The Farm Bill: Ken Cook

The Farm Bill, a piece of omnibus legislation that has been part of the federal government’s agriculture and food policy since its inception in 1965, has a long history of controversy and reform. The bill’s historic provision of subsidies to commodity croppers (corn, soy, wheat) has incited much contention and impetus for changes to legislation among environmental groups, such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a research and advocacy organization.

Ken Cook, co-founder and president of the EWG, spoke April 17th on The 2012 Farm Bill and Why It Matters, as a part of the Center for International Studies’ Food (In)Security Series. Cook sat with Calumet Quarter students Katherine Rittenhouse and Linda Qiu to discuss the 2012 Farm Bill in the context of issues like food security, the elimination of harmful subsidies, and how non-profits such as EWG are able to incite meaningful legislative change.

Q:   How does the farm bill address issues of food security?
A: The central way it addresses food security is by funding SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program), to solve the most compelling food security problem of helping people down on their luck, or without a job.  It’s not a very generous set of benefits, but in many cases it’s all the household has, if, for example, the husband lost his job. The farm bill is a food bill since much of the funding goes into this program.

Q:What were the successes and failures of the 2008 farm bill and what role did the EWG play in the legislative process?
A: We were centrally involved and overall pretty disappointed. We were working with conservatives, moderates, Democrats and Republicans to make reform happen. The speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi, for political reasons chose to oppose many of the reforms we supported. While she ultimately squashed the bill, she did leave it open for members of her caucus to make deals to try to get some points, so we did have some successes.

For example, we had worked for many years for relief for black farmers who had been discriminated against by the USDA. Well, included in the farm bill was a provision for $1.1 billion in civil rights payments to farmers who had been denied rights in the past.

Here’s the basic dynamic: If you confine yourself to the agriculture committee, you’re not going to have much of an audience as an environmentalist or as a snap advocate or organic advocate. So you build champions on both sides of the house and offer amendments. That threat causes them to write a different bill.

Q: How do advocacy groups and nonprofits combat the money-power of  the other side?
A: We have to be smarter and work harder. We feel like the arguments and facts are on our side.  We must be able to get in newspaper and on tv. We’re not just writing research papers for a few people and we make it a central part of our business to broaden the debate.

Secondly, we lobby. The other side has 1000 lobbyists. A lot of public interest groups involved in the food issue either don’t work on the national level but a lot that work federally don’t lobby. They blog and other things, but they talk to a small group of people already in the choir. We lobby, actually lobby with people in fancy shoes in costumes.

The things we’ve added in recent years are social media and direct connection to people. We went from 6,000 to 2 million on newsletter.

Q:  What are the interest groups lobbying for things like direct subsidies for farmers or other things that the EWG is lobbying against and why do politicians seem to support the other side more readily?
A: Every commodity with subsidy stream has an organization and they have been organized for decades to garden their subsidy patch.  They make campaign contributions. They primarily represent farmers. Big companies like Monsanto don’t lobby much on these bills unless there was something that would inhibit their ability to access cheap commodities. Other big players include crop insurance agents and companies and banks that have loans secured by farmland. They all want to make sure subsidy flow is going. Fertilizer dealers, people like that.

The biggest factor is farm and commodity organizations, though. They’ll fly in hundreds of farmers at a time to capitol hill. If you are a congressperson from a farm district where farmers are getting subsidies, the farmers don’t have to be giving campaign contributions to get subsidies. They [the farmers] don’t have to pay you to do that because they’ll just elect someone else and so numbers matter here. There are 15 mill acres of vegetables and fruit being farmed compared to 95 million of corn. If you grew even 300,000 acres Belgium endive, you would wreck the market. So they scale is with big field crops: wheat, cotton, corn and soybeans. All those commodity crop farmers vote- they turn out like old people in elections, they overperform. Old people vote and so do farmers. Young people don’t.

Q: Is change in legislation enough? Does government policy have any power against consumer choice and preference?
A: You’ve got to work on both. Market change is really important, seen in the growth in organics, changes in packaging technology interest in local foods. It’s still a tiny fraction of what we eat. But that marketplace change involves people and people are turned off my politics. They want GMO labeling (genetically modified organism)–well they might ask the FDA to do it–but they’ll start buying food in the absence of federal labels because they want to do something on their own.

Q: As an advocacy group and a research group, how do those two roles play together? How do you maintain integrity in your findings?
A: We stand behind the facts. You can’t last long if you skew the facts. There are people who do that and they don’t show up in the New York Times every week like we do. We’re publishing a report tomorrow by the two top experts in crop insurance in the country.

So here’s how I would put it: there is so much legitimate research to be done where all you have to do is look at the facts and you will reach your conclusion. You don’t have to spin anything. We might be particularly good at expressing, explaining it—we want it to be a good show so people will pay attention but not by skewing the facts. You don’t have to.
But it’s not enough to just put facts and data out there. If you care about this stuff, if you care about our kids’ future, the fact that the Midwest is getting plowed up again, you’ve got to fight for it and lobby for it. And the other side is. They’re fighting like you wouldn’t believe. What we have free robux no human verification is the ability to do compelling research and use it.