By Barbara Patterson, government relations representative, National Farmers Union
Last week, the House Appropriations Committee approved the Fiscal Year 2017 Agriculture Appropriations bill, which once again included the controversial GIPSA rider, a provision that proactively limits farmers’ basic rights and protections. Accompanying this bill was report language (this is guidance on the bill, but it has no statutory force) that advised the U.S. Department of Agriculture to exempt the boards of Research and Promotion programs, or “checkoffs,” from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
NFU has a lot of policy on checkoffs, and our members and staff have continuously worked to make sure checkoffs are farmer-driven and focused on bettering the livelihoods of U.S. family farmers and ranchers.
Recently, a number of the checkoffs have been entangled in controversy. Producers are required by law to pay into the checkoffs, and in 2005, the Supreme Court deemed checkoff speech as government speech. Now, however, some trade associations are arguing that these checkoffs are industry groups and should not be subject to the same laws as the federal government.
Because of the controversies surrounding the checkoffs – and the subsequent mistrust from the public – FOIA requests have increased. These requests are both time consuming and expensive, and the checkoff must foot the bill for the time and the work. As a result, several commodity organizations wrote to House appropriators requesting a change to USDA’s FOIA policy as it relates to the boards of the checkoffs. The letter was signed not by the checkoff boards themselves, but by their sister trade associations. For instance, the Cattlemen’s Beef Board did not request the change, but the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a trade association, requested the change.
NFU strongly opposes the blurred lines between the commodity trade associations and the checkoff boards. Our policy states that mandatory producer assessments should not go to organizations that engage in lobbying, and no contracts should be awarded to organizations that carry out political or lobbying activities.
FOIA is a central pillar of transparency in our democracy. It provides for an open government where citizens can request records from federal agencies – with some exemptions for national security, law enforcement and personal privacy.
Consumers are demanding more and more information about their food. They want to know how their food was grown and the research behind it. When checkoffs demand to be exempt from FOIA, it looks like producers have something to hide from consumers, and that’s a bad message to send. Checkoffs should be open and transparent about how their producer assessments are allocated, and they should work to rebuild trust with the public.
In a letter sent to the House and Senate today, NFU outlined our opposition to the report language:
“To prohibit the use of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with Research and Promotion boards would suggest that we, as producers, have something to hide. That is a troubling message in the areas of research and promotion, and is a particularly bad message to consumers about their food.”
Take a look at the letter NFU sent today, and let your members of Congress know that this language is not in the best interest of family farmers, ranchers or consumers.