Agricultural producers in the United States receive billions of dollars in federal subsidies, crop insurance, conservation payments, and other grants. Defying fundamental principles of transparency and openness in a democracy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is authorized to keep secret much of the basic information that farmers provide to qualify for this public funding. Congress granted this unprecedented loophole in the nation’s sunshine laws by inserting section 1619 into the 2002 Farm Bill and later amending it in the 2008 Farm Bill. This section provides an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that covers the information farmers give USDA about their properties. Farmers submit their business names and locations, geographic coordinates, types of crop produced and animals raised, and farming practices (such as irrigation practices and fertilizer or pesticide use) and are assured secrecy: federal, state, and local governments cannot generally access the information, much less anyone in the private sector.
Because this basic information is kept secret, watchdog groups cannot determine whether federal funds are warranted or whether farmers are using it correctly. Agencies enforcing health, safety, and environmental laws are denied data that would make their routine oversight of the industry’s compliance efficient and effective. The result is that the taxpaying public pays repeatedly to support agricultural production: once when the original grant or subsidy is paid (and possibly misused), again to support the efforts of other federal agencies to re-create the data that USDA already has, and again when enforcement efforts fail and agricultural pollution contaminates the soil, water, and air.
Today CPR releases a new briefing paper, Going Dark Down on the Farm: How Legalized Secrecy Gives Agribusiness a Federally Funded Free Ride, identifying the problem of agricultural secrecy and its repercussions for transparency, public health, and the environment. CPR President Rena Steinzor and I contend in the paper that shielding USDA programs from independent evaluation is a policy that simply is not justifiable because it costs the taxpayer much more money than it should. In an era when budgets are tight, the economy is troubled, and the environment is in jeopardy, the public has a right to know how public funding is being spent and whether that investment is protecting public health and the environment as intended.
Unfortunately, the language from Section 1619 has been retained in the Senate-passed version of the 2012 Farm Bill, as well as the version passed by the House Agriculture Committee. The Senate version expands information-sharing to a state agency, political subdivision, or local government agency that “is charged with implementing an agriculture or conservation program under State law.” That’s a small bit of progress, but not what’s needed: Congress should repeal Section 1619 in entirety.