WHAT OTHERS SAY: Don't use the Farm Bill to conceal corporate agriculture

Tuesday, November 19, 2013 | 12:00 p.m. CST

Suppose you step outside one morning to enjoy the crisp autumnal air. You stand on your porch, take a deep breath . . . and gag at the stench. Maybe it’s coming from the stream that flows nearby. The water didn’t used to have that sheen. Maybe it’s riding on the northerly breeze. The wind doesn’t usually blow from that direction.

So you start asking around and wind up checking with the Environmental Protection Agency. The folks there tell you that a nearby corporate farm has a history of violations. When you ask who owns it and where it is, the EPA is mute. Congress won’t say anything. Follow your nose.

That nightmare scenario could occur too often if the federal farm bill, now in congressional conference committee, retains provisions in the House version that would slap an unneeded, overly broad muzzle on the EPA.

The professed motivation makes sense. Small family farmers have reported incidents of environmentalists targeting them for harassment and vandalism. The government does not need to help by turning over farmers’ addresses and names under the Freedom of Information Act.

That is why FOIA already protects that kind of personal information.

Certainly, sometimes mistakes happen. The EPA this year improperly released records about 80,000 livestock operations to environmental groups. When it figured out its error, the agency asked for the records back, and the groups complied. No harm done. The Farm Bill’s secrecy provision would have changed nothing.

What it would do is extend secrecy to corporations. It would protect records about owners, operators and employees of agricultural operations. That includes corporations that own or operate industrial farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (think lots and lots of pigs and everything that comes out of them). Current protections apply to people, and while in the realm of campaign finance corporations are people, the Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the “person” in “personal privacy” still matters for purposes of public records.

Large corporate agricultural operations can cause serious environmental, health and quality of life harm in communities. Allowing them to hide behind a congressionally provided mask would erect significant barriers to accountability and monitoring.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback wants his state’s agricultural industry and other heavy consumers of water to get serious about a long-term management strategy. Across the border in Missouri, the Clean Water Commission recently revised water-quality rules to set stricter limits on pollutants.

If federal records related to some of the biggest users are off limits, states will have a devil of a time with enforcement and verification of who is doing what to the waterways.

Yet Kansas and Missouri have only one representative on the congressional negotiating committee, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts. Meanwhile, states like Minnesota and Michigan land three seats each, and Texas gets four of the 41 total. We urge Roberts to stand firm for the rights of his constituents to find out what is going on in agricultural areas.

Congress can redundantly reinforce existing privacy protections for farmers and their families and still balance public interest in disclosure. That will happen only if senators and representatives care about transparency and accountability.

Unfortunately, too many currently seem more interested in the headline-grabbing farm bill disputes than the public’s right to know.

 Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.

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