Environmental Working Group founder tells what’s at stake with Farm Bill

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 5, 2013

With the government shutdown and the approaching deadline for deciding the debt ceiling, paying attention to things like the farm bill is more important than ever, says Ken Cook.
Cook, founder and president of the Environmental Working Group based in Washington, D.C., addressed a group Thursday at the Center for the Environment about “The Farm Bill, Healthy Food and the Environment: What’s at Stake?”
Farmers, visitors from the LandTrust for Central North Carolina and members of the community gathered for the event, and Cook told the crowd he was going to talk for a long time. “What I’m trying to convey is how important it still is to pay attention to what’s going on in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
The farm bill is a government program that provides funds for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), subsidies for farmers, money for conservation, and funding for nutrition and healthy eating programs. The bill’s history dates back to the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Generally, a version of the farm bill is up for vote every five years. The most current bill was supposed to be re-approved in 2012 but was delayed until January 2013 — when the deadline was extended yet again. Cook said that this is the first time he can recall that Congress hasn’t been able to come together to pass it.
However, while the farm bill is well intended, Cook said, its execution is not.
A large amount of money from the bill is devoted to direct subsidies to farmers, crop insurance and the SNAP program.
Investigations and research conducted by the Environmental Working Group revealed that the largest subsidy checks go to 10 percent of the eligible recipients. Following the numbers, the organization discovered that many of those 10 percent lived in Beverly Hills, Washington, D.C., or New York.
Cook’s question was: With the government considering making cuts to other areas supported by the bill, why is so much money going to absentee owners when it could be going to farmers who need the funds or back into SNAP?
To put it plainly, Cook told the audience, it’s not a responsible use of money.
In addition, Congress is considering cutting food assistance programs by $40 billion. Cook said that with such high unemployment, it’s probably the worst time to make cuts to SNAP. And while the program is not exempt from fraud, 70 percent of those who benefit from SNAP are children, elderly, or disabled.
The conservation portion of the bill is also on the chopping block this year and, according to Cook, it’s also a bad time to cut conservation funding. The last four years have been the “most environmentally destructive period of agricultural expansion in 40 years,” Cook said.
Between 2008 and 2012, over 23 million acres of wetlands, wildlife habitat and prairie have been converted to farmland for industrial conglomerates. This is at a time when thousands of farmers and ranchers are teaming up with environmentalists and applying to U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs. Cook says most are turned down due to lack of funds.
In addition, the Environmental Working Group has determined that soil erosion rates are far worse than official estimates. Conservation, Cook explained, doesn’t work as an island theory.
He urged smart farming, such as creating protective waterways to prevent gully erosion. This, he said, is what money from the farm bill – taxpayer money – should support.
Cook explained that the Environmental Working Group’s goal is not to stop the farm bill but to reform it. The group wants to get rid of direct subsidy payments, reduce subsidies to insurance companies, cap subsidized premiums and reduce the premium subsidy rate, link crop insurance to conservation requirements and make subsidies, claims, and beneficiaries public.
Money spent on the farm bill should go back into the farm bill, Cook said. The savings that would be gained from subsidy and crop insurance reforms could be reinvested into SNAP and conservation programs.
Cook encouraged members of the audience to be smart and be loud.
“I don’t think the government is going to do anything the people don’t make them do,” Cook said.“We want to make sure that, going forward, we have an environment that is sustained and sustainable.”
The Center for the Environment at Catawba College was founded in 1996 to provide education and outreach centered on prevalent environmental challenges and to foster community-oriented sustainable solutions that can serve as a model for programs throughout the country. For more information, visit www.CenterForTheEnvironment.org/home.html or www.CampaignForCleanAir.org.