Commentary: Who Has the Right to Know What About Whom?

Who has the right to know what about a farming operation continues to be a controversial issue. For the most part, farmers are very guarded when releasing information about their operations. Unlike critics suggest, this is not because they are trying to hide anything, but because history has shown repeatedly that people use this information to attack, manipulate, or even file frivolous lawsuits against the farm.  In fact, it is usually groups with an axe to grind against agriculture that yell the loudest about lack of access to information.

In recent years, more and more information has been required from farmers by both state and federal agencies. Most times, it is part of the licensing or permitting process. Then there is the premise ID program which requires anyone with animals to register. Participate in a farm program and your name, location, and much of your production information is on a database that is public.

What is interesting, and more than a little frightening, is who uses this information. Certainly activist groups do, but marketers also are big users of this data. I have had many companies approach Hoosier Ag Today trying to sell me detailed data about my audience. They have also offered by buy my e-newsletter list, which we refuse to sell. Those smartphones you carry around and use to access your on farm data are a treasure trove for internet companies and firms like Google and Facebook.

Enter new folks at USDA who have the radical idea of taking some farmer data off-line. Beginning in 2017, USDA started removing some data about animal operations from their public database. In 2018, they have proposed keeping other data about animal breeders and other types of livestock operations away from public access. Well, the howls of protest have been loud and long, and guess who the loudest voice of opposition is? Yes, it’s HSUS. In a recent blog rant, HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle called the change in policy at USDA, “Perhaps the most outrageous maneuver in contemporary times by the USDA to cover up for the industry.”

There is the assumption by HSUS and others that, if there are limits on farm data accessibility, then it means something bad is going on. This might be understandable if farmers had a reputation and a history of abuse of animals, of the environment, or of poor food safety practices. That is not the case. Farmers, on the whole, have an outstanding record and reputation. In fact, surveys show that consumers trust farmers more than the government, big businesses, and activists.

As food producers, we have a responsibility to maintain a certain level of transparency. We need to share with the public what they need to know to trust us and to feel safe in the food choices they make. This does not extend to providing weapons for our enemies to use against us. It is nice to see that, finally, at USDA there are a few level heads that have the interests of farmers in mind not just of those who want to put us out of business.


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