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Farm Groups Sue to Stop Data Disclosure

Even as they raise concerns about corporate use of farm data, farm groups are turning to Congress to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from releasing information that it compiles on agricultural operations it regulates.

In February, farm groups discovered that the EPA had disclosed data about livestock operations that had been gathered from agencies in 30 states. The information, which in some cases included cellphone numbers and the number of animals farms have, was turned over to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice and the Pew Charitable Trusts under the Freedom of Information Act. The states included the two largest hog producers, Iowa and North Carolina, as well as California, Nebraska and Texas.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and National Pork Producers Council filed suit against the EPA in a Minnesota federal court last July, and the case is still pending. The EPA said the data were already available publicly, but the agency later agreed to seek the return of the information.

Environmental groups disagree with the farm groups’ claims that such information should be kept private. “While industry describes this case as a fight to protect ‘personal information’ from the prying eyes of environmentalists, the fact is that these highly polluting animal factories are corporate operations that are destroying waterways and communities wherever they operate,” stated Tarah Heinzen, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project.

Meanwhile, agriculture groups also have been working through Congress to ensure the privacy of farm data.

A provision inserted in the omnibus spending package (PL 113-76) enacted this month directs the Government Accountability Office to analyze the EPA’s policies for responding to requests for personal information of private businesses, as well as steps the EPA is taking to better manage private information.

A second measure, added to the House-passed farm bill (HR 2642) last year, would prohibit the EPA from publicly disclosing names, telephone numbers, email addresses, GPS coordinates and other information on agricultural operations. The agency would be barred from requiring farms to consent to information disclosure in order to get a permit approved.

Whether the provision becomes law is up to a conference committee that has been negotiating the final version of the bill. The Senate’s farm bill (S 954) did not contain a similar measure.

Meanwhile, farmers say they are worried that even more sensitive information could be released if environmental groups were to win access via lawsuits against agribusiness companies that track farm data, or by mining databases held by universities or government agencies.

Environmental groups “could have a hay day” with data such as records of farmers’ pesticide use, said Brian Marshall, who farms near Kansas City, Mo. “With all the GPS data that we have, you could get hold of everything when it comes to crop protection application.”

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