Q&A with Ken Cook: What’s at stake in the current farm bill?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Ken Cook, president and founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, will speak Thursday at the Center for the Environment facility on the Catawba College campus.
His talk, “The Farm Bill, Healthy Food and our Environment: What’s at stake?” is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. It is free and open to the public, but reservations are required. To register, call 704.637.4727 or visit www.CenterForTheEnvironment.org/home.html.
Cook recently spoke with the Center’s director of communications, Juanita Teschner, about his topic. The views he expresses are his own.
Q: What does the current Farm Bill entail?
A: It covers everything from farm subsidies to conservation to the biggest item — food assistance.
Q: What’s involved in the conservation piece of the bill?
A: First of all, about half of the land area of the United States is in farms. Conservation issues like soil erosion and pesticide runoff from fields are pretty much left to programs in the bill that are voluntary.
Q: What voluntary program addresses environmental issues?
A: One set of programs provides assistance to farmers who elect to participate. It defrays part of the cost of conservation practices that might reduce siltation of streams or pesticide runoff or might enhance wildlife habitat. So the taxpayer shares part of the cost of doing that. The exciting thing about that approach is that we have farmers lined up in droves to participate. They want to conserve. But there’s never enough money, so we turn away half or more of the applicants every year. If we could fund it all, or even a bigger portion of it, we would solve a lot of our water quality problems, our endangered species problems, and so forth.
Q: Do any of the programs place conservation requirements on receiving farm subsidies?
A: Yes. You have to take certain steps to maintain your eligibility for some programs. Those programs were very effective when we enforced them. But there are two problems: One is we haven’t been very rigorous in enforcing them in recent years. An even bigger problem is these crop insurance programs.
Q: So what’s wrong with the crop insurance programs?
A: We’re spending in excess of $9 billion a year on those. We subsidize premiums. We pay the crop insurance companies the cost of administering the program. Then we pay a lot of the claims for any disasters that might befall the policy holders. So Uncle Sam is in it for a lot of money.
Q: Where do the conservation requirements come into play with the crop insurance programs?
A: They are no longer linked. So we don’t require that the crop insurance beneficiary have a plan in place if they are going to plow up a highly erodible marginal field or drain a wetland. We give them the subsidies even if they do those things.
Q: What is EWG recommending on conservation requirements?
A: We’ve been trying to reestablish that link to subsidies. We’re also trying to make sure there’s more money in these conservation programs. We want them to be implemented efficiently and effectively, of course. We don’t want to waste taxpayer money on conservation any more than we want to waste it on crop subsides.
Q: Why do farmers get subsidies?
A: The big category of money going to farmers is in the bill for no other reason than because they’ve received the money before. We just issued a report on our website, www.ewg.org, describing farm subsidy payments being made to people who live in the middle of some of the biggest cities in the country who are absentee owners who never go near the farm. Several other related studies show “farmers” who haven’t planted a crop in a decade getting money.
Q: Who essentially gets the subsidies?
A: Congress decided they wanted to make payments to farmers regardless of crop prices or income. Now 10 percent of the beneficiaries get 70 percent of the money. Basically that system has been pretty badly broken. The so-called direct payments made regardless of income or prices are slated to be eliminated, which will save about $5 billion a year
Q: What does EWG recommend on the issue of farmers receiving subsidies?
A: Limits on eligible farmers’ incomes and on the total amount of the subsidy. Wealthy farmers wouldn’t get the full subsidy. We’re not saying they shouldn’t have a safety net, but we think farmers who can pay should instead of taxpayers paying.
Q: Where do you think the $5 billion savings should go?
A: Our view is that the best use of this money is to provide a defensible safety net for farmers, which would be far better than most people in the workforce have today, but to also to make sure we have enough money to support people who are in dire need of food assistance and to invest in healthy eating through the school lunch programs – fruits and vegetables provided to kids at school and enough educational infrastructure to entice them to try them and get hooked on them. Then finally invest in conservation and environmental programs.
Q: Why is EWG promoting the food stamp/nutrition part of the bill?
A: We concluded that we can’t really worry about contaminants that might be in children’s food and at the same time not be worried that they don’t have enough food. Half of the 47 million Americans served by the food stamp program now are children. Since the Great Recession, the food stamp roles have exploded.
Q: What are the qualifications for receiving food stamps?
A: If you’re a family of three making more than $24,000 a year, you’re too wealthy to qualify for the food stamp program. So the income test is pretty brutal. You have to be very, very poor. And a large portion of the food stamp families are far poorer than that threshold would indicate.
Q: How much would funding nutrition in the schools cost?
A: We could have fresh fruits and vegetables for every school child in the country’s 100,000 school lunch programs for probably $2 billion.
Q: Where does the Farm Bill stand right now?
A: There’s some good news. The Senate made the link between conservation requirements and subsidies in the bill it passed, but the House did not. It now goes to a House/Senate Conference, and it’s possible that the bill they report out will include the Senate provision linking conservation to crop insurance. If that’s the case, I think it would pass the House. If it doesn’t make it out of conference or they decide to just extend some version of an existing farm bill, then we wouldn’t get that policy.
Q: So encapsulate for us why the Farm Bill is so important.
A: We have so many families out of work and so many families who are working who are not able to make more than minimum wage. There’s a tremendous demand on the food stamp program. There’s tremendous environmental demand for conservation, and you have this need to give taxpayers at least a good investment for their dollar if not some of their money back by cutting the budget. In all of those cases the Farm Bill looms large. It’s serious business.