Saturday Series: An Interview with Kari Hamerschlag

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By Emilie Schnarr and Carly Chaapel

In our new Saturday Series, we interview inspiring people that our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone?  E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Kari Hamerschlag, Senior Food and Agriculture Analyst of the Environmental Working Group. (Photo credit: Kari Hamerschlag)

Name: Kari Hamerschlag

Location/Affiliation: Environmental Working Group (EWG)

Bio: Kari is the Senior Food and Agriculture Analyst at the Environmental Working Group. Her work focuses on food and agriculture policy for local, healthy, organic, and sustainable options. The agriculture branch of the EWG is best known for its extensive farm subsidy database and its voice for strong environmental health standards within agricultural policy.

In your opinion, what is the best way for the public to become involved in Farm Bill decision-making processes?

First the bad news: It’s unfortunately not easy to get involved since so much goes on behind closed doors in Congress. The good news is that you should get involved anyway, because if people don’t, we’ll get more of the status quo, and I think we can agree that the status quo is failing us. Here are four easy ways to jump in:

·         Get informed. The first step to being effectively involved is to get informed so you’re credible, confident, and can educate others. Key sources of information include EWG’s daily policy plate and twitter feed, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition website, and various high-quality food and sustainability blogs like Grist and Civil Eats.

·         Stay Informed. I would also urge people to join organizations like EWG and Food Democracy Now because we keep our supporters informed and let you know when to take action on important Farm Bill and other food policy votes.

·         Spread the word. Once you have good information, share it with as many people as possible via email, in-person conversations, Twitter, Facebook or whatever social media platform your network uses. People learn more from trusted peers than anywhere else.

·         Speak up. It’s important for House and Senate offices to hear from their constituents that food policy matters to them. Despite so many Americans caring deeply about the food they eat and the farms that grow it, food policy is a very low priority for many Congressional offices, partly because they just don’t hear from people about it. So call your representative and senators to let them know that food policy is important to you and that you want to see action from them. Sending an email is good, but picking up the phone is even better–and you need not be a policy expert to do it.  It’s easy to find the local phone number for your representatives in Congress here.
Is the public voicing their opinions regarding Farm Bill issues sufficiently? Have you seen an increase or stagnation in the level of public involvement and outreach?

No, the public is not sufficiently engaged. Political engagement on this issue is far behind the explosive interest in food issues that we see in all corners of our country. More than ever before people are concerned about where their food comes from and how it was grown. Yet we do not see the groundswell of people who care about these issues communicating with their representatives. But it’s not just the general public. In general, the public interest community has not stood up strongly enough to fight for a bill that invests in local and healthy food and protects conservation. As EWG’s President Ken Cook recently stated, “For the ‘food movement,’ the Senate Farm Bill has been another, rather sobering reminder that until we develop political muscle to match our passion for a sustainable food system, we’ll continue to see billions of dollars misspent on industrial agriculture.”

On the other hand, we were thrilled to see so many food leaders, authors, doctors, and celebrity chefs join together and sign on to a letter urging serious reform of the Farm Bill in the Senate. Many of these leaders shared information about the Farm Bill with tens of thousands of their Facebook fans and Twitter followers, and many of those folks were then motivated to take action around this Farm Bill. We need to continue reaching out beyond the traditional public interest community in order to match the power of the big agriculture lobby.

How satisfied are you with the level of improvement in the proposed 2012 Farm Bill in comparison to that of 2007? What flaws still exist?

I am not very satisfied. In some cases, we took big steps backwards. While the Senate Farm Bill made important reforms by eliminating direct payments, this bill will continue to give away tens of billions of taxpayer dollars in subsidies to the nation’s largest, most profitable, and environmentally-damaging farm businesses and insurance companies. To pay for this giveaway, the Senate bill slashed conservation programs by US$6.5 billion and cut food stamps by US$4.5 billion. It also cut vital programs for rural development and beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.

The committee could simply have ended the widely discredited direct payment program and redirected the money to healthy food or conservation programs that benefit the public and save money in the long run. Instead, legislators created an expensive new entitlement program (called “shallow loss”) that guarantees nearly 90 percent of the income of farm businesses already enjoying record profits. It also leaves virtually untouched a bloated US$9-billion-a-year crop insurance program that pays about 60 percent of farmers’ crop insurance premiums, and sends billions to crop insurance companies and their agents.

Most of the benefits of these proposed programs would flow to the big five commodity crops (corn, soy, cotton, rice and wheat) that provide feed for livestock, raw material for processed food, and corn ethanol fuel for our cars. Meanwhile, millions of consumers lack access to affordable fruits and vegetables. The Senate bill will do very little to increase the already low levels of funding in the bill for fruits and vegetables.

