I read a lot about the need for agriculture to be transparent, and much of the time what I’m reading reverts to farmers. However, farmers are only one part of the food chain, so shouldn’t this transparency apply across the board? This is the first in a series where I’ll be looking at the idea of transparency, from what it means to who it applies to.
What does “Transparency” mean?
I’ve given this question some thought over the last few years. I usually think about transparency in terms of growing/production methods, processing and marketing. However, it wasn’t until I read an article this week that really brought home what some people define as “transparent".
The article reported a US District Court judge issued a protective order against the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), preventing them from releasing personal information they collected on farmers. This information had been requested from the EPA by several groups under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The protective order prevents the EPA from releasing this information until an appeal is heard. A lower court ruled the information could be released because some of the information could be obtained from other sources. One of those sources was a Facebook page, and since the farmer maintained it, the court ruled he had "no expectation of privacy".
The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and American Farm Bureau (AFB) filed the initial suit to stop the release of information. Their concern was the release of this information could negatively affect the personal safety and biosecurity of the farmers and farms whose information would be in the hands of anti-agriculture groups.
Unfortunately, EPA had already released information on farmers in 30 states, information these farmers could find objectionable. Information such as address, phone number, GPS coordinates, medical information and information on spouses, kids and workers. EPA asked for the information to be returned, which, call me skeptical, but I doubt the groups who received it boxed it up and marked that information "Return to Sender". The suit was filed when NPPC and AFB learned EPA was getting ready to release information based on another FOIA request.
The information we are talking about was gathered before 2012, when a reporting rule for CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). The information was gathered from state water agencies; what EPA failed to tell these agencies, according to my research, was the information would be shared with outside groups.
There are a number of questions I can think of related to this:
What information should be “public” and what information should be “private”?
What obligation do state and federal agencies have to keep information private?
Does having a social media account or website mean I waive my right to privacy?
When does public interest outweigh my right to keep personal information private?
Does the release of personal information equal “transparency”?
I wondered why these groups would want this information so I did a google search. One article I read reported a requesting group said they “reject the notion that transparency will encourage” criminal acts against farms and knowing where CAFOs are located will “increase transparency”. Quite frankly I didn’t know they were hidden. What’s interesting is that some of the farms whose information was released had only 12 animals.
Knowing where farms are located is one thing, but I have to wonder how knowing my personal medical information, information about my child or our workers leads to increased transparency? Seems like an increase in invasion of privacy to me. I also wonder how the people in the groups requesting this information would feel if their personal information was released.
I’m going to be exploring the idea of transparency across agriculture in the coming months and what it could, should and does mean.
What does “transparency” mean to you in regards to personal information about farmers, our spouses, our children and our employees?