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Farm Bill Debate: Corporate Privacy or Public’s Right to Know

The Farm Bill has been in and out of the news for months, but one troublesome element has not yet received enough attention: harmful secrecy provisions. Two provisions in the House-passed bill, H.R. 2642, would prevent public access to information, inhibiting the public’s right to know about agricultural and livestock operations that affect their communities. Right now, conferees are meeting to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill.

Directly cutting back on disclosures of agricultural information, the secrecy provisions are in response to an incident earlier this year in which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inappropriately released some personal information of farmers to environmental groups. The EPA quickly determined that the release was in violation of existing legal protections. All of the released documents were retrieved and destroyed by EPA. The agency has admitted this mistake and assured the farmers and the public that it will be carefully applying privacy protections in the future.

So, there is no need to change the law—the law simply needs to be properly applied. But big corporate farm lobbyists seized this opportunity and talked the House into providing them with a sweeping shield from the disclosure of information that might be used by the public to hold them accountable for polluting and other wrongdoing. However, they have failed to make a case for the need for more privacy. This week, the Project On Government Oversight and more than 40 other groups weighed in with a letter to the Farm Bill conference committee members, urging them to reject these unnecessary secrecy provisions.

The groups warn that the Freedom of Information Act’s (FOIA) goal of transparency would be seriously undermined by these provisions. As laid out in the letter, the language “eviscerates the Act’s balanced approach to weigh the public interest in the release of information. Section 11325 would put the public directly at risk—and for no clear reason. It bars the EPA from making public any type of information from any agricultural operations. This is particularly problematic when you consider the broad scope of this provision. It stretches beyond small family farming operations to cover large corporations as well. This extension of privacy rights to corporations allows them to escape the public eye. For people who live near or share waterways with large-scale commercial farms or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), this information is critical to their health and safety.

Section 1613 would further contradict the FOIA presumption of openness, creating instead a presumption of secrecy. It would prohibit any federal agency subject to FOIA from disclosing information of any kind that concerns “an agricultural operation, farming or conservation practices or the land itself.” Under this provision, not even statistical data integral to studies of impacts on public health and other effects of farmland operations would be available.

POGO has been working on this issue for months, joining with Senator Leahy (D-Vt.) in strongly opposing the secrecy measures when the Senate voted on the Farm Bill. Unfortunately, while the Senate did not include these harmful provisions, the House passed a Farm Bill with the secrecy measures intact.

The House and Senate conferees must reject the claims that more privacy is needed. These provisions don’t protect family farmers—the law already does that. Congress must not provide big polluters with an accountability shield and undermine the public’s right to know. We urge the Congress to strip the Farm Bill’s harmful secrecy measures.