A Conversation With Kam Quarles, Agricultural Policy Executive

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WKQuarles-Post.jpg As the director of legislative affairs in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP, W. Kam Quarles works on agriculture, sustainability, and food safety issues. These are areas he knows well, having served, previously, as the managing director of the Washington, D.C., office for Sunkist Growers; the vice president for legislative affairs and government relations at the United Fresh Produce Association; and the vice president for government affairs at the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. Having worked, early in his career, as a staffer in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, Quarles is an effective lobbyist, making him a choice addition to McDermott Will, one of the 10 largest law firms in the United States. He joined the Washington, D.C., office -- which has more than 200 lawyers -- of the Chicago-based firm in early 2010. Here, he discusses how consumers are taking more interest in their food, the risk that farmers face in bringing crops to market, and why sustainability and technology aren't mutually exclusive.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I work on food and agriculture policy.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

Sustainability is so many things to so many people, its hard to focus on just one idea. I think the big idea is the effort itself; consumers are taking more interest in where their food comes from and that opens an opportunity for dialogue with everyone throughout the supply chain. However, that participation also comes with responsibility from all sides. The conversation should not revolve around a fanciful version of agriculture that only exists at cocktail parties.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

The gigantic amount of risk that farmers endure in bringing these crops to market, and the policy impacts that result. Weather, pests, and diseases, lack of adequate labor, exchange rate fluctuations, futures volatility, spikes in input prices, etc. Any of these variables can make or break a farmer's year. To the people who think there are easy answers to these issues for producers or policymakers, they need to spend some time on a farm.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

I think its the realization that sustainability and technology aren't mutually exclusive. Everyday, we celebrate technological innovation in our cars, our smart phones, and so many products and services. Similarly, as problem-solving voices observe the growth in our global population and the challenges of various climates and economies, the reality is taking hold that technological advancements in agriculture can provide very nutritious benefits for a hungry world.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

The idea that sustainability is somehow divorced from economics. Fair-minded people recognize that enacting "sustainable" benchmarks which result in farmers being unable to sell products for a reasonable margin above their cost of production is, by definition, economically "unsustainable."

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

The industry's approach to climate change. I was heavily involved in an effort to work with policymakers and industry in minimizing the negative impacts of climate change legislation on producers and creating beneficial opportunities. The idea of designing a transparent market for trading of carbon credits was fascinating and held some very interesting opportunities for certain producers. Ultimately, we stayed focused on the objectives of our initiative, but the political environment changed and rendered them unnecessary.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, the commissioner of patents who actively promoted the idea of preserving and distributing new seeds and plant varieties. His efforts ultimately caused him to be recognized as "The Father of the Department of Agriculture." President Abraham Lincoln, for establishing the Department of Agriculture as an independent agency. And Senator Arthur Capper and Congressman Andrew Volstead, who authored the Capper-Volstead Act, which allows small farmers to legally join together as a farmer cooperative and enhance their strength in the marketplace.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Writer.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

Twitter.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"The Dog Days Are Over," by Florence + The Machine.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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