Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook

One of the environmental community’s most prominent critics of U.S. farm and food policy offers his take on choosing the right food.

For more than two decades, Ken Cook has aggressively campaigned to overhaul federal agricultural policy. He's the president and co-founder of Environmental Working Group, a public interest research and advocacy organization focused on protecting human health and the environment, and widely recognized as a leading voice on federal chemicals and pesticides law. He's authored dozens of articles, opinion pieces and reports on environmental, public health and agricultural topics and, in 2011, was named to journalist and food movement icon Michael Pollan's list of the "world's 7 most powerful foodies." Cook has also appeared as himself in several documentaries.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Ken Cook, the president and cofounder of the Environmental Working Group, is one of those applauding the groundbreaking GMO labeling law in Vermont.

He’s an outspoken advocate for consumer rights when it comes to our food supply and has also taken a stand, a strong stand, against the extension of the far-reaching farm bill, which continues to provide millions of dollars in farm subsidies for big ag, agriculture, while cutting food support programs for working families. A delight, sir, to have you on this program.

Ken Cook: It’s my pleasure.

Tavis: And thank you for your work all these many years.

Cook: You’re very kind, thanks.

Tavis: I want to get to some of that work in just a second here. You just saw me talk to Vermont Governor Shumlin. What’s your take on this, what I think is going to be groundbreaking legislation?

Cook: You’re exactly right. This is a watershed, Tavis. The groups that have been working on this issue for so many years have been waiting for one state to tip. We’ve had victories in Connecticut and Maine, but those victories to establish labeling of GE food, genetically engineered food, those are contingent on other surrounding states taking action too.

In Vermont, this is a freestanding bill. In 2016, Vermont will require that food that’s sold in the state has to be labeled if it has genetically engineered ingredients in it.

A huge change after the defeats we’ve experienced in the ballot box, at the ballot box in California and more recently in Washington state. But we’ve built momentum and I think we’re seeing it pay off in Vermont.

Tavis: You saw me ask him a moment ago why it is that the advances that are being made on these kinds of issues are being made at the state level and at the local level, whether we’re talking about GMOs or minimum wage increases.

So much, it seems these days, Ken, is being done at the local level; so little, it seems, is being done in Washington. What do you make of that? Why is not Washington – this is the work that you do. Why are we not seeing more leadership on this issue in Washington?

Cook: On this issue I think the main reason is because our political system’s been bought and paid for by the companies who have an interest in keeping consumers in the dark.

Chemical companies that want to make sure that they are free to sell whatever products they want to spray on crops and whatever genetically engineered plants they want to spray them on.

And politicians that too often are in the thrall of these companies and in their debt. We don’t have any way to raise $40 million to fight these battles. That’s just the amount of money that the food companies and Monsanto and a few other chemical companies spent in California to defeat a ballot measure.

And in Washington, it’s hundreds of lobbyists, millions and millions of dollars in campaign contributions, and a lack of political courage. But I think the breakthrough is happening now, because we’ve made this, ironically, a kitchen table discussion about food.

About time, right? Once we’ve done that, we’re now seeing that people are saying what’s obvious to most of us. We just want to know what’s in our food. We want to be able to take some of the power in our own hands, in part because we no longer believe that Washington is looking after us. We think Washington’s looking after these corporations that hold such sway.

Tavis: Yeah. So it’s possible for the companies you’ve just mentioned, and there are certainly many more beyond that, but this food manufacturing industry, writ large, it’s possible – I’m not even going to say probable, but always possible that they could win this fight in the court system.

Again, I don’t think probable, and neither does the governor, because I said to him a moment ago, as you just saw, that you’re going to sign this bill tomorrow and you’re going to get sued the very next day. So he’s got to know that’s coming.

Cook: Maybe that afternoon.

Tavis: Yeah, that afternoon. (Laughter)

Cook: Right, exactly.

Tavis: Same day, yeah, yeah.

Cook: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: So he’s got to know that’s coming. So they might be able to prevail in the court system, but they are ultimately, it seems to me, going to lose this battle in the court of public opinion. So let me ask you to completely do a 180 for me.

Cook: Yeah.

Tavis: If you are of counsel, if you’re the chief marketing officer, if you’re in charge of public relations for one of these companies and we’re about to see very quickly that they’re on the wrong side of this issue, they’re going to be telling us that no, you don’t need to have a label, that you don’t need to know what we’re putting in your food.

How, a few months, a few years down the road, does that make you look to your customers, to your clients, to consumers, when we see how you played your cards?

Cook: It’s a loser. It’s a complete loser. They’re basically trying to turn back this tide of consumer interest to know how their food is produced, where it’s produced, who’s produced it, what’s in it.

That is what is the most dynamic part of the food industry now. What parts of the food industry are growing by leaps and bounds? Organic, the segments that label food if it’s not GMO.

Tavis: But that’s my question, though, Ken.

Cook: Yeah.

Tavis: That’s my question. Why fight that if you can see where the tide is turning and where it’s headed? Why fight that?

Cook: I think some of these food companies are beginning to have second thoughts. I honestly believe that we’re going to see some of them peel away from this fight against a right to know, because they begin to understand they’ve been given bad advice.

They’re basically carrying the water for pesticide companies, which no food company in their right mind wants to do. But fundamentally, they’ve been fighting to maintain control of the marketplace.

They want to be able to tell consumers on their terms what they want consumers to know. This is a very threatening situation for them, to suddenly have consumers revolting at the ballot box or in state legislatures and saying, you know, we’ve got a different idea about what our rights are, and we want to be able to exercise them.

If you’re on the other side of that, we’ll fight you. We’ll make this a subject of discussion.

