Farm Bill On My Mind

This column ran as the featured commentary on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on August 6, 2007.
I wish the farm bill had a bigger place in the Great American Discourse.

Every five years, our elected leaders in Washington have the opportunity to set the policies that apportion federal subsidies given to America’s farmers, and when the farm bill comes up for renewal it is a great opportunity to ask some very basic, very important questions.

How do we want to eat? What kind of food do we want to feed America’s poor children who take advantage of the school breakfast and lunch programs that are underwritten by the federal farm bill? Which farmers and what kind of farming should derive the greatest benefit from federal financial aid?

Current farm bill policy invests billions of dollars each year into the production of cheap commodities such as corn, soy, rice, wheat, and cotton. These crops—with the exception of cotton— then are used to create food that, for the most part, is artificially inexpensive, highly processed, and usually unhealthy. Under the system that now is in place, the biggest farm bill winners are not so much the farmers who cultivate the commodities, but large food production companies such as Archers Daniel Midland, ConAgra, and Cargill, who convert inexpensive commodities into much of the food that is consumed from sea to shining sea, including the Pop-Tarts and Fruit Loops, chicken nuggets and French fries that are typical meals served in just about every other public school in the nation.

This is the year that the farm bill is up for review, but despite some good effort among activists and a few brave politicians, it looks very much like the status quo will prevail for the next five years. An effort to amend the farm bill in favor of small farmers producing fruits and vegetables rather than large agribusiness growing grain-based commodities has failed in the House. Prospects for such an amendment don’t look particularly good in the Senate either, and the Bush Administration probably has too much on its plate to expend any political capital on a better farm bill.

The way Americans eat really matters to me, and I’d like to see my elected leaders share my concern, but more important than the American diet is the condition of America’s poor.  As a Christian I cannot ignore the biblical mandate to care for the poor, and while most American Christians don’t read them, the Bible’ passages that talk about farm policy are clear. Farm policy must protect the poor. For example, farmers are commanded not to harvest all of their crops in the fields, but must leave some behind so that the poor, indigent, and marginalized can be fed (Deuteronomy 24:19-22); the Jubilee laws in Leviticus 25 mandate the return of property that is sold to its original owners after fifty years, a policy that favors small farm ownership over and against large-scale farming.

While a strict adherence to such scriptural mandates would be impossible in the modern world, the biblical witness is that farm policy should safeguard the wellbeing of the less fortunate among us, and the manifestation of such concern is possible in contemporary public policy. Current farm policy directs large sums of taxpayers’ money to underwrite large agribusiness corporations, but does little to help keep small family farms out of foreclosure; it makes a luxury out of fresh produce and other healthy foods, while saying of the poor who depend on such benefits as the school breakfast and lunch programs “let them eat Pop-Tarts.”

A moral society can do better. And we should.

7 thoughts on “Farm Bill On My Mind

  1. Oh Ben… this edition of your brilliant writing warmed my hunger-fighting heart 🙂 Thanks for weighing in on this important legislation. ” Let them eat ‘pop tarts'” is exactly the attitude that grates on people trying to make a difference. Bless you for focusing on this issue. Can you get it in front of Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to spread among their “brethern” come September?

  2. Good try, Ben, and believe me, we all know your heart is in the right place! The cynic in me desperately hopes that my pastor and spiritual advisor will ever hew to such positions.

    Sadly, my experience in practical politics tells me that genuine efforts to alter such economic monstrosities as the current farm bill probably are doomed to failure.

    The likes of Boxer, Feinstein, Pelois, et. al. make much of their presumed “progressive” stances. OK. I don’t know, but would like to find out, exactly how much in campaign contributions they’ve accepted from the likes of the Salyer Land Company (big cotton in the south Central Valley), or Heaven help us, J.G. Boswell, Inc., which is the largest agribusiness in the US and one of the largest agriculutral producers on the planet. Egyptian oligarchs only wish they could grow so much cotton (the company has literally millions of acres of other crops, too.)

    To encourage the family farm will require a serious look beyond commodity supports and tariffs to the current federal income tax structure. Similarly, other social issues overlap. The last time I looked, it was in fact cheaper to import beef from Australia than from Mexico. Similarly, pay close attention to prices of fruits and vegetables. Take a look at the added cost, during the off-season in California (not to mention the rest of the US) for fruits and vegetables from Mexico, Central and South America. Without getting into an esoteric economic discussion of the peculiaralities of the grocery business (low margins, high perishability, among others), it’s all about protective tariffs, not about shipping and storage.

    Bottom line, across the board our current policies impact family farms. But equally importantly, the policies also impact the well being of human beings in Latin America (and indirectly, of immigration issues) as well as Africa.

    Ben, I applaud your efforts. Continue the good fight!


  3. Thanks, Pat. Please send this story to the offices of our Senators! And maybe we should arrange a meeting. I’ve met with Zoe Loffgren on some other issues, why not try to fenagle a meeting with Di and Barb?

  4. I am not knowledgeable on agribusiness… but if big agribusiness produces products at lesser cost for the world are not he poor benefited? Perhaps we should lobby against “pop-tarts” for rice and beans. I agree that small farmers ought to he helped…and “buy local” helps the small farmer. I support the small farmer every week at the “farmers market” even though the cost of produce is considerable higher. If government subsides support cheaper commodes for the poor is not the Gospel is working? Attack what products the subsidies are for!
    I don’t think the small farmer can compete against the big agribusiness. Find your niche and fill it! The concerned Christian consumer must do their part!

  5. Ben,

    I think you are right on with your critique of the Farm Bill. I would add one other area affected by it: immigration. The huge companies dump big shipments of below cost corn on the markets in Mexico making it impossible for small farmers there to sell their own corn. The farmers lose their land and livelihood and have no alternative but to cross the border looking for work so they can feed their families. Once the American companies have a monopoly, genetically modified corn is all the people can buy in Oaxaca and they can’t even plant the stuff to grow their own crop again. They are at the mercy of Monsanto, ConAgra, ADM and such. This is immoral and our tax dollars through farm subsidies are making it happen. Yes, we can and must do better!

    Margo Tenold
    Council of Churches

  6. Good point, Margo, and thank you for indirectly underscoring my point about tariffs, which are another way of making it difficult for farmers in Mexico and the rest of Latin America to sell goods here.


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