Info of Farm Bill Federal FOIA Exemption

Charles Davis
November 12, 2007 — 1,193 views  
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BARRE, MA - The Northeast Organic Farming Association/Massachusetts Chapter, Inc. (NOFA/Mass) called upon Senators Kerry and Kennedy this week to reject a provision in the 2008 farm bill, which recently passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee, that would criminalize disclosure of information from the USDA's new proposed program, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS).

NAIS is a program proposed by and administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which if fully implemented would require all farmers and livestock owners to individually identify their livestock animals and report each time any one of them is moved from one property to another. USDA says it is implementing the program to contain animal disease outbreaks and reassure foreign meat buyers.

Although there remains no law that specifically authorizes the USDA to implement NAIS, the secrecy provision in the current Senate farm bill would be the first time that the USDA's new program would be explicitly acknowledged in federal statute. The provision, moreover, would impose harsh criminal or civil penalties on members of the public and the press who might publish or in any way disclose information from the NAIS, even if the information had been legally obtained.

"This provision in the Senate's version part the Farm Bill sets a bad precedent," said Jack Kittredge, social action coordinator for NOFA/Mass and owner of Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre. "What it would do is legitimize what the USDA already has been doing by collecting and storing farm data while adding more secrecy. Instead, the Senate should question whether NAIS is a good program to begin with."

The USDA has begun creating a national database containing data on farm premises as the first step toward implementing NAIS. In some states, identification of individual animals has begun, although USDA plans have been slowed by fierce opposition to the program throughout the country.

Since 2006, hundreds of Massachusetts farmers and livestock owners around the state have attended public meetings to express their concerns that NAIS would place unnecessary burdens on their farm operations. As a result, the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture stopped its practice of uploading livestock premises data to the USDA. Moreover, fourteen state representatives and three senators have co-sponsored bills to end the state's participation in the national program.

Since NAIS was first proposed, many agribusiness spokespersons have expressed concerns over how the program might compromise confidentiality of data about their production operations. Ben Grosscup of NOFA/Mass commented, "The best way to protect farmer's data is not to shut out the public. The best answer in this case happens to be the simplest: just don't collect the information in the first place."

"The same agribusiness firms that first wanted NAIS in order to calm the safety concerns of foreign buyers are now trying to undo the one part of NAIS that they don't like" said Grosscup. "Since NAIS creates a huge database to track all animal agriculture activities, these companies want special secrecy assurances in the law to stop watch dog groups and the public at large from revealing what they're doing inside their factory farms. But more secrecy will just conceal the diseases these operations produce. The Senate bill's secrecy provision satisfies those companies that are willing to submit to government surveillance of their production sites, because they aren't required to change their unsustainable enterprises. This top-down approach to disease control most hurts the very producers whose sustainable methods make them upstanding guardians of the public health."

Kittredge added that there are simpler and more effective ways to deal with the disease threats that NAIS is supposed to address. "These threats are a product of bad management. Raising animals in dense indoor conditions, out of the cleansing presence of sun and air and soil, provides a breeding ground for pathogens. Feeding grain to grass-eaters and animal parts to herbivores may create fast growth and cheap meat, but it is unnatural and results in sickness and disease. We need to support healthy animal production on pasture, outdoors on small farms. If we want to eat meat, we need to raise animals in a clean and sustainable fashion."

NOFA/Mass promotes farming and gardening with ecosystem-friendly practices to foster health, local agriculture, open space, and food security in Massachusetts. The group has also sponsored numerous public informational forums on NAIS, genetic engineering, and local and organic food throughout the state as well major annual Winter and Summer conferences. Information on the group's activities is available at: www.nofamass.org.

Charles Davis

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Charles N. Davis is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and the executive director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition, headquartered at the School. Davis' scholarly research focuses on access to governmental information and new media law, including jurisdictional issues, intellectual property and online libel. He has earned a Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his work in furthering freedom of information and the University of Missouri-Columbia Provost's Award for Outstanding Junior Faculty Teaching, as well as the Faculty-Alumni Award.