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Green Acres Spotlight: Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group

As president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, Ken Cook has spent the last two decades as a fierce and effective advocate for the environment, public health, and clean farming. (And after talking with him, we’re even bigger fans—conference attendees are in for a real humdinger of a keynote.)

In this first installment of our two-part interview, we talked with Cook about everything from big ag in Georgia to the trends in the foodkencook_hero sector to the role conservation programs play in sustainable agriculture.

Cook will be speaking at the 17th Annual Georgia Organics Conference, Green Acres, Saving the Planet One Bite at a Time, which will be held on Feb. 21-22 at the Jekyll Island Convention Center.

How are farming and the environment connected? It’s a primary connection. Oftentimes because we associate the environment and environmental damage with smokestacks and pipes spewing waste into waterways, but in fact the agricultural landscape has a huge impact on water quality, wildlife, air quaity, what comes out of our tap in our homes, and of course a profound impact on our health by virtue of what we eat. The connection between farming and the environment could not be more important.

We have about a billion acres of farmland in the United States, and those farms and ranches just dominate the landscape in many areas and often have adverse impacts. Agriculture’s still our number one source of wetlands loss, it’s our number one source of unregulated contaminants in drinking water, it’s critically important to what happens to wildlife. So every time you’re thinking about agriculture you should be thinking about its potential to do very good things for the environment, and very good things for our health, but it also has the potential to do a lot of harm. That’s why we’ve focused on this so consistently at Environmental Working Group. Our organization started off with a focus on the connections between the environment and agriculture, and we’ve maintained that focus for 20 years now.

What are some positiive trends you’ve seen? Food is really culturally a much hotter focus than it was a few years ago. It seems like everywhere you turn you have a reality TV show like “Top Chef,” we have surging cookbook sales, farmers markets are breaking out. I live in Marin, California and I can barely step out my door without stumbling into a farmers market.

Food is hot, and part of the reason it’s become hot is because people have become much more interested in where it comes from, the quality of it, meeting and getting to know the farmers that they buy it from. It’s very exciting. But the biggest development in my mind in the past 15 years clearly has been the emergence of organic. We are so excited to see organic grow into really one of our biggest green industries; it’s certainly our original one in many respects. We overlook it sometimes, but we have a $35 billion food industry in this country now. Shoppers can’t get enough of it. People want to have more choices, and they want to have it become more affordable and more commonplace.

There’s still a lot of concern over what’s in our food. Is it healthy? Is it safe? How can I trust it? And organic has filled that role. Even during the recession we’ve seen a steady improved performance in organic. We still had single digit growth every year, well above conventional food in terms of sales. And now as the economy has started to recover, we’re back to double-digit increases. That’s really unusual in the food space, and it’s a testament that the American people are really convinced that organic is important to them.

There’s a confusion out there between organic and natural, and I think we all have a duty to sort that out, and we’ll be working on that in the months ahead. It’s confusing to the detriment of organic, and when that happens it’s really to the detriment of consumers who think when they buy natural they’re buying something that’s as good as or better than organic, which is not the case.

Food is hot, and organic is the single hottest segment of the food industry right now. It’s really amazing. That’s one reason I’m so excited to be coming down to talk to you all.

The Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15 are some of the most well-known consumer education tools around. What was the impetus for them? We do a lot of work on pesticide regulation and a lot of complex analyses of the risks of individual pesticides trying to figure out how we can make the case to regulatory agencies when we find a problem with a conventional pesticide, whether it’s in food or in the home.

I really give credit to my former colleage Richard Wiles, who ran our pesticide program for many years. He basically said “You know what we need? A simple way for consumers who don’t want to get into all of the details and risk analysis and risk assessment.” We always hear “Just tell me, if I can’t find or afford organic, what should I do?” We had an answer right there in front of us with the government’s own data. We looked at the conventional fruits and vegetables and we’re able to say “Look, the following list. If you’re concerned about pesticides, buy this organic.” But if you can’t find or afford organic—and a lot of people still can’t! We have to face that reality—if you can’t find or afford it, here’s a list of conventional foods that government data shows are much lower in pesticides than a lot of other fruits and vegetables.

If you look at the one segment of the produce industry that’s really exploded, it’s organic. And no surprise, that’s what people want. We have found that this guide is controversial among conventional growers. They get very sensitive about any discussion of pesticide residue in their food. They just want everyone to think it’s safe and buy it and not even give it a thought. We understand that, but it turns out people are concerned about that, and they have been for decades. So we needed an easy tool for people to be able to walk into a grocery store and say “Hey, you know what? I’m not listening to the industry experts, I may not even want to listen to the EPA if they say it’s safe, because I’ve heard that before and all of a sudden EPA announces they’re getting rid of a pesticide they’ve told us for decades is safe because they’ve suddenly determined it’s not safe for your kids.” So having heard that over and over again, a lot of parents say they just want to know how they can avoid exposure. Don’t fill my head with details about the toxic properties of this or that insecticide, I just know enough to know if I can avoid pesticides in my diet and the food I feed my family. And that’s where the shopper’s guide is helpful.

