Articles, Blog

Turning the Farm Bill into the Food Bill: Ken Cook at TEDxManhattan

January 3, 2020


Translator: Bob Prottas
Reviewer: Ariana Bleau Lugo Changing the way we eat. It comes down, in the main,
I think to a lot of personal decisions that all of us make about what to eat
and how and when to eat it. But there’s also an important role
for the government. Every year the government
spends tens of billions of dollars, of your money, on our food system. They don’t spend all of it well. Most of it comes about as a consequence of legislation
that Congress enacts every four or five years,
called the Farm Bill. My job today
is to convince you, or trick you, into making advocacy
on the Farm Bill part of your personal choice to change the way all of us eat. Now to kind of bring this
into perspective, let’s start with where we are
right now, and let me give you a view of Manhattan you’ve probably haven’t had before. This is our TEDx conference, and this our TEDx conference
on Farm Subsidies. You probably didn’t know it, but as you were making
your way to the conference today you were passing through throngs
of Federal Farm Subsidy recipients who get their checks
in Manhattan and nearby areas. It really wouldn’t matter if we’d had
this conference in Los Angles, if we’d had it in Dallas, or Chicago, or San Francisco or our nation’s capital. The story would have been the same. One feature of our Farm Subsidy system is payments to absentee owners. We’ve been tracking
Farm Subsidy payments at the Environmental Working Group
for many years. Hundreds of millions
of computer records we obtained through the Freedom Of Information Act, and we publish on our database who gets the money,
and how much they receive. Now, I’m here to tell you
that the subsidy programs have helped and continue to help
a lot of family farmers. But in many important ways,
they are broken, they are outdated, and it’s time to change them, and if you show up
in the next Farm Bill debate, I can’t guarantee you that
that will make a difference, but if you don’t show up,
you meaning everybody who eats, everyone who pays taxes,
one thing I can guarantee you, is we’ll get more of the same. Now, here I’ve charted
farm numbers against Farm Bills, those blobs
are when we’ve enacted Farm Bills. The last one was in 2008,
the next one’s in 2012. Couple of things about the chart, just about the time we were running
out of farmers, Congress got very active. Kind of exciting, see them finally kick in
and do a lot of Farm Bills. The second thing is we’re down
to a couple of million farms. 60% of them do not get
any farm subsidies, nothing. It goes to the big grain,
and cotton operators. The second point to make is,
this is not a problem so much for the rest of us,
as an opportunity because most of our members
of Congress never hear from us. We don’t think we have
anything to do with the Farm Bill. We have, most of us,
very little to do with farming. This means that if we contact
and participate, we can make a big difference, because they’re not used
to hearing from you. And when we’ve done it before,
I’ll show you, we’ve made a big difference. Let’s talk about
the Farm Bill spending pie. Divide it up into 5 segments. $314 billion over a 5-year period,
the period we’re in right now, will go to nutrition programs. The Food Stamp Program
is the biggest part of it. That’s the single biggest item
in the Farm Bill. You see, the Farm Bill
is already a food bill, we can make it even better. About $60 billion more
over that period, for farm subsidies, $22 billion
for conservation programs, and then all the rest is
shoehorned in to about $15 billion. Let’s take a look
at each one of these in turn. Nutrition, the Food Stamp Program. When the Great Recession
gripped our economy in 2008, the Food Stamp enrollment
skyrocketed. We added over 15 million people
in the space of just over one year. Today, 43 million Americans
are enrolled in the Food Stamp Program. Half of them are kids,
poor kids, very poor kids. A family of 3 cannot qualify
for this Food Stamp Program if it makes more than $23,800. The benefits are meager, about $4.50 a day,
a buck and a half a meal. For most beneficiaries
the Food Stamp benefits run out by the second or third week
of each and every month. This is their lifeline. This makes the Farm Bill
already a food bill. And even though we’re
an environmental organization, our top priority in this next Farm Bill, will be the same as it was
in the last several Farm Bills, which is to say,
making sure that this program continues to serve
low-income people, and the new leadership in Washington has drawn,
as it were, a bull’s-eye on it. Farm subsides, $60 billion. Of course our database
tracks payments back to 1995, those are a quarter of a trillion dollars
in farm subsides payments. As I mentioned, 60% of farmers
don’t get subsides. Of those that do, the 10% of the top,
the very largest operators take in 74% of the money. The average payment to large farms
$30,000. Their average income is about
$180,000. For small farms they get about
$4,000. Their average income is $70,000. Still above the average
household income, because most of these
are part time farmers. A couple of other points. Because we mostly subsidize
five crops: corn, wheat, rice,
soybeans and cotton, and they’re grown, not all over
the country, but in the middle, most of the Federal subsidy money
goes there. There are 435 members
of the House of Representatives, 22 of them, and their districts,
get half of all the farm subsidy money. Let’s look at the subsides
for a typical 500-acre corn operation. Let’s see how they stack up. The direct payments are given no matter what farm prices
or income happens to be. It’s automatic, it goes out every year. That comes to about $20,000. On top of that, we subsidize
