After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

What Does Agribusiness Have to Hide?

(Posted by Scott Edwards.)

When it comes to big agribusiness and access to public information, the Chesapeake region is sadly part of a disturbing pattern that exists all across the country. And signs are it might be getting even worse.

Polluting industries are generally subject to a good amount of public transparency and disclosure about their practices, what types of materials they handle, how they dispose of their wastes, etc. Unfortunately, agribusiness has always enjoyed a level of state-sponsored secrecy that serves to undermine this general right of public access. The poor excuses for concealment offered by state departments of agriculture and environment and industry range from national security to trade secrets or, more often than not, no excuse at all.

Take Maryland, for example. With Maryland’s Water Quality Improvement Act (WQIA) in 1998, farms were required to get and put on file with state agencies Nutrient Management Plans (NMPs) that document how much waste is being produced on their facilities and dumped on the land to grow their crops. It was certainly a step in the right direction—at the time NMPs represented the only method to ensure that harmful nutrients were being used in proper amounts on croplands. It was a long-needed measure to bring some semblance of responsibility to the ag industry. But then, during the WQIA negotiations with industry things took a very wrong turn.

First, instead of these environmental protection records going to the Maryland Department of the Environment, whose mission it is to safeguard our waterways, the WQIA gave them over to the Department of Agriculture, whose job it is to ensure that ag gets to operate with as few regulatory burdens as possible. Second, in open disregard for Maryland’s Public Information Act (PIA), the WQIA embraced provisions that kept the NMPs secret documents—out of the hands of concerned citizens and, even, away from other state agencies. Not even the Attorney General of Maryland was allowed to view farm NMP’s under the WQIA.

That changed when Waterkeeper Alliance and many of our local Chesapeake programs sued the Maryland Department of Agriculture back in 2008 for refusing to turn over NMP’s under a Public Information Act request. For the first time, a state judge declared NMPs to be public documents. Since then Waterkeeper and our local partners have sought more public documents related to farms and their waste disposal practices. And, despite our victory, the Farm Bureau keeps fighting to keep us all in a deep, dark hole about ag waste practices—they’ve filed legal challenges to all our requests.

It’s a continual battle to bring about the transparency which should be a given. And now agribusiness’s attempt to cover up their harmful practices is reaching new levels of absurdity. In Iowa, the state House recently passed a bill that makes it a criminal act to take a picture while on a farm without the farmer’s permission. Not to be outdone, Florida has jumped over the crazy line with both feet. There, a Republican state senator recently proposed a bill that makes it a 1st degree felony, punishable by up to 30 years in prison, to take a photo of a farm even if you’re standing on a public road when you click the shudder.

If agribusiness put as much energy and resources into keeping a tight lid on their pollution as they do on keeping a tight lid on public awareness of their improper waste disposal practices, we just might have a cleaner and healthier Chesapeake Bay.

2 Responses to What Does Agribusiness Have to Hide?

  1. What naive rubbish. There is a connotation that Maryland farmers are “Agribusiness” and that is a dirty word. What nonsense. Nutrient Management plans contain personal farm business information that is proprietary. Crop yields, nutrient application rates and soil tests all help establish rental rates for farms. Farmers who have been good stewards and managed their farms well to achieve high yields with few nutrients would like to keep this information away from other growers who might like to outbid them on rental property. More than 50% of Maryland’s farmland is rented – somehow the non-farming public does not get this aspect of a nutrient management plan.

  2. The Nutrient Management Plans in PA are reviewed by and approved by Soil Conservation District personnel. They are available for the public to review. Guess the farmers in PA have nothing to hide compared to the farmers in MD? I believe that the same is true of PA farmers manure management plans. The NMP/MMP written in PA are heads and shoulders above what is produced in MD. Plus the Soil Conservation District personnel must review the implementation of approved NMP’s(in the field) for all required NMP’s annually. What is MD’s schedule of reviewing the the farmers implementation of their NMP?