Farm Bill Launches Sweeping New Secrecy Initiative

May 21, 2008

 

New language added to the 2007/08 Farm Bill by conferees at the 11th hour could create a sweeping new secrecy mandate that would prohibit the Agriculture Department from disclosing almost any information about individual US farm operations.

Just what the language means is unclear - because it is vaguely drawn, was never discussed in public before enactment, and leaves secrecy largely to the discretion of the USDA and the Agriculture Secretary.

It says, in effect, that USDA is prohibited from disclosing "information provided by an agricultural producer or owner of agricultural land concerning the agricultural operation, farming or conservation practices, or the land itself, in order to participate in programs of the Department" or geospatial information it maintains on "agricultural land or operations." The prohibition is subject to certain exceptions.

The term "agricultural operation" is not specifically defined in the bill. While the bill states that its meaning "includes the production and marketing of agricultural commodities and livestock," it leaves the definition open to include practically anything else.

The bill allows exceptions to the disclosure ban for purposes of technical financial aid to farmers or in response to a disease or pest threat, if the Agriculture Secretary determines it appropriate. It also allows exceptions when disclosure of individual payment information is otherwise required by law, or when information has been aggregated into statistical form.

The language, previously not considered by either chamber of Congress, was included in the version of the Farm Bill (HR 2419) agreed to by conferees. The conference report was agreed to by both House (May 14, 2008) and Senate (May 15). President Bush vetoed it May 21 because of the subsidies it contains, but both chambers are expected to override the veto.

Adoption of the more sweeping secrecy language came after conferees dropped language that would have prohibited disclosure of simple "phone book" information about feedlots collected for the National Animal Identification System.