the insurance premiums for farmers in the event of loss
from weather related disasters. We also pay the claims,
if there are claims against insurance. We meaning not the insurance company,
but taxpayers. We’re now devoting 40% of our corn crop
to produce 4% of our fuel. That artificial demand for ethanol
has driven up corn prices to the tune of about $70,000
for a 500-acre corn operation. And on top of that, we’re now starting
to pay farmers to do something we’ve asked them not to do, tried to get them not to do,
for 2 generations, which is scrap the residue
from your crops off of the farm fields after harvest; leave it there to protect the soil. But now we’re paying them
to cart it off to an ethanol plant to turn it into more fuel.
It’s crazy! I mentioned before that you don’t really
have to farm to get farm subsides. You don’t have to live on the farm. You don’t have to live near the farm. Well, it turns out
you don’t even have to be living, to get farm subsides
(Laughter) as the Government Accountability Office
showed a few years ago, following up on some of our work. And USDA recently reminded us,
encouraged us, that it’s not as bad as we might think. They did a follow-up study,
and they showed that very few dead farmers
who are getting subsides are getting them improperly. (Laughter) So Michael Kinsley was right,
of course. What is shocking, what is scandalous in Washington
is not what’s illegal, it’s what’s legal. Conservation, two points here. You probably don’t realize it,
but the biggest, most expensive, and in some ways
most effective conservation programs for our land and our wildlife,
are funded through the Farm Bill. That’s the first thing. The Conservation Reserve Program
is a good example. Pays farmers to take land out
of production 10-years at a time. They take fragile land
that shouldn’t be planted, they stop the use of pesticides,
artificial fertilizers, planted the grass and trees. It’s been a boon to our country. Erosion control has been dramatic, increased the acreage of wetlands that have been vanishing
at a rapid rate. We’re starting to turn that around. Protecting streams
by planting strips alongside, between the crop field
and the stream to cut the pollution. And we’ve brought the Central Flyway
and the Pacific Flyway literally back to life through
this Conservation Reserve Program. The substance alone is enough
to convince you, I hope, that this is worthwhile,
a good expenditure of your money. But here’s the kicker. This program was introduced
by outsiders, party crashers. In 1985, a small group of us and some environmental organizations
who backed us up, more of our farm investment
in conservation to undo to try and undo some of the damage the Farm Subside programs
were doing. Now there’re 400,000 farmers
in this program. It’s one of the most popular programs
in the country. Outsiders, like you,
can make a difference. But we’re not finished yet, we still have
some pretty serious problems we’re trying to solve,
and we need to tighten up the rules we also put in place in 1985
that require farmers to obey conservation standards in order
to receive farm subsides. And then, there’s all the rest. $15 billion.
What do we squeeze into that? Everything for rural development. All of our agricultural research
and a couple of other things that might be close to home, like our investment
in organic agriculture. This is a part of the food system
that has exploded. It’s now a $25 billion industry. But if you look at its presence
on the landscape it’s a very different story. In total, we devote about
814 million acres of land to crops and livestock
in this country. What is the share of that,
that is organic? Can you see it? (Laughter) That little red line? All these years later,
a $25 billion industry, and it’s operating off less
than 1% of our farmland, 4.7 million acres. Why? We haven’t invested
to help farmers solve some of the problems
they have to farm organically. We haven’t done what
the Europeans have done, invest so that farmers can convert from chemical intensive agriculture
to organic. It’s shocking, but it’s right there
as an opportunity for all of us, if we only ask. And then there are all the programs, all the ideas that deserve money,
but aren’t getting them. That pie’s going to be
under enormous pressure, it’s not going to grow in this Congress. We’re all going to be trying
to defend our own slice of it. But what about great ideas,
like Tom Harkin’s program to bring healthy fruits
and vegetables as snacks to kids all over the country? It’s still in pilot phase,
it ought to be nationwide. Or my friend Chef Ann Cooper,
she wants a salad bar in every school. It’s a great idea. Hook kids on fresh fruits and
vegetables from the very beginning. But it’s going to take money. Now here’s my message to you. Every day, according to
the American Time Use Survey, done by our government,
released every few years, we spend 28 minutes eating
while we’re doing something else, only the government would call it that,
we would call it snacks. (Laughter) We spend 87 minutes a day
drinking something other than water, while we’re doing something else. Otherwise known as drinking. (Laughter) Here is my request. Give yourself,
give all of us 3 snack moments, 3 drinking moments
over the course of the next year and pick up your phone
and call your member of congress, tell them you want
a Farm Bill that’s a food bill, that protects the land, that protects low-income people
who need the benefits, that invests in organic agriculture
and healthier school lunches. If you do it, again
I can’t guarantee that they will listen, if you don’t do it, I can promise you
we’ll get more of the same, and it’s not good enough. Thank you. (Applause)

