Ken Cook defends food stamps as Farm Bill looms

By William Wilcox

Prominent environmental advocate Ken Cook assessed standing legislation and advocated for changes to the 2012 Farm Bill Tuesday in Swift Hall.

Cook, the president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit environmental advocacy group, promoted policy reevaluation in the pending omnibus bill that is passed through Congress every five years. The Farm Bill encompasses food stamp programs, subsidies for farms, and funding for agricultural conservation projects.

“The Environmental Working Group’s top priority in the Farm Bill is protecting the food stamp program, the SNAP program,” Cook said. “We are the only national environmental organization at all that has taken a stand on that issue.”

The funding for the food stamps program totaled around 70 percent of a pool of $288 billion in the 2008 Farm Bill. The second largest chunk of the bill is $60 billion subsidies paid to farmers, in the form of both direct payments to farmers and taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance.

Funding distribution is uneven, according to Cook, with a fraction of large farms receiving 74 percent of subsidies while over 60 percent of farmers receive no subsidies at all. “Mega farms” therefore benefit from the subsidy program, analogous to the corporate bailouts.

“We have spent about a quarter of a trillion dollars on farm subsidies since 1995 but to suggest that they are anything like a bailout or welfare would be incredibly unfair to bailouts and welfare,” Cook said.

Cook’s version of the 2012 Farm Bill proposes a guarantee of 95 percent of revenue through crop insurance programs, which are almost completely funded by taxpayer money.

The Farm Bill also included $5 billion in direct payments to farmers, some of which are absentee farmers who live in major metropolitan areas. Cook also pointed out that concurrently with these subsidy requests American agriculture has made record exports of agricultural products.

Under Cook’s leadership, the EWG and its lobbyists support providing allocations for farmers’ markets, the organic industry, and school lunch program enhancements, among other changes to food policies.

Cook’s talk is the first in a series of Food (In)Security events hosted by the Center for International Studies and as the spring quarter distinguished lecturer for the Program for the Global Environment.