Religious Leaders Call for Just Farm Bill

Evangelical Lutheran Church in American Bishop Theodore Schneider (left) chats with Episcopal Bishop John Bryson Chane at press conference. (John Johnson/Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations)
A Baptist leader said Tuesday that the United States' farm policy is unfair to African-American farmers and disadvantaged farmers in Africa, the Caribbean and the developing world.

Earl Trent, executive director of missions for the Progressive National Baptist Convention, joined other religious leaders on Capitol Hill hours before the House Agriculture Committee was set to begin debating the 2007 Farm Bill to call for reform that reflects American values of fairness and equal opportunity.


In prepared remarks, Trent said the Progressive National Baptist Convention, founded in 1961, the convention of Martin Luther King, has in its "organizational DNA" a central concern for "the least, the lost and the left out of our society."


Current farm policies, Trent said, are inequitable. Commodity subsidies to black farmers are "abysmally low," he said. Out of every $100,000 given for subsidies, black farmers receive three dollars.


Those policies endanger African-American farms, Trent said. In 1910, there were 215,000 African-American farmers owning 15 million acres of land. By 1992 those numbers had declined to 18,000 African-American farmers and 2 million acres.


Trent said he has seen first-hand the results of commodity subsidies in Haiti, where fertile rice fields on one side of a road went fallow while a market on the other side of the road was filled with bags of rice from the United States. That is because it is cheaper for Haitians to import than to grow their own rice, devastating the local economy.


"We urge Congress to have the moral backbone to address this inequity and to reduce farm payments to those who need them the least and instead to strengthen funding to socially disadvantaged farmers who need them the most," Trent said. "It is the moral thing to do, the just thing to do and the right thing to do."


John Bryson Chane, Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., said cotton production is vital to the livelihood of sub-Saharan Africa, where 20 million people rely on production of the crop for their basic living. If the U.S. would eliminate its subsidy for production of domestic cotton, which consumes more money than all aid to Africa combined, he said, poor countries in west and central Africa could increase their cotton production by 3 percent to 12 percent, bringing an annual increase in earnings between $94 million and $360 million.


David Beckmann of Bread for the World said most commodity payments go to affluent people, some of them very wealthy people, instead of to small farmers of modest means.


"Should America tax dollars really go to farmers with incomes over $300,000?" Beckmann asked.  "It doesn't seem fair, and I don't think prophets like Isaiah or Hosea would think so either."


"In the Bible, the book of Proverbs tells us that 'a poor person's field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away,'" Beckmann said. "A status quo farm bill is simply unjust."


The group also faulted the farm bill for not keeping up with rising food costs in its Food Stamp program, a key component for fighting hunger among the working poor, and for a lack of checks and balances to protect the environment.


 According to a press release from Faith in Public Life, the group sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leaders in Congress stating that the Farm Bill should:


--Reform the commodity program to significantly reduce payments that distort prices and supply in ways that violate U.S. commitments and harm farmers in poor countries.


--Make U.S. farm policy more equitable by strengthening help to poor farmers.


--Strengthen the food stamp program by increasing the benefits to reflect current costs of living and removing administrative barriers to access.


--Increase investment in rural communities with the greatest need, create new programs that assist rural entrepreneurs and promote small business development.


--Expand funding and access to conservation programs.


--Increase international food aid and ensure that the first Millennium Development Goal of reducing hunger by one half is achieved by 2015.


Bob Allen is managing editor of

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