The Common Good
February 2007

Food First

by Kimberly Burge | February 2007

An uphill battle looms on the farm bill.

Have you eaten today? Fed dinner to the family, grabbed a snack on the run? Then you’ve felt the impact of the U.S. farm bill. And so have people who struggle to have enough to eat—both in the United States and in developing countries.

The farm bill, set to be reauthorized by Congress this year, is a wide-reaching piece of legislation. Principally, it aims to help U.S. farmers. Over time it has become less and less successful at doing so. The farm bill includes commodity payments, which are cash payments made to farmers growing mostly five crops—corn, wheat, cotton, rice, and soybeans. Commodity payments are supposed to protect farmers from low prices by making up the difference between a target price and the actual market price.

In reality, commodity payments are not very effective risk management tools for farmers. Because they are based on production levels, commodity payments have shifted dramatically to the very largest farms, which often are also the wealthiest farmers. Farmers who need payments the least are receiving the most, and two-thirds of U.S. farmers receive no payments.

Farmers in developing countries feel the effect of U.S. commodity payments in devastating ways. With U.S. farmers encouraged to focus on the five commodity crops, world markets are flooded with these crops. Cotton farmers in Mali and Senegal, for instance, have a difficult time even selling their cotton in their own countries, unable to compete with the low prices of subsidized cotton from the United States and Europe. For many subsistence-level farmers around the world, U.S. farm policies—and other factors outside their control—can crush hopes of getting out of poverty.

Though less extreme, the picture of rural poverty in the United States is likewise grim. Nearly 400 U.S. counties have experienced poverty rates of over 20 percent for the past 30 years. Nine out of 10 of these “persistent poverty” counties are rural.

DRIVE THROUGH THE countryside and you can still see acres of rolling fields. But the economic landscape of rural America has changed considerably. Less than 1 percent of the population in the United States is currently engaged in farming, compared to 25 percent in the 1930s, when direct government support for farmers began. The vast majority of rural residents work in non-farm jobs, such as retail service or factory work. Many farmers themselves must take second jobs off the farm. Roughly the same amount of farmland is being used, but the farms themselves have grown larger, more specialized, and more corporate. Federal farm policy has not kept pace with these changes, and the farm bill needs greater rural economic development initiatives.

The farm bill also encompasses the Food Stamp Program, the nation’s first line of defense against hunger. The Food Stamp Program served an average of 25 million people per month in 2005. When Hurricane Katrina hit, the program was one federal program that responded in a timely and efficient manner. Expanded funding and outreach efforts can help hungry people in this country better afford a sufficient and nutritious diet.

Add to all this conservation and land stewardship programs, research related to biofuels, organic agriculture, farm worker protections, beginning farmers and ranchers, food aid for famine emergencies, and a host of other concerns. These are all covered in the farm bill—or they should be.

Since the farm bill is only reauthorized every five years, now is the chance to make improvements. Grassroots groups such as Bread for the World, Church World Service, and Oxfam have been gearing up to call on Congress to make changes that better serve U.S. farmers, struggling rural communities, hungry people in the United States, and farmers working to support their families in developing countries.

It will be an uphill battle, no doubt. Powerful voices in Washington want to keep the status quo. Even scripture warns of the challenges: “A poor person’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away” (Proverbs 13:23). But through thoughtful efforts by concerned citizens, that injustice can be stopped. The harvest will come in, and all can share in its bounty.

Kimberly Burge, a Sojourners contributing writer, is senior writer/editor at Bread for the World in Washington, D.C.

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