The Farm Bill – will it promote justice and health?

By Barbara Jennings, CSJ

“For people of faith, food production is unlike any other sector of the economy precisely because it is necessary for life itself.” (Department of Social Development and World Peace, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, February 2007)

Public consciousness about the links between food production and public health grows each day, even as we also begin to understand that health, nutrition, conservation and  global trade are all part of the same food system. In our United States, much of this system is controlled by the farm bill, which is once again up for renewal in Congress.
NETWORK and dozens of groups are now working to make people more aware of the broad impact of this important legislation. Anti-hunger groups are partnering with conservation groups; public health groups are joining with fair trade groups; and faith groups are working with animal welfare groups to advocate for a farm bill that will serve the common good.
In December 2006, NETWORK was awarded a grant from OxFam America to educate and lobby on the 2007 farm bill in three states in the Midwest. When NETWORK approached me and asked if I would help with this effort, I enthusiastically agreed. I have been a member of NETWORK since 1982, including seven years on its Board of Directors, and I know how effective we are. We met with some of our partners in this new endeavor, including Bread for the World and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, and it was agreed that NETWORK would focus on Missouri, Iowa and Kansas while other organizations concentrated their advocacy and education in other regions.  
Our values and goals

At NETWORK, we agreed that we would work for a 2007 farm bill that will:
* provide healthy nourishment to those who are hungry and thirsty
* ensure fairness to smaller farmers,
* care for the earth and water,
* and promote the common good for communities around the globe. 

Because farm bills are reworked and reauthorized only every five years, the importance of this legislation is far-reaching. It impacts how America and the world eat, prevent disease, and foster social and economic justice for years to come.

What Farmers Have to Say

Yes, the complexity of the farm bill is daunting, especially since it covers many seemingly unrelated programs (e.g., land conservation and food stamps). We can perhaps better understand it if we trace the path of our food from farms to markets and U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food programs. To help me trace this path, I recently met with farmers in northwest Missouri, where the clay soil supports corn, soybeans, cattle and some dairy farming. 

Dan McLarney, a third-generation farmer, raises corn, soybeans and some cattle on his mid-sized family farm. He has many years of experience with subsidy and conservation programs — and he and his brother have some definite opinions about the role of government and global agricultural issues.

Dan repeated what three other farmers told me about government programs that subsidize the farming of corn, soybeans, wheat and other crops by paying farmers a certain amount per bushel. Dan and the others feel these programs could be eliminated if farmers were paid a fair market price for what they raise.

Instead, farmers, faced with low prices, are forced to increase their yields in order to get the government subsidies so they can survive. How do they increase them? Generally they plant as much as possible, even on less fertile land that may need a lot of chemical fertilizers. This overproduction further lowers prices, and the cycle continues.

Dan does believe that farmers need disaster assistance in bad years. He suggests that government could help farmers buy private disaster insurance with 85% coverage so small farmers and cattle producers would not need to rely on subsidies.   
Dan’s brother, Jim, lives in the city, but retains part ownership of the family farm. Jim also favors fair prices over government subsidies, and he supports government help for crops damaged by weather conditions such as drought, wind, flood and hail. In addition, Jim wants the U.S. government to teach farmers in the U.S and other countries how to grow crops appropriate for global consumption, and to provide assistance such as improved varieties of plants, animals, and better irrigation methods. He feels that the federal government should not pay for large corporations to export surplus grain to India, China and Japan – instead, this should be funded by corporations themselves.
Government programs under the farm bill have a clear impact on what and how much farmers grow, but the truth of the matter is that small and mid-sized farmers gain relatively little when compared with large corporate interests. How did that come to be?

Some History

In 1933, the first “farm bill” was created as a New Deal program to counter the devastating effects of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. That year’s “Agricultural Adjustment Act” was a mix of commodity-specific price supports and income support programs. Over the years, changes were made that, among other things, created acreage allotments and links between soil conservation and commodity programs.

A major change occurred in 1973 that directly impacted our current farm system. That year, it was decided that farmers would receive subsidies instead of price supports. In other words, the farmers’ income would now depend on market forces, with the government stepping in to provide a subsidy when prices dropped below a certain level. As a result, the ability to grow more and more bushels of certain crops (e.g., corn) became a driving force in our food system. Each bushel, no matter what the market price, provided extra money needed to run the farms.

A very helpful source in understanding the overall impact of these changes can be found in The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (Penguin Books, 2006). According to Pollan, instead of paying farmers for production constraint, the new subsidies encouraged farmers to plant as many acres as possible “and to sell their corn at any price, since the government would make up the difference. Or as it turned out, make up some of the difference, since just about every farm bill since has lowered the target price, in order, it was claimed, to make American grain more competitive in world markets.” Of course, major beneficiaries of these lower prices have included large U.S.-based corporations like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, which buy enormous amounts of agricultural products and which, predictably, have played a hand in shaping recent farm bills.