Little, however, is better than nothing. There were several bright spots in the Senate bill. Under Senator Stabenow’s leadership, additional money was directed to local food promotion and a new fruit and vegetable incentive program. In addition, several important amendments were approved on the Senate floor that will reduce crop insurance premium subsidies for the wealthiest farmers while requiring farmers who do receive crop insurance subsidies to meet minimum conservation standards.

What are some particular incidences that give you hope that the food system is changing for the better?

Even though we haven’t scored many food victories in the policy arena lately, consumer demand for locally grown, sustainable food is growing in every corner of the country, with more than 100,000 growers now serving more than 160,000 outlets. In 2011, 7,175 farmers markets were open for business, more than double the number in 2002. An estimated 6,000 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs are delivering food directly from the farm to consumers, and more than 2,000 Farm-to-School programs are up and running, a five-fold increase since 2004. Additionally, over 300 universities are involved with the Real Food Challenge and over 360 hospitals have committed to sourcing more nutritious, locally grown food through the Healthy Food in Health Care pledge. And for the fourth year in a row, locally sourced food is the top restaurant food trend in 2012.

In the United States, more grocery stores are carrying food produced locally, or from farms within the state, with clear labels for customers. At the same time we are seeing consistent growth in the organic sector, with US$32 billion in sales this year. Overall meat consumption is down, and demand for pasture-raised meat and meat raised without antibiotics is up. This increased demand and production of sustainably grown food is extremely encouraging and will only get stronger with time. Growth would occur much more quickly with the right policies, but absent good policy, it will still happen, albeit at a slower pace.

How do you maintain a positive attitude given the frustration that you might sometimes internally cope with in the political world?

I try to take the long view and recognize that it takes persistence and a long time to make the kind of change we’re working for. I also get inspiration from the wonderful people in this movement who are all working so hard to improve our food system from the bottom up, even if they aren’t necessarily working to change policy or bad corporate practice.

What inspired you to become a leader in U.S. agricultural policy?

Before working on U.S. agriculture policy, I worked for more than fifteen years in the international policy arena, including work to promote fair trade and improved livelihoods of poor farmers and artisans in the developing world. One day, I was at a meeting in Brazil with fair trade producers and organizations from every Latin American country. As we went around the room, every single person spoke about the need to promote fair trade and better markets within their own countries. They verbalized the need for consumer demand and closer ties between consumers and producers, which is essentially a form of domestic fair trade. They also spoke about the negative impact that U.S. agricultural policies have on poor producers in developing countries. At that point, I realized that I wanted to go back to the United States and dedicate myself to creating a fairer and more sustainable food system in the U.S., in addition to policies that are better for family farmers in the U.S. and abroad.

How much improvement in the U.S. food system have you observed during your career?

On balance, I would have to say very little overall.  On the one hand, there is much greater availability of local, healthy, and sustainable food in restaurants, supermarket shelves, hospitals, universities, and some of our public schools throughout the country. And this demand translates into more viable family farms and better management practices on our land, which protects vital soil, air, water, and wildlife resources.  This is a major bright spot. I am also encouraged by the new school lunch standards, which will effectively double fruits and vegetables served in school, and the growing public awareness around the links between health and food. This is all very positive.

But even as the demand for healthy and sustainable food grows in some places, the consumption of unhealthy food seems to grow ever faster with alarming rates of childhood diabetes, obesity, and other diet-related diseases. And annual consumption of healthy fruits and vegetables has actually declined by 9 pounds per person over the past decade.

The unbridled power of big food to dominate politics, produce unhealthy food products, and then spend billions to market these to kids and adults with no restraints is a huge barrier to improving our food system. And while meat consumption may finally be subsiding, the U.S. appetite for meat and dairy is taking a huge toll on our health, the environment, the climate, and animal welfare.

While we have seen some important improvements in animal welfare practices, and there are industry efforts underway to increase efficiencies and reduce environmental damage, the impacts of this industry and agriculture overall have gotten worse over time. Federal farm subsidies geared towards the largest operations and government corn ethanol mandates have put unprecedented pressure on our water, soil, and wildlife habitats. Backed by federal policy and billions in tax dollars, mega farms continue to plow up native prairies and drain wetlands in order to maximize their production at a high cost to the environment. Crop field runoff is particularly acute as farmers slather toxic fertilizer and pesticides on already stressed soil to squeeze out extra bushels of corn and soybeans. These farm chemicals grow dead zones that wreak havoc on fisheries and contaminate drinking water supplies.

Emilie Schnarr and Carly Chaapel are research interns with the Nourishing the Planet project.

Read our other Saturday Series interviews: Mary McLaughlin, Bruce Melton, and Sarah Alexander.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one-minute book trailer, click HERE.


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