07/25/2012 10:52 am ET Updated Sep 24, 2012

Food, Farms and Faith: Priorities for Faith-Based Advocacy on the Farm Bill

In Genesis 2, God appears as a farmer, caring for a garden teeming with life -- and assigning us responsibility to care for the farm. Every five years, the Farm Bill, legislation with enormous ecological and social impact, comes up for reauthorization in Congress. To date, there has been little comment from faith leaders, likely due to lack of awareness about the bill's importance. The following briefly introduces the bill and its ecological and moral significance.

The Farm Bill sets federal food production and distribution policy in the U.S. It structures nutritional assistance for the hungry, provides conservation guidelines and funding for agriculture, provides financial subsidies to farmers, and regulates crop insurance for millions of acres of farmland.

The Farm Bill affects each of us, though we are rarely aware of it. What we eat is largely determined by the cost of food and its availability, measures that are directly affected by the business decisions made by farmers and the buyers of their crops. A small number of powerful buyers in agribusiness combined with the current system of farming subsidies benefits the largest buyers of commodity crops (like soybeans and corn) by ensuring these buyers purchase crops for less than it cost farmers to produce them. Farmers survive by taking government subsidized payments to cover their losses, and by planting all their arable land to attempt profit through maximum volume. Large amounts of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers are required to make this system work. The biggest buyers of corn and soybeans then put those products into the consumer market primarily as corn-syrup filled processed foods and factory farmed meats. These factors create a food production system that is unhealthy for consumers and the Earth, and fraught with economic challenges.

Calling upon ethical norms from our faith traditions can help guide advocacy for a good Farm Bill. From my own Christian tradition, these three claims are readily apparent:
  • Responsibility to protect soil, water and wildlife as fellow members of God's creation (Genesis 2:15, Leviticus 25:23-24, Psalm 8).
  • Fair wages and safe working conditions for those working to provide our food. Small farmers and migrant workers are at risk economically and physically through wage-related exploitation and over-exposure to chemical pesticides (Proverbs 31:8-9, Matthew 25:40).
  • Maintaining Earth's capacity to support present and future life through creating a sustainable system of agriculture. Supporting local farming networks with smaller carbon footprints while choosing sustainable agriculture methods helps the flourishing of all creation (Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Romans 8:19-22).
In June, the Senate passed its version of the bill. Significant reforms were included. One amendment offers organic farmers access to crop insurance at the same lower premiums as conventional farmers. Supporting organic practices addresses all three of the claims above, by protecting creation from overuse and contamination, keeping farmers and farmer worker exposure to chemicals minimized, and fostering practices supporting abundant agricultural life well into the future. Another amendment offers positive reform by ensuring that all farms receiving insurance subsidies follow basic conservation guidelines, and an amendment promoting the use of renewal energy sources on farms and ranches also passed. Finally, the bill requires a research program for local farm-to-school projects. While this provision only funds five demonstration programs nationwide, it is an important first step toward developing larger networks of fresh, local food.

However, there are several negative aspects to the bill. It cuts $3.7 billion from conservation programs for ranches and farms, and makes cuts to nutrition programs. Future Farm Bills will benefit from a stronger focus on local and regional agriculture, such as improving access to farmer's markets for both growers and consumers. Additionally, reform of the previously mentioned practice of costly commodity payments which put farmers at a disadvantage while promoting cruel, unsanitary factory farming practices and unhealthy processed foods has yet to happen in a substantive way.

Overall, the fact that a number of significant reforms were made in a time of political gridlock offers a glimpse of hope. Public support for fresh, healthy food is growing, and the Senate bill reflects increased concern for small, local farms, which once made up the heart of our national economy.

The House needs to debate its bill before the current one expires at the end of September, though political gridlock amid election year politics has kept the bipartisan proposal from reaching the floor for debate. There are significant concerns with the proposed House bill. It leaves open major loopholes in commodity payment structures, allowing megafarms and wealthy investors to collect multiple subsidy payments. The House bill also slashes funding for the Conversation Stewardship Program (reducing eligible acreage by 30 percent). It repeals and defunds the cost-share program for organic certification (a lengthy and expensive process for new organic farmers), and makes several attacks on environmental regulation, including attempts to weaken the EPA's regulation of pesticide pollution under the Clean Water Act. Multiple aspects of this bill are ethically problematic, warranting advocacy efforts from the faith community as it proceeds.

Christianity envisions people gathered around a table as one of its central symbols: We come together through breaking bread and drinking from a common cup. These are practical symbols, pointing to our interdependence in creation, each other and in God. Asking those that represent us in government to act for our values is effort worth making. It requires the belief that we are called to participate in stewardship of the land and water on which we depend and to help create a society that promotes human health. To hope for a world where we share a table together, supported by a blessed garden in a circle of abundant life, is faith worth acting upon.