Expert Voices

Anti-Science Riders Lurk in Pending Farm Bill (Op-Ed)

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Celia Wexler is a senior Washington representative for the Scientific Integrity Initiative at UCS. An award-winning journalist, Wexler authored "Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis" (McFarland, 2012). This article is adapted from a post on the UCS blog The Equation.

There's an old and well honored legislative strategy of tucking otherwise unacceptable and noxious proposals into must-pass bills. For those who follow that strategy, the hope is that members of Congress, seeking compromise on a final piece of legislation, may be so relieved to get a deal on the big-ticket items that some of the smaller bits can get through, too.

Right now, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate are seeking to close an agreement on a comprehensive farm bill , crucial to the future of food stamps, farm subsidies and programs that the Union of Concerned Scientists long has supported — among them the Farmers Market Promotion Program, which would help American families eat more healthily through targeted grants to local and regional food projects. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has a huge challenge in trying to come to terms with her House counterparts who'd like to cut the food stamp program alone by $40 billon.

But the farm bill is not just about the big-ticket items. Unfortunately, the farm bill offers opportunities to those who wish to stymie federal-agency science, protective state regulation or citizen access to information.

The House-passed farm bill contains many noxious lumps of coal that could make it into the final law. These range from the unwise to the outrageous. They have been opposed by groups that care about transparency in government, scientific integrity and public protections. They are demonstrably bad. But that doesn't mean they won't gain traction.

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The "Sound Science" rider

My favorite lump of coal is the erroneously named "Sound Science" rider, which I've already discussed in an earlier blog. It's a classic attempt to block federal agencies from taking any action to protect the environment, and public health and safety, by forcing paralysis by analysis. This is now section 12307 of the House-passed farm bill. It would require virtually any significant agency policies — including not only rules but also guidance documents and scientific assessments of risk — to go through many additional procedural hurdles, offering special interests new opportunities to challenge agency science. If an agency refused to jump through these new procedural hoops, any action it took could be challenged in court.

The "King" amendment

And there are many other lumps of coal. The "King" amendment has gained a good deal of publicity because it is so over-the-top it's hard to believe anyone could take it seriously. Rep. Steve King, (R-Iowa), was miffed at California for imposing more humane standards on the treatment of livestock, which would make it more difficult for livestock producers in his home state to market their products there. But his amendment is so broad, it also guts efforts by states to protect their citizens from food-borne illnesses. Generally speaking, conservative members, like King, trumpet the primacy of states' rights. But not when it interferes with the priorities of agribusiness.

Agricultural riders

Another rider gives one agency — namely the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — the right to scrutinize, and possibly challenge, regulations or policies affecting agricultural producers that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) might consider. The rider not only would require the USDA's chief economist to conduct an assessment of the economic impacts of a proposed regulation and any other future EPA policies on agriculture producers, but also requires the USDA to convene a panel to review the EPA's proposed actions, as well as any comments from farm interests that the USDA solicits.

Also snuck into the bill are a couple of provisions that would allow big agricultural livestock operations to keep even basic information about their businesses — even their location and phone numbers — from public disclosure. The provisions, were prompted by the EPA's inadvertent disclosure of the private information of thousands of farmers in response to a request from three environmental groups about confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The groups used the Freedom of Information Act to get the data.

To be sure, the private data should have been redacted, and the EPA moved quickly to try to rectify the error, asking the groups in question to destroy the documents and sending them redacted versions. Nevertheless, imposing a gag order on the EPA banning the disclosure of even basic information about huge livestock operations is an over-reaction. It's not unrealistic to assume that most people would want — and have a right — to know whether thousands of pigs are being raised near their source of drinking water.

These lumps of coal are bad enough on their own. What makes things worse is the fact that they have largely slipped into the House-passed measure without the public scrutiny they deserve. That secrecy sabotages democracy. And that's a holiday gift nobody wants.

This Op-Ed will appear on the UCS blog The Equation. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.

Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)