According to Pollan, the U.S. government now spends up to $5 billion a year subsidizing cheap corn. Predictably, this infusion of money has encouraged farmers to grow even more corn, which has resulted in new USDA predictions that U.S. farmers will plant more than 90 million acres this year, the largest acreage in 63 years. This could produce more than 12 billion bushels of corn, with more than 3 million going to ethanol production. 

Although the subsidy checks go to farmers (and represent nearly half of net farm income today), Oxfam America reports that only one-quarter of all farmers are able to qualify for the subsidies. Furthermore, 72 percent of the subsidies go to just 10 percent of the qualifying farms. These, of course, are the largest farms.
The Crops Leave the Farms
After the crops are sold, they usually go in one of three directions: feedlots, consumers, or world markets. Agribusiness and government decide.

A very high percentage goes to feedlots for cattle, pigs and chickens. These feedlots have become notorious in recent years for using grain like corn and soybeans (and hormones) to rapidly fatten up the animals right before slaughter, for crowded and unsanitary conditions, and for the use of antibiotics to keep the animals “healthy.”  Feedlots are one of the reasons organizations like the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association are also lobbying for a good farm bill – one that will promote the eating of healthy alternatives like fresh vegetables and fruits, especially in schools and inner cities.     
The USDA buys a significant amount of processed foods to use in programs such as school lunches and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, a small program that provides food to low-income senior citizens and others in certain states. The items most commonly supplied through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program are macaroni and cheese, beef stew, canned vegetables and fruits, peanut butter, cereal and juice. The CSFP program is on the chopping block in the administration’s proposed farm bill. If it is not authorized, it will not be funded and the administration says the participants will be folded into the food stamp program. There are already thousands of qualified people not in either program due, in part, to lack of funds.     
Children in school lunch programs are also impacted by the farm bill. As with nutrition programs for senior citizens, the food chosen for children’s lunches is most often starchy and filling, full of salt and sugar. In recent years, there has been an epidemic of obesity and diabetes in children caused, in part, by junk food advertised to them on TV (including sweetened cereals and soda pop made from corn fructose, yet another corn product) and unhealthy school lunches. 

Farmers at the beginning of this food chain worry about where some of their crops end up. As Dan and Jim McLarney told me, government-sponsored food programs for children and the elderly should feature healthy eating and be accompanied by exercise and health programs. Ultimately, taxpayer-funded programs should benefit the recipients for whom they were intended instead of big business.    
The third destination for commodity products – corn, soybeans, rice, cotton and wheat – is outside U.S. borders. Subsidized exports can be sold cheaply to developing countries, and this has caused economic hardships for a significant number of farmers in Africa, Mexico and Central America. Many of those impacted have migrated to the U.S. or elsewhere to find new sources of income. NETWORK is working with anti-hunger groups trying to curtail this cheap dumping of grain products while promoting fair trade and fair prices for small farmers in the U.S. and across the globe.
Protecting Our Resources

Conservation is another important part of the farm bill. The Farm and Food Policy Project tells us that U.S. farmers and ranchers control more than half of U.S. lands and are therefore “key to solving many of the nation’s environmental challenges.” How they use their lands has a direct impact on soil, water, air and animals throughout our nation.

We are all hurt when government subsidies and other programs promote overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and “fencerow to fencerow” planting in order to maximize yields. In their place, we need programs that better enable farmers to do what they do best – protect their lands and resources for generations of farmers to come.
The Common Good

The final principle in NETWORK’S farm bill campaign is the most important and all-encompassing: working for the common good. We must move beyond a utilitarian mindset that promotes cheap grain and overproduction of agricultural commodities at the sacrifice of our health, the environment, and the wellbeing of those of us most in need. We must also serve the needs of our children and future generations. Catholic Social Teaching states that,

“[f]or us, hungry children, farmworkers, and farmers in distress are not abstract issues.  They are sisters and brothers with their own God-given dignity. …[W]e live in a shrinking world.  Disease, economic forces, capital, and labor cross national boundaries; so must our care for all the children of God.”  (For I was Hungry, USCCB, 2004)    

In the long run, cheap food at the expense of the common good is not cheap because it harms not only us, but generations to come.    

Our new and holistic consciousness requires us to act. Join with NETWORK to meet this challenge and advocate for a farm bill that will balance the needs of all and truly serve the common good.

Former NETWORK Board Member Barbara Jennings, CSJ, lives and eats healthily in St. Louis, Missouri. For more information on Farm Bill Forums, go here (St. Joseph) and here (North Kansas City).

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