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Green Acres Spotlight: More with the EWG’s Ken Cook

In part two of our interview with the Environmental Working Group’s Ken Cook, we talked about farm subsidies, food labeling, and what he sees coming down the pike for organic farmers and the industry as a whole.

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.

What do you think it will take to level the playing field for organic producers? One of the things we’ve forgotten to do in these debates is engage people who eat. There’s a lot more of them than there are conventional corn farmers or conventional cotton farmers.

Of course there are no subsidies for organic production. They may be eligible for some programs, but by and large organic farmers have done this on their own without government help, certainly not the kind of government help that’s been passed down generation by generation. Conventional agriculture often has subsidies at the center of the business model. Organic doesn’t.

Let me give you an example. Not too many years ago we did an analysys of farm subsidy information. We published the names of farm subsidy recipients on the internet. A few years ago we realized there was one cotton farmer down south who got $2 million in subsidies in one year, 2004. That was the same amount that was spent in that same year for all of our national research on organic agriculture. One cotton farm got as much money as we were spending as a nation on basic research for organic agriculture. 

There’s lots of reasons to remind people that they have to look at what they’re spending their money on and not just look at the price. But people do, right? It’s the real world. For a lot of people the recession’s not over, so they’re watching their spending. They want to do the right thing, but sometimes they can’t afford it.

We’re going to need to invest in organic in order to scale up. Until we do that, we’re not going to see a level playing field. So the way to make the case is to go to those parents out there who are shopping for their kids. I can tell you for a fact, I don’t care if you’re republican or democrat, I don’t care if you’re representing big agriculture in your day job or not, if you’ve got little kids and you’ve got a sophisticated sense of how you want to raise them with respect to the food they eat, you’ve got organic food in your refrigerator. I’m willing to bet the most conservative members of the house and senate, if they’ve got little kids, they’ve got organic food in their kitchen. Even if they don’t talk about it publically very much,  they’ve told me. And if we’ve made that impression there, we’ve made it in a lot of places.

So our goal should be to get those parents speaking out. Get those people who have had a health scare, get that “wake up” moment. Does anyone not have someone close to them who’s had breast cancer or someone who’s experienced some other form of disease related to nutrition or contaminants in food? We all know someone like that. Those are the people we need to energize and activate and get them to realize their tax money is theirs to spend, not the vested interests that walk the hall of Congress these past 40 years getting farm subsidy money. It’s the public’s money. Once people start thinking like that we can start leveling the playing field.

How can you tie food, farms, and the environment together? When I encounter a skeptical consumer, maybe a parent who doesn’t know if they should be spending that extra bit of money for a gallon of organic milk, what I say is “Look, the most important thing to remember is the environment isn’t something outside of us. The environment is something we’re metabolizing literally every moment of the day.” We’re breathing air, we’re drinking water, we’re eating food. And so if that environment has contaminants in it that might raise concerns about health, we owe it to ourselves to think through how we can avoid those chemical exposures. Once you get people thinking about that connection, they can move back from the grocery aisle and begin to learn about the source of the food. It’s a gateway for people, particularly parents. I don’t care how you’re building your family, when you get a kid in your household, that’s a moment to think very differently about a lot of things you do, and food is a place to start.

Children are not little adults. They way they grow, the way their brains and organs form, the explosive way in which they’re expanding their nervous system, all of their biological activities in their first months and years of life, a chemical can have a far more profound impact and can be much greater per unit of body weight than it would ever be for an adult. They’re not just little adults, they’re completely different organisms. When you recognize that, you know that it really matters what you feed them and what they’re exposed to.

We know from our studies of umbilical cord blood, which I’ll be talking about at your conference, that babies are exposed to hundreds of synthetic industrial chemicals and pollutants in the womb, before they even come into the world. It’s circulating in the umbilical cord along with the oxygen that sustains them in the womb and the nutrients that help them grow. So any opportunity to reduce these exposures, in food and in other dimensions of life, is important.

And you can do it without giving up modern life! We don’t all have to go live in a yurt. We don’t have to grow our own tomatoes. We don’t have to live an alien life in the middle of America. We have the privilege and ability to do a lot to reduce these exposures and still live in modern society. Organic offers that opportunity for people.

A few less food expenditures away from home and a little bit more cooking combined with organic is a combination that can give you a far lower exposure to chemicals, healthy food, and can also give you the benefits of eating together as a family. You can get some incredible benefits and still do it within your current budget or even less.

Part of it is a revolution in thinking about food that involves cooking and involves knowing where your food comes from, the ingredients, the farmers. When you put all that together, it’s a pretty appealing package. People who are into food now are increasingly into healthy food. I’m 62, so when I was growing up fine food meant going to a French restaurant and eating the kind of fatty food.

