Baptists, other Christians
push for reform in farm bill
By Robert Marus
Associated Baptist Press
WASHINGTON (ABP) —Baptists and other Christian groups are asking Congress to seize an opportunity to reform the way the government relates to farmers—for the sake of the poor in the United States and around the globe, they say.
A group of Christian leaders have urged House members dealing with the 2007 Farm Bill to consider re-prioritizing how the government doles out support for farm subsidies, food stamps, rural development and foreign aid.
“Our nation’s farm policy needs to be guided by a strong moral compass,” said David Beckmann, president of the anti-hunger group Bread for the World, at a Capitol Hill news conference. “An equitable system would not pour federal dollars into the largest farms in America without addressing the needs of those who need help the most.”
The leaders called for more equity in the distribution of the millions of dollars a year in subsidies the government pays to farmers growing many of the nation’s largest crops. The current farm bill, in place since 2002, is up for renewal. But groups such as Bread for the World, the United Methodist Church and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship note that much of the money is no longer helping those for whom the subsidy programs were initially intended.
For example, according to the anti-hunger group Oxfam America, the wealthiest 5 percent of U.S. farm owners get more than half of all the “commodity payments,” or federal subsidies.
For decades, the government has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to farmers in an attempt to stabilize the price markets for the nation’s largest crops. But the program, according to Fritz Gutwein of the Presbyterian Church USA, is having unintended consequences. Gutwein, a Baptist who works in the PCUSA’s hunger office, noted that the largest farms often get the biggest payments, and smaller farms around them can’t compete.
As a result, small-scale farmers are often being forced to sell the land their families have owned for decades to their more successful neighbors, concentrating even more land and crops in the hands of large, corporate farms.
In turn, the exodus of such farmers from small towns in the nation’s heartland has devastated local economies, creating an economic ripple effect, the leaders said. Baptists have begun to notice that problem due to their increasing involvement in rural economic-development efforts, such as CBF’s Rural Poverty Initiative.
“We know in Baptist life … that we’ve focused a lot on rural development and what’s happening in our rural communities, and we’re seeing that people are fleeing rural communities because they can’t afford to stay on the farms any more because small farms are being bought out,” he said.
Gutwein also noted that the subsidies also have an international effect. For example, cotton growers in sub-Saharan Africa and rice growers in Haiti can’t compete with subsidized American imports.
“We’re seeing that we are inviting people in countries all over the world to come and be part of the global economy, and yet the subsidies of the agricultural products here in the U.S. create an unlevel playing field for them,” he said.
The bill also authorizes federal food-stamp programs. Currently, such programs offer an average of only about $1 per meal per recipient. The religious leaders are calling for moving funding away from large-farm subsidies and toward enhancing food stamps, rural development, international aid and eco-friendly farming.
“The current system should be changed in ways that would strengthen communities in rural America, ensure all Americans an adequate, nutritious diet, provide better and more targeted support for U.S. farm families of modest means, and conserve the land for present and future generations,” said a statement from the Religious Working Group on the Farm Bill, whose leaders were represented at the press conference. “In addition, such changes are necessary to unlock the ability of small-holder farmers in developing countries, who comprise the majority of the world’s hungry people, to improve their livelihoods and escape poverty.”
Among the group’s other members are the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the Episcopal Church USA, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sojourners/Call to Renewal and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The Farm Bill is H.R. 2419. The House Agriculture Committee began considering it July 17, and the full House may consider it before adjourning for their August recess.