EWG’s Ken Cook Debates Former Ag Chair Larry Combest, Loses

Revised (Addendum added) 3/18/13

Farm Bill Debate:  Ken Cook Vs Larry Combest 

Moderators:  Daryll Ray & Harwood Schaffer


Several years ago, Ken Cook, President of the Environmental Working Group, challenged former House Agriculture Commitee Chairman, Larry Combest, (Republican, Texas, retired, now an Ag etc. lobbyist,) to a debate over the U.S. Farm bill.


To my knowledge, that debate never happened (correct me if I’m wrong).  Now, however, we can get a taste of what might have happened in such a debate, through a sort of written debate between the two, as interpreted by Daryll Ray and Harward Schaffer of the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center at the University of Tennessee.


Q. Which Weak Proposal Wins?  A. Combest


My view and that of APAC is that both sides to the debate offer quite weak proposals, because neither deals with the elephant in the room, the reality of price inelasiticity, the “lack of price responsiveness” “on both the supply and the demand sides for aggregate agriculture.”  The only proposals that address those realities are those of the National Family Farm Coalition and the National Farmers Union, both of which have been the subject of econometric research by APAC (NFFC’s proposal, in general, and NFU’s proposal, specifically (latest pdf report and presentation).


Between the two, however, EWG and Combest, I give the victory to Combest, as does APAC.  The reason for this is general and fundamental.  Combest, while offering a weak solution, gives a much stronger analysis of the problem that a Farm Bill must address.  Then, relatively speaking, his solution is much stronger than Cook’s.  


Here are a couple of the key points that Ray and Schaffer make.  In their column on the EWG proposal they point out that “they err in their definition of the function of a safety net,” by leaving out the revenue issue, the problem of low farm market prices, the lack of price responsiveness.  Their proposals then offer nothing to address this problem.


Combest, by contrast, is featured in an APAC column because he correctly identifies this problem, and his solution directly addresses it, even if not nearly as well as the kind of policy alternatives that APAC (and I) support.  


I conclude, then, that Combest wins the debate, because he addresses the real and fundamental issue that all Farm Bills must address.  He gives both a rationale and a policy approach that directly address this.  EWG, by contrast neither identify the problem, or offer any solution to it.


On the other hand, both EWG and Combest offer proposals with no Price Floors and No Supply Management, plus no Price Ceilings and no Reserve Supplies.  Neither offer solutions are truly adequate, therefore, solutions that would prevent a massive farm crisis, should market conditions crash.  I conclude, therefore, that neither could win a debate with me.


Who do You Think Won?  Let Me Know Here or on Twitter: @FarmJustice


I've chosen to add a further explanation to this blog, as few members of my primary audiences know enough about the topic to evaluate it well.  By that I mean that progressives, the left, conservatives, moderates and specifically the Food Movement or others doing Farm Bill work rarely understand how the Farm Bill really works and why, (on the biggest issues,) as there's been virtually nothing to teach that in the mainstream media or in vast sectors of these movements over the past decade, in spite of their various books, footnoted reports, films, web sites, etc.

There are a couple of major points I want to make here.  First, Ken Cook and the Environmental Working Group, (though it's been well known that they have played a major role in these misunderstandings, and have been resistant to dialogue and etc. regarding them,) is surely well-meaning working hard in the service of great values.  Without question, my view is that Cook should easily win this debate.  I will explain how he can do that below. 

Second, Larry Combest should lose this debate.  He chaired one of the worst Farm Bills in history (2002) and he should not be given credit for easily winning in debate against progressive voices.  I suspect that he has never favored a decent Farm Bill.  

Third, many people must surely find it confusing that someone like Combest could possibly do something so much better than what the Environmental Working Group is doing, that he could "win the debate."   Again, EWG is a group with great values, intentions and goals.  Combest is a Republican who, like almost all Republicans, almost all the time, has been incredibly bad on the Farm Bill.  It probably takes someone with strong scientific values to draw such a conclusion.  I'm forced to this conclusion by the facts, and sentiment does not sway me. 

