The Common Good
September-October 1995

Our Daily Bread

by Judith Bortner Heffernan | September-October 1995

The business of rural America.

The church must powerfully define, proclaim, and live out its understanding of an alternative vision of community, where the relationship between the Creator and the created is ffirmed, and enhances life for all, over time.

When I die, I won't have to go to hell. I've already been there," said a Missouri farm woman whose family farm was being foreclosed on by their lender, who ran a notice of the forced sale in the local newspaper before telling the family.

If things continue as they are presently going," said an Alabama advocate for minority farmers, "by the turn of the century there will essentially be no black families farming land in the United States."

Veterinarians have told us that they have been called to 'patch up' an animal that a farmer has taken out his anger on and beaten up," I tell a group of Minnesota rural pastors. "Well," said a local social worker, "tell them the rest of the story. Tell them about the farm wives who are too embarrassed and ashamed to go to their doctor, so they call the vet and ask him to come patch them up after their husband has beaten them. If the vet's pickup is seen by neighbors in the lane, no one will ever guess the real reason he is there."

Where's the beef in this freezer?" asked the director of a Nebraska center provided by the county ministerial alliance that feeds and houses mostly Latino workers hired by a transnational meat-packing corporation. "They recruit these men to come here telling them that they [the firm] will provide housing until the workers are paid and can find their own living quarters. They do not provide the food and housing. The churches do! The company does not even give us beef for the meals of their own workers!"

Looking out the window of his house, the middle-aged Missouri farmer who had lost his farm in foreclosure and was now watching someone else plant the spring crop, softly but firmly said, "I feel God has abandoned me."

AS THESE CONTEMPORARY voices clearly remind us, for many who live in rural America, life is not easy-physically, economically, or morally. Nor has it ever been.

Our rural history includes the struggles of New England fishers, Appalachian miners, Midwestern tenant farmers, Southern sharecroppers, Cherokees on the "Trail of Tears," Dust Bowl-driven Okies, Native Americans on desolate reservations, high plains dry-land ranchers, hand-to-mouth farmhands and cowboys, lumberjacks and oil field roughnecks, planters and pickers.

Forces that once affected only specific industries (especially mining, energy, and timber) in isolated communities in far-flung regions are now profoundly changing the broad face of agricultural-based rural America as the structure of our food system changes to more closely resemble the structure of other industries. In just one or two generations, the decentralized family farm system of U.S. agriculture, the envy of the rest of the world as a highly efficient producer of abundant food and fiber, has increasingly become a centralized, corporate-controlled, factory food system. The control of the production and processing of most of the nation's food has become concentrated in the hands of a few transnational corporations (TNCs) with dire consequences for rural America.

These changes are frequently referred to as the vertical and horizontal integration of the food system. Vertical integration occurs in any given commodity when a firm manufactures and/or sells most of the inputs needed to produce a crop or livestock, and then maintains control over the production, marketing, and processing of that commodity and sells it as a brand name product in the supermarket. It controls the system from "seed to shelf."

ConAgra and Cargill are two examples of firms involved in vertical integration on a national and international scale. They control major portions of the system from the fertilizers, chemicals, and seed to the storage, shipping, and milling of the grain to livestock processing and sales in the form of Healthy Choice meals, Banquet TV Dinners, and Country Pride Chickens.

Horizontal integration occurs when the same firms expand in any given sector of the food system, such as broiler production or beef processing. Three or four firms, most often TNCs, now control between 40 and 80 percent of the slaughtering, milling, processing, and shipping of most grains and livestock in the United States. For the most part, the same firms that dominate the U.S. food system control the system that moves food products in the international arena. While farm families struggle to survive on an average of three to four percent return on their investment, the food firms expect to receive at least 20 percent.

MOST CONSUMERS have little or no idea about the changes that have taken place in the production and processing of their food. Supermarkets are fully stocked, choices appear to be numerous, and advertisers successfully define wants and "needs." There appears to be no reason to raise questions about anything related to our food system, except perhaps the price of cereals, the safety of hamburger, or the pesticide residues on produce.

The presence of endless brand names successfully conceals the fact that a few giant food firms own and control most of the products. Few consumers know that when they purchase brands like General Foods (Post Cereals), Kraft (Velveeta Cheese), Oscar Mayer, and Miller Beer, they are buying from Philip Morris, the largest U.S. food company, a corporation that claims to receive "10 cents of every food dollar" spent. The second-largest food company, ConAgra, includes brand names such as Orville Redenbacher's, Hunt's, Swiss Miss, Wesson, Peter Pan, and La Choy.

Many consumers do not realize that this emerging corporately controlled food system raises serious questions about: 1) the quality and safety of their food; 2) the long-term sustainability of a system heavily dependent on fossil fuels and exploitation of soil and water resources; 3) the moral and ethical issues of low wages and dangerous conditions for workers; 4) the flight of profits from rural communities and the increase in rural poverty; 5) the depopulation of farming areas and the sense of powerlessness, alienation, and frustration that leads to community conflict, individual depression, and the rise of radical social movements.