I have a friend who used to say that organic is like private school for food. It’s great if you can find it, great if you can afford it, but not everyone can. So that’s why at EWG we do promote organic very aggressively and proudly, and that’s what’s in my house right now feeding my 5-year-old. We spend the extra money to make sure he has organic food. But we also have to push at the conventional system to move in the direction of organic. And guess what? It is. It’s moving that way in its rhetoric. Even Monsanto now advertises that one of the benefits of its biotech cotton and corn and GMO products is that they’re sustainable and reduce pesticide use! And they sell the pesticide! From the rhetoric to the reality, everyone knows that the organic sector is where the growth is.

What sort of industry backlack has the EWG received? The Alliance for Food and Farming launched its website and its campaign to counter the Dirty Dozen. They say so on the website. It’s been very useful to us to have that foil out there. It quadrupled our web traffic and media coverage. Industry backlash has been pronounced simply because this is a topic that many segments of the food industry simply don’t want to have brought up. They want everyone to believe that every pesticide that’s used now is used in perfect safety and that there’s no risk to consumers.

But the problem with that is consumers finding that problems emerge and the EPA is suddenly announcing that there’s a phase-out of a pesticide out of concern for children. And these are the very pesticides that both industry and EPA have been claiming are safe sometimes for decades! And they weren’t! They were never safe. We just had the science catch up.

So there is industry backlash. Unfortunately some of the larger conventional produce association are indistinguishable from the pesticide industry. They make the case that it’s wrong to give consumers any information about pesticides in food. They’ve attacked organic as meaningless, overtly and behind the scenes for many years. They basically say “you’re avoiding miniscule amounts of pesticides that don’t matter anyway so you might as well buy conventional.” The public doesn’t buy it. The public is buying more and more organic. There’s going to be more of them shopping for the very products that organic growers and companies in Georgia are producing.

What should Georgians know about big ag here? No matter what kind of farming you do, it’s a challenge. There’s a lot of hard-working farmers out there. The first thing you do is show respect, as you would of anyone earning a living. But the truth of the matter is in terms of acreage, scale of production, and number of farms, big agriculture around the country is dominated by producers who grow industrial crops. In the case of corn, 90 percent of it is used for feeding animals or for ethanol. For a pretty modest investment, personally, in their households, and for a pretty modest investment in terms of the nation as a whole, we could shift a lot of our agriculture to an organic basis and have plenty of higher-quality food for our population.

Conventional agriculture is using lots of chemical inputs. They are dependent on government subsidies that they lobby very effectively for. It would only take a very modest investment in research and marketing for organic agriculture around the country compared to the money that we spend as tax payers propping up some of these very large industrial farming operations in Georgia and elsewhere.

We’ve been making the case for many years now that particularly where the public dollar is concerned, we would do much better as a nation if we invested more money trying to solve the very thorny problems that organic farmers have to solve in Georgia and other parts of the country in dealing with pests, in expanding their markets, and in dealing with inspection issues and so forth. We’d be much better off investing in that, in EWG’s opinion, than we are spending millions of times more that amount of money on conventional agriculture. We’re starting to sway some people, but organic is still pretty small. Compared to conventional lobbying clout, and the amount of people they can bring on a plane into Washington or represent them with campaign contributions, organic is still very much a young industry.

As we become more sophisticated and get more years under our belt as an industry, I think organic’s going to start having more impact on some of those big policy decisions, and we need to. We need to shift some of this research money into the kinds of food that the American people actually want instead of the kind of food the conventional chemical sector is producing in over-abundance and that we have to get rid of by such devices as ethanol and emphasizing exports of our grains and oil seeds.

What role do conservation programs play in supporting sustainable agriculture? They’re playing a more and more important role all the time. There’s been a tremendous amount of work to get some of the conventional conservation programs to support farmers making the transition to organic, or to give them credit if they’re already organic, like EQIP or the Environmental Stewardship Program. We’re very cognizant of the fact that many organic farmers find themselves in an awkward position because they spent their own money to do the conversion years ago before there was cost share assistance from the government. I think we all understand that that’s an issue.

We also know it’s a burden for some smaller producers to go through the organic certification process with the USDA because of the fees, the inspections, and so forth. It doesn’t seem like a lot of money, but for small growers it can be. So the programs that help defray some of that cost and invest in research are really critically important. In my view as long as we’re not unfairly advantaging the newcomers, with respect to the government, compared to the people who have been in the field for a while and spent their own money to do it. As long as we’re not crossing a line there, I think we’re going to see more and more interest in support organic agriculture at the federal level.

STAY TUNED FOR PART 2!

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