17 Comments

  • Reply James Pott April 6, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    It's even worse! 90% of all the billions of subsidies go to less than 10% of the farmers who like Dr Ace said are not even involved in real food production

  • Reply Matt Powers April 6, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    Ken Cook is an American hero!! We really owe him and the EWG so very much!!

  • Reply rrealrose April 6, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    Ah this is a great presentation! Especially when you realize how many members of congress are receiving these benefits.
    I am still waiting for someone to start a new fad: roto-till suburban front yards and plant a victory garden! Just think how much less pollution or run off from lawn chemicals that would save. Nevermind eating absolutely fresh vegetables without paying all those hiking transportation costs.

  • Reply Suzzy De. April 7, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    I love the EWG and all the work they do!

  • Reply Karen Kan April 7, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    Wow! I had no idea. Thanks for a great presentation!

  • Reply Carol Sawall June 26, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    Great video, but as an African American I resented the link with food stamps with our race. In truth most food stamps go to whites, and this is a well known fact.

  • Reply Paul Isham June 27, 2011 at 2:49 am

    yeah, musads, he made a mistake by showing the African Americans when he was talking about food stamps. We should write him a letter.

  • Reply bctopper September 27, 2011 at 4:34 am

    @tgifur2 I agree with you

  • Reply Darren Dolezel March 27, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    This is very informative but small farms especially dairy receive no money at all. Typical that people look past the true meaning and turn everything into racism that's why this country will be in the shitter in less then ten years. If the shoe fits……………….

  • Reply Others1212 January 18, 2013 at 4:34 am

    HEY CATLINERS

  • Reply raiderrob672 January 22, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    This all sounds great but is just more Agenda 21 propagand.keep all the poor people on food stamps is what they want.

  • Reply Katy Luttrull September 9, 2013 at 11:51 pm

    as one of the "evil hated big farmers" i can tell you that failed to inform his crowd that there are limits on the amount of money an farmer can get. the super big farms are getting direct payment on every acre like the "mom and pop" farms are. At the end of the day its all about buying votes and raising money for the next election. Congressmen need the money from the rich or "hard workers" and the votes from the poor or "less fortunate" or flat lazy.

  • Reply Ms1KIK April 12, 2014 at 8:52 am

    Great to see a lot of positive comments. He's right about organic being lower than industrial agriculture. Seems most of you like the educational enlightenment, & I can't help but suggest watching Netflix (or youtube full episodes) of Food Inc., Farmageddon, and UNTAPPED. My teenager announced her intake changes, why & why I need to accept her stance. After watching those, I have guilt for not paying better attention all these years, & will make changes sooner than later. Buying organic & going Farmers Markets (FYI*some accept Food stamps per videos I mentioned) Bottle water for in home use, STOPS! After research of plastics final stop is in garbage circles of oceans, fish mistaking cancerous plastics for food, &same fish we ingest! Hello!  We're killing ourselves slowly, and the Earth. Please watch above mentioned documentaries…please.

  • Reply deseretfire September 21, 2016 at 10:10 pm

    I don't understand the environmentalist's support for organic. Part of the higher cost for organic foods may be due to higher perceived value in the food, but much of the higher cost is due to a greater amount of resources allocated per pound of organic production. Organic food=inefficient resource allocation.

  • Reply Bruceann Yellowega December 12, 2018 at 3:15 pm

    Food stamp recipients would do much better if they stopped buying junk food. Real potatoes instead of potato chips. 🙃

  • Reply david farmer January 12, 2019 at 5:47 am

    you should also tell them that farmers are the ONLY business in the united states who are NOT allowed to set prices for what they produce.

  • Reply mega lodon January 13, 2019 at 7:02 pm

    most Big Money goes to big Corporations like Archer Daniels Midland corporation and Big ag companies

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