The real point here is that farmers do have a little clout with Republicans, in part because farmers often tend to vote Republican.  Help comes from corporate welfare Republicans, not from pure libertarians, (who are the very worst on the Farm Bill).  There are also some major ideological problems here, which help farmers.  Corporate welfare conservtives love to talk the talk of 'free' markets and 'free' trade, but they're in the habit of bowing to corporate pressure for welfare for the rich. In the case of farmers, they have deregulated the markets drastically lowering farm income, even to the point where the US lost money farm exports for a quarter century.  It's clearly anti-American, anti-business, anti-rural (& they're often representing rural states) and anti-farm. The reality of what has happened is also direct real world evidence that the 'free' market ideology has overwhelmingly failed for farmers.  Corporate welfare conservatives haven proven very capable of living with those contradictions.  

What farmers have received is a massive net reduction, but then they got some subsidies back. Conservative farmers, like the politicians, seem quite able to live with the contradiction.  They believe strongly in the very 'free' markets that have overwhemingly failed in the real world, (and failed them and even bankrupted most of them,) but they also accept that they need to be on farm welfare to survive.  These have always been a minority of farmers. 

Farmers also have a little clout with progressive Democrats, who advocated strongly for great Farm Bills, for fair trade Price Floors and related policies, during the 1980s and 1990s, for example. They were unable to win politically or in the media, though they could easily win the debate on substance.  (For example, their proposals were consistently found (ie. in econometric studies,) to generate much more money for US farmers from sales, (including US farm exports,) and to cost much less to taxpayers.  Lacking adequate consumer/taxpayer side support (ie. with no significant Food Movement to help win the fight against cheap corn, etc.,) they all gave up, and took compromise positions, such as trying to green up Republican 'free' market Farm Bills, along the lines of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, for example.  They helped farmers receive a sort of Hooverism plus subsidies, the lowest prices in history and the most rapid devastation of livestock farmers (the rise of CAFOs), but with about the biggest subsidies ever.  It was less than farmers got before they got those record subsidies, but it was more than they might have had, had the Republicans not been opposed at all. 

Behind all of this are a number of myths that I've repeatedly exposed.  What Ken Cook fails to understand is, first of all, the "lack of price responsivenes" "on both supply and demand sides for aggregate agriculture."  


Key References


Daryll E. Ray & Harwood D. Schaffer, Environmental Working Group proposes major changes in farm program, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, November 11, 2011, #589http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/589.html


Daryll E. Ray & Harwood D. Schaffer, Combest’s path to a more effective and less costly farm legislation, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, March 15, 2013 #659, http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/659.html


Parke Wilde, “Farm Bill Debate: Ken Cook v. Larry Combest,” U.S. Food Policy, Friedman School of Nutrition, Tufts University, 8/3/06, http://usfoodpolicy.blogspot.com/2006/08/farm-bill-debate-ken-cook-v-larry.html.


Larry Combest, “The Wrong Way to Turn Off Budget Sequestration,” Farm Policy Facts, (from Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.,) http://news.farmpolicyfacts.org/e_article002638599.cfm?x=bm62wcD,bhlwyLMQ.


Brad Wilson:  “Primer:  Revenue Insurance in the 2012 Farm Bill,” ZSpace, 5/11/12, http://www.zcomm.org/primer-revenue-insurance-in-the-2012-farm-bill-by-brad-wilson.  This “primer” is mainly a collection of links to APAC columns and similar articles about proposals for the 2012 Farm Bill.  


Brad Wilson:  “Primer:  Farm Justice Proposals for the 2012 Farm Bill,” ZSpace, 5/11/12, http://www.zcomm.org/primer-revenue-insurance-in-the-2012-farm-bill-by-brad-wilson. This Primer is a more complete collection of links for the best proposals, those that eliminate the need for Farm Commodity Subsidies like Revenue Insurance.  

Additional Reading

Daryll E. Ray, "Clever Money Delivery Systems," Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, December 29, 2006, column #334.

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