Now it means, at least increasingly in the United States, local and organic ingredients. You can’t come across a celebrity chef now who isn’t talking about health. And you can hardly come across a celebrity doctor who isn’t talking about food! They’re all talking about the same food—healthy, whole food, organic when possible, making it simple in terms of preparation. Focusing on the food itself, and focusing on the fact that it’s healthy and nutritious and, ideally, organic. So for me it’s a package of things. Look for that moment of intervention.

What’s coming down the pike for EWG? I think we’re going to be focusing a lot more on spreading the organic message. Part of the reason I’m so excited about coming down to the conference is we see this as a great opportunity to do that with an organization that’s done some pretty impressive things in Georgia. We’re honored to have a role in your proceedings there.

We’re going to be talking a lot more to consumers about the benefits of organic. We’re working with organic companies around the country to start doing that more. We’re very much involved in stewardship efforts and we see organic as a beacon with respect to how the land should be treated by agriculture. There’s tremendous potential there.

We’ll continue to speak out about concerns we have about ethanol and the current farm subsidy system. We really worry that we’re just chewing up the land for the sake of ever-increasing production of conventional crops that are usually industrial in nature, and that we’ve built a set of policies simply to absorb that overproduction by ethanol and exports and other things.

Will any of your efforts address food labeling? We’ll be talking a lot about the difference between organic and natural. We’ll be urging consumers to make that distinction. We’ll be talking a lot more about labeling genetically engineered ingredients when they’re in food.

As an organization that comes late to the GMO issue, but has been involved in organic since way back when the National Organic Standards were established—we had a big role in that legislative fight in the 1990 Farm Bill—we think food should be clearly labeled, and we think genetically modified organisms in food deserve a label and the American people want it. But food that’s labeled GMO-free is not necessarily labeled organic. We have to be careful that consumers don’t come away with the impression that that is the case.

There’s a big difference between organic and Non-GMO Certified. I have a lot of friends who are involved with Non-GMO Certified, both the development of the seal and the supporters of that organization, and I think that’s been helpful, but they are also big supporters of organic. They don’t see it as a substitute. So we’ve got some work to do with consumers.

The way to think about it is that the more people are talking about what’s in their food, including GMOs, the more they’ll get on a path to understanding that the organic value proposition is really the gold standard for food. My hope is that once they get on that path of inquiry and awareness, they’ll find their way to organic. But we have our work cut out for us making sure that they just don’t stop at non-GMO certified.

What are some positive stories you’ve heard from farmers about EWG’s work? A lot of big farmers who have their names on our farm subsidy database for receiving a lot of money, especially the very conservative blow-hards who want to get the government out of everyone’s lives except for the payment that lands in their account from the USDA, except for them, we’ve heard a lot of farmers say “Look, thanks for making it clear that in fact we have an agriculture system here in this country that’s very dependent on farm subsidies.”

The conventional farming system is very dependent on subsidies. It’s the people’s money, and we should determine how we spend it, and who should get how much. The little guy out there doesn’t stand much of a chance of renting a little more land if the guy down the road has a much bigger spread and much bigger payments pretty much unlimited by current policy. He’s got the government bankrolling his expansion and the little guy does not.

Organic farmers are nice people. They believe in what they’re doing, they grow their crops, take them to market, they’re not used to mucking around with government subsidies. Their business model is not built around government payments, and as a consequence, they tend not to get into these disputes the way conventional growers do.  Sometimes you can hardly tell if conventional growers are growing food or if they themselves are producing the pesticides because they seem to be such strong supporters of pesticides.

I think a lot of small and medium-sized organic farmers are happy to see the attention we’ve been able to bring to some of these issues. It’s not their job to do it, but they value a debate where it’s clear that everyone isn’t in the same boat with respect to the government support. And that there are farmers who aren’t in the same boat with respect to the use of chemicals, that there are a lot of farmers concerned about it for their families’ health, concerned because they don’t like what it’s done to the land. We’ve had a tremendous amount of positive feedback, and we’re very grateful for that.

What would success look like for the Environmental Working Group? Success would look like continued growth in the organic sector. Growth that allows not just bigger players to grab more of the market, but also an organic sector that continues to provide opportunities for the small, medium-sized, and beginning growers to make a living from it. For us in the organic agriculture space, that really is the metric. We want to see organic grow, we want more and more people to be able to go into a grocery store or co-op or farmers market and, over time, have more offerings of organic food simply because the sector has been supported by the marketplace. Consumers have recognized the value of investing in it. There’s nothing more important to us than seeing that growth continue, and we’re here to spread the word and help organic grow in the years ahead.

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