Tavis: But why invest all that money now, in a few years end up losing, and bankrupt yourself?

Cook: Well some of these experts aren’t very good at marketing, it turns out, in my opinion. (Laughter) I think -

Tavis: I just don’t – it seems like a no-brainer to me.

Cook: No.

Tavis: It’s like, why would you fight that?

Cook: We feel the same way, and we see it every day from the people who sign up for this campaign. Millions of people signing up for it, clearly voting with their support for the organizations that are fighting on their side.

We also see it in the grocery stores. If you talk to executives in the retail grocery industry now, they will tell you the hottest items are the ones that are marked non-GMO, the ones that are marked organic, because consumers have heard enough about this debate that they want change.

As I’ve said to several people just recently here, we lost in California, we got about 48 percent of the vote after industry spent $40 million to kill a right-to-know initiative.

Well if you’re in business, 48 percent market share lost is not a good thing. You may have won an election, but you lost a lot of market share and you talked about a topic these food companies really don’t want to be talking about.

Tavis: So let me shift slightly. I went apoplectic on radio when this farm bill passed some months ago, and I went apoplectic for a couple of reasons. One, because of what was in it, which we’ll get to in just a second, and the harm, the damage, that it was doing to poor people already suffering in this country.

But also I kind of lost it because with all due respect to Debbie Stabenow, who I like, the senator out in Michigan, never done anything to me, always been kind to come on as a guest on this program.

But I was upset with her, I was upset with Barack Obama, I’m still upset with all these Democrats who signed off on this. Now I understand what their rationale and their reasons were for doing it, but when you look at what this thing does, particularly to poor people, in favor of a bill that gives these subsidies to big ag, I just for the life – I’m not naïve – for the life of me, I don’t get that.

I was mad then, I’m still mad now. You were on the program to talk about it. But how did you view what that was all about, that farm bill?

Cook: Well we were mad about it from the get-go too. Look, we’re an environmental organization, and we worry about toxic chemicals and pesticides that might be in food that kids are eating.

But when it comes to the farm bill, we found it impossible to not also be worried that kids had enough to eat, right? That’s what this food stamp debate was about. Our top priority in the farm bill was to protect the food stamp program, even though we’re an environmental group, and I’ll tell you why.

Half of the beneficiaries are kids. Half of the beneficiaries are kids, and there are a huge number of seniors and other people who’ve been down on their luck, people with disabilities. To take money away from them and at the same time shower more money on the biggest, most profitable farm organizations, operations, in the country, was just patently wrong.

The dynamics of it, of these farm bills, have always been bad for doing the right thing. We never seem to have enough time to come up with the right solution. The right solution here would have been cut some money from the insurance subsidies, the crop subsidies, and invest in the environment and families that need help.

That also is a no-brainer. We were very disappointed. Senator Stabenow has been a great champion for many things that we care about -

Tavis: Absolutely.

Cook: – and even in that farm bill, it would have been a mess without her, a huge mess without her. So we are grateful for that, but we also feel like we need to stand up and say look, this is no time, with 46, 47 million Americans in the SNAP program, this is no time to cut a penny from it.

In fact the benefits are so modest and the means testing is so brutal, if you’re a family of three and you make more than $24,000 in your household a year, you’re too rich to qualify for this program in most states.

So we’re talking about very tough means testing for people who oftentimes, just because a factory closed down or jobs moved to another state, they have no option but to be on food stamps, and they’ve got kids in their household.

They’ve got grandparents. We ought not to be taking the farm bill’s budget-balancing act out on them.

Tavis: Is it possible that everyday people, that fellow citizens, can ever get on the front side of these debates? I’m asking that because you made the point a moment ago that we always seem to lose when this farm bill comes up.

Cook: Yeah.

Tavis: However many years goes between farm bills, every time it comes up, they always win, big ag always win, everyday people always lose, even though we know it’s going to come up for renewal five, seven years down the road. We lose every time.

Cook: I think it’s important to just change the politics of it. We’ve seen some champions come forward. We saw a lot of Democrats this time vote against the farm bill, and they were supported by a lot of folks out there, including myself, who basically said look, register your opposition to this vote.

Don’t vote it over the finish line so overwhelmingly. It was a pretty close vote. They actually failed to pass the bill last summer in the House of Representatives for the first time in memory.

I’ve worked on nine farm bills. That was the first time I’ve ever seen it go down in the House, because Democrats held together and said the cuts to the food stamp program were too deep.

When it came to getting to the finish line there was so much pressure to get a bill to avoid some of the problems that are built into the underlying law, these booby traps, that if you don’t extend a farm bill and renew it, you cause bigger problems.

Some Democrats really felt that pressure, but a lot of them voted against it, a number of Republicans voted against the bill. They thought it was too generous to agri-business. That was one of their main concerns.

So look, we’ve got to keep the fight up. We’ve got to hope that leaders in the House and the Senate will return to an understanding that we help people in this country when they need it, and that we are not going to continue to tip things in the direction of these big farm operations for the sake of buying some votes.

Tavis: Ken Cook from the Environmental Working Group. I think this train’s left the station.

Cook: Yeah. (Laughs)

Tavis: And I think that the right to know about what’s in our food and the right to know about a lot of other things in this country, I think that train’s already left the station, and those who are fighting it are going to find themselves getting slammed.

Cook: Wrong side of history, all of them.

Tavis: I think you’re right. Ken, good to have you on.

Cook: Thank you.

Tavis: Thanks for your work.

Cook: Good to see you.

Tavis: You too, my friend.

Cook: My pleasure.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: May 8, 2014 at 3:38 pm