Don’t put public in the dark about farming practices

The final farm bill could make it a great deal harder for the public to identify corporate farms that may be harming nearby waterways and to gain access to information vital to agriculture and health policy decisions if Congress adopts two broad secrecy provisions. Better outcomes for farms, public health and the environment depend on openness, and Congress should reject overbroad proposals that undermine our democracy.

One proposal would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from releasing any identifying information about any concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). This means that corporate farming practices, permit violations and use of controversial practices could all be hidden from public view.  The government’s ability to explain food contamination or pollution in waterways could be cut off because the government would not be able to tell the public what it knows. This overbroad secrecy about farming would plow under the very information states and local communities need to address health and environmental challenges.

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A separate proposal would bar all federal agencies from disclosing identifying information “concerning” farms, farm operations or the land itself. That’s about as broad as you can get. The impacts would be lasting and perhaps unforeseen.

A similar version Congress included in the farm bill five years ago only applied to the Agriculture Department but immediately forced land assessors to drive to local government offices to gather geographic data they used to collect with a click.

This current proposal would apply to all federal agencies. It’s impacts would be far worse.

Think the public has no role in understanding how genetically modified seeds are used and where they are applied? After more than a decade or more of debate, it is still a question of strong public interest.

Should the government increase or decrease crop insurance subsidies? Journalists worry they would have a harder time getting data on such payments.

Does the public deserve to know when a corporate farm applied for a permit to discharge waste into a nearby waterway? As the Kansas City Star pointed out in an editorial opposing the farm bill’s secrecy provisions, if you walk outside your home only to be greeted by a stench of air, shouldn’t local authorities be able to tell you which nearby farm had multiple code violations? EPA says it won’t be allowed to say.

What happens on farms affects our economy, food supply, and communities.  The public should have accurate, reliable information to inform public debates.  These measures are overbroad and Congress ought to keep these secrecy proposals out of the farm bill.

Blum is director of The Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups promoting open government. SGI members include:  American Society of News Editors, The Associated Press, Association of Alternative Newsmedia, National Newspaper Association, Newspaper Association of America, Online News Association, Radio-Television Digital News Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Society of Professional Journalists.