Farmers in the district have until September 9 to have their voices heard in regards to a recent decision in Ontario’s agriculture sector.
In mid-July the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) received a Freedom of Information (FOI) request from an unknown party that asked the ministry to disclose the names, addresses and Farm Business Registration (FBR) numbers of all Ontario businesses which held an FBR. An FOI request can be made by members of the public under Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA), which says “every person has a right of access to a record or a part of a record in the custody or under the control of an institution,” with exceptions.
Following the disclosure of the FOI request, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) and OFA president Keith Currie announced they would be seeking legal recourse to combat the FOI, citing concerns that bad actors could use the information that would identify public businesses on a grand scale.
“It has the potential to cause severe financial loss to farm businesses through possible fraudulent use of the information by the individual collecting it or may be used to facilitate identity theft,” Currie wrote in a press release.
“It’s OFA’s belief that the release of this personal information infringes on the privacy and security of farm operations across the province.”
Another concern expressed online, though not verified due to the anonymous nature of the FOI request, is that animal rights activists might have made the request in order to create a targeted campaign or database to be used against Ontario farmers. Per reporting from www.realagriculture.com, such a database was created in Australia that contained similar information that was used by activists to stage protests, such as business or farm names, addresses, and map coordinates.
Following a letter requesting comment from 450 farmers across the province on the subject of the FOI request, and providing a deadline of July17 for the submission of concerns and input, the Ministry announced on August 10 that they would be releasing the names of businesses that have an FBR number, but not the number itself. Fifteen farm businesses agreed to release their FBR number along with the other information.
While there are some legitimate concerns around the FOI request, Rainy River Federation of Agriculture (RRFA) president Lisa Teeple stressed that it’s no reason for local farmers to panic.
“The FBR numbers are linked to a lot of personal information that runs through the ministry and runs through our taxes, so yes, that’s a concern,” she explained, calling the decision by the ministry to withhold the FBR numbers a positive.
“The original request, we don’t know where it came from. Who was asking for this information? Is it a university study looking to do a study on farm economics? Is it a think-tank group and how they market more to farm businesses? We don’t know. Is it an environmental activist group? That potentially gives a reason for pause, because we are in a business where environmental and animal activists have been known to be destructive. The big thing is ‘who asked for it’? We can’t find that out.”
The new deadline of September 9 is for anyone looking to appeal the decision made by the ministry, with the OFA, Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario (CFFO) and National Farmers Union – Ontario (NFU-O) expected to exercise their right to an appeal.
“OFA, along with CFFO and NFU-O, intend to file their own formal appeal of the decision in an effort to protect the privacy and security of all Farm Business Registrants,” the OFA said in a statement.
“These farm organizations will act on behalf of Ontario farm businesses in an attempt to prevent the exposure of this information.”
Requests for appeal must be submitted through the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) with a notice of the submission sent to OMAFRA.
Even if the FOI request should be revealed to have come from an activist group, Teeple said the geographical remoteness of the Rainy River district would benefit local farmers.
“For us in this district, the impact is probably going to be somewhat un-intrusive because of where we are situated,” she said.
“We are lucky, we’re in our little corner of Ontario and we’re often forgotten about… in the areas of southeastern Ontario and into the northeast, there’s higher concentration of agricultural industry and business and farmers and we have seen in the news where they have had impact from environmental and animal activists and trespassing.
Still, Teeple again stressed that until more information comes out about where the FOI request is coming from, farmers and agricultural producers in the district shouldn’t panic.
“This very well could be just a marketing thing, maybe someone who wants to market to the agriculture community,” she said.
“We just don’t know. That confusion fosters fear and we really want to try to have people realize that it could be something as simple as they want to market a new type of farm wagon or something simple, but unfortunately in today’s time, quite often that’s not the case.”
“We don’t see all of that political stuff that they have in the GTA, but we just don’t know, that’s the main focus,” Teeple continued.
“We don’t know what they’re asking, and until we know for sure, don’t panic.”