.

The provisions are unneeded and should be completely removed from the final bill.

Tagged as: farm bill
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