Astonishingly, many farmers do not fully understand or envision the consequences of these changes. They know they have small margins of profit and low returns on their investment. They know they have fewer farm suppliers from which to purchase inputs and almost nothing that resembles a competitive market through which to sell their grain and livestock. Many believe the increased stress to be their own fault. Only recently have some begun to understand that changes in the whole system are transforming them from independent producers into piece-rate growers, from entrepreneurs into farm "factory workers," from individuals and families who had some authentic control over their agricultural enterprise and financial well-being into small, replaceable parts of a globalizing agribusiness system.

Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer-author-teacher-social critic, powerfully describes in his book Home Economics the profound consequences of this change.

For many years, I think, the people of rural America have been struggling with the realization that we are living in a colony....The way that a national economy preys on its internal colonies is by the destruction of community-that is, by the destruction of the principle of local self-sufficiency not only in the local economy but also in the local culture. Thus, local life becomes the dependent, and the victim, not just of the food industry, the transportation industry, the power industries, the various agribusiness industries, and so on, but also of the entertainment, the education, and the religious industries-all involving change from goods once cheap or free to expensive goods having to be bought.

IN THE MIDST OF this stands the church. What can we who believe in and long for a more socially just, environmentally sustainable, democratically controlled, genetically diversified, community enhancing, and globally non-exploiting food system do? How can we bring our faith to bear on a system that provides us with "our daily bread"? What role can, even must, the church play amid the voices of change, for if the church does not reject life for rural America as a "colony" and work for life as "community," then who will?

In suggesting a number of possible answers to this question, there are three things to keep in mind at the outset. First, the gospel narrates ways in which Jesus sought to transform the enslaving social structures and customs of his day into community-producing ways of thinking and living. Is our calling to mission and ministry any different?

Second, I do not believe that the concentration of the national and global food system is being driven by a clutch of wicked conspirators. Rather these changes are being directed by individuals, many of whom can be found in our congregations, who are making decisions that benefit the corporations for whom they work. I suspect that many of them, heavily influenced by the corporate culture and ideology that provides for their families, believe in the goodness of what they do and do not understand or feel responsible in any way for the consequences we are describing here.

Third, it must be stated loud and clear that the centralized food system I have described was never "ordained by God," nor is it economically inevitable. It has never been found to be desirable by an extensive, open, public policy debate in this country or anywhere else. It is happening because it provides huge economic and political benefits to those who have gotten in position to make it happen and who are seeking to redefine the situation they are creating in terms of values and ideologies to which many Americans subscribe.

The first task of the church then is to be the church! The church must powerfully define, proclaim, and live out its understanding of an alternative vision of community, where the relationship between the Creator and the created, in the creation, is affirmed and enhances life for all, over time. Part of this task is to reach out and help those being hurt by the consequences of changes in the present system.

Second, we must truly comprehend the "vision" that is guiding what is happening to the agricultural communities, both here and in our global mission field. Then can we "judge" whether this vision supports life in community (shalom) or only life in colony.

Third, the general church, as well as local congregations, can work together with many other similarly concerned groups and coalitions to develop more localized and more personalized food systems. On average, the food we consume travels about 1,800 miles to our plates; the emerging global system will double, triple, or quadruple that distance. Surely we can find creative ways to link remaining family farmers, who want to produce wholesome food for consumers they can see and relate to, with consumers in our churches or neighborhoods who want such food produced by people they come to know, care about, and trust.

AS PEOPLE OF faith, we must both resist and insist. We must resist the continuing momentum toward a highly centralized global food system controlled by a few who increasingly determine what will be produced, under what standards and conditions, who will produce it, where it will be produced, and ultimately at what price it will be sold, which will determine who eats and who does not. We must insist that more just, wholesome, sustainable, and non-exploitative ways to produce food for a growing, hungry world be used. As we learn more about this, our shopping decisions can reflect and support our convictions.

As shareholders of corporations involved in this system, people of faith must resist the seduction of larger dividends exploitively gained and insist to corporate decision makers that we do not want dividends produced unjustly by squeezing farmers, by paying processing workers pitifully for work in dangerous settings, or by taking resources from vulnerable communities.

As supporters and defenders of democracy, we must resist the subversion of our democratic system (however legally it may be done) by those firms that transfer vast global economic power into political power through revolving-door government and corporate jobs and/or campaign contributions that facilitate access to governmental decision makers. We must insist that government policy benefit all citizens.

As taxpayers, we must insist on rethinking the policies that give numerous special tax abatements, free land, reduced utility costs, publicly funded research activities, and other tax paid gifts to giant firms willing to locate in an area. If such gifts are to be given by taxpayers, should they not also be offered to smaller local or regional firms who are producing food for more local distribution?

As the church, we must remind ourselves that life among God's children in rural America and around the world no longer needs to be as physically, economically, and morally difficult as it has been and now is for too many. There are known ways to feed the world and to live in community better than as the colonizers and the colonized. Is this not part of God's claim and call on us as we pray, "Give us this day our daily bread"?

JUDITH BORTNER HEFFERNAN is the executive director of the Heartland Network for Town and Rural Ministries of the United Methodist Church. She lives on a farm near Columbia, Missouri.

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