Sunshine is good for plants, animals, AND government

Note from Dairy Queen: The following is a guest post from our friend (and Berkeley neighbor) Marc, who writes regularly for Eat Local Challenge, Growers and Grocers, and his own blog, Mental Masala. We’re hoping that despite his many other obligations, he’ll become a regular contributor to the Ethicurean: in addition to being a top-notch baker and a vegetarian, he’s an avid ag-policy wonk unafraid to wade deep into reports from the Government Accounting Office, for example.

sunshine_ucs2.jpgAn ethical, sustainable food system requires informed consumers. We need to know the source of our food, what chemicals were used, how the animals were treated, and so forth. We may never get full disclosure from corporations, but it is important that we have an open government — one that allows citizens to know what it is doing*, how decisions are made, and the reasons behind the actions. We need to know, for example, how Pesticide X was evaluated for use on food by the Environmental Protection Agency. Or how the Food and Drug Administration came to their decision that a certain growth-inducing hormone is safe to use. Or how much financial support a lawmaker receives from agribusiness or pesticide companies.

sunshine_logo.jpgSunshine Week, from March 11 to 17, is a week of events, blogging, and more to highlight the importance of open government and freedom of information. Although the Sunshine initiative is sponsored by journalists, greater transparency benefits all Americans. For example, the EWG Farm Subsidy Database, which lists the greatest beneficiaries of government agricultural payments, would not be possible without an open government.

In the past few years, the federal government has taken quite a few actions that limit information disclosure in the area of food and agriculture. Some examples:

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is one of the public’s most important tools in maintaining open government. This law — which has equivalents in most states — was signed by President Johnson in 1966. A 2001 memorandum by then Attorney General John Ashcroft changed the Department of Justice’s policy on FOIA. Previously, agencies were directed to provide information to applicants unless release of the information would cause “foreseeable harm.” The new policy basically said that if the agency could provide a “sound legal basis” for denying the application, the Department of Justice would back them up in court. In other words, err on the side of secrecy and let the courts deal with it. The House is considering legislation to reform the FOIA process: HR 1309, the Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 2007, was recently approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. A similar bill will be introduced into the Senate in the near future.

Many more Web links about FOIA can be found at the Coalition of Journalists for an Open Government. The Open House Project seeks to pressure the House of Representatives to provide more information about House operations on the Internet, such as financial disclosure reports. OpenCongress is a great site for monitoring action in the U.S. Congress.

Take advantage of the many educational opportunities that will appear during Sunshine Week to learn about which parts of the government need opening. To keep up to date with happenings, visit the Sunshine Week page. A letter to your representative supporting HR 1309 might also be a good idea.

*With some limited exceptions for national security and other sensitive areas, of course.

Credit: The cartoon above was submitted by Stephen Cohen, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, for use publicizing Sunshine Week.

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