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Crops and the Farm Bill Both Need Sunshine

As a proud Michigan State University (MSU) alumna, I was thrilled to hear that today President Obama is signing the Farm Bill on the college’s campus.  MSU is also the alma mater of U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who served as Chair of the Conference Committee that was tasked with hashing out the differences between the Senate- and House-passed versions of the legislation and ensuring its eventual passage.

The media has reported mainly on what made it into the Farm Bill, the omnibus legislation that doles out funding for the nation’s food program, such as cuts to SNAP foodstamp program, country of origin food labeling, alterations to crop subsidies and conservation programs, and other changes. What they haven’t made hay about, though, is the behind-the-scenes battle that was waged over the public’s right to obtain information about the pollution from agricultural and livestock operations like Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

CAFO animal waste is a huge problem across the country. One of the best ways for citizens to make sure their water, air, and land are safe from CAFO pollution is to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain information about large livestock operations in their communities and work with government officials to ensure required safeguards are being enforced. Scarily, this vital tool was almost lost in the Farm bill debate. In addition to other harmful provisions, the House-passed version of the bill included several sections that would have blocked the public’s right to gain essential information on farming pollution by creating loopholes wide enough to drive a tractor through to the landmark FOIA right-to-know legislation.

Many moons ago, I worked directly for Senator Stabenow so I know first-hand that she is a champion of the Great Lakes and protecting our country’s natural resources. But regardless removing the FOIA exemption provisions wasn’t  an easy sell because the Senator needed to get a conference version of the bill passed through both Chambers. This was a hard task because  the House of Representatives was particularly riled-up about an accidental data release of agricultural information that should have been protected by FOIA’s existing privacy exemption. In a move tantamount to swatting a fly with a sledgehammer, the House-passed bill entirely took away the public’s right to know about farming operations instead of putting in place better processes at the agency level to assure sensitive information is kept safe.

To deal with the problem, Public Citizen and our partners in the open government community kicked into action to make sure the FOIA issue was understood by lawmakers and the public alike. In addition to working directly with Senator Stabenow’s staff on the Agriculture Committee, I reached out to our field and cultivated a crop of Michigan grassroots activist friends who pitched-in by placing op-eds and letters to the editor in their local papers, calling on the Senator to stand strong and act in the public interest by removing the FOIA-exemptions and other harmful language from the version of the bill to be voted on by Conference Committee members. In addition to , my op-ed was placed in multiple states represented by other Farm Bill conferees: Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, Montana, Ohio, Vermont, and more. Senator Leahy and Representatives Waxman and Cummings were critical to the fight as well, pushing their colleagues to vote the right way.

The seeds we sowed were fruitful, if you’ll forgive all of the farming-related idioms. Together, Public Citizen and our national and state partners were successful in spurring the conferees to cut all of the language that attempted to erode the public’s right to know.

We’ll see what grows out of the changes to the agriculture industry made through the Farm Bill, but we can rest easier in the fact that our instrumental FOIA right-to-know law was not dismantled. I hope you will join me and the President in congratulating Senator Stabenow on her achievement of passing the years-debated Farm Bill and on making sure the sun will continue to shine on the workings of the government.

Susan Harley is the deputy director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.