From the barley fields of ancient Israel to the parables of Jesus, God's concern for the livelihoods of and challenges experienced by farmers is evident. Today, the almost 3 billion people in farming families around the world are faced with an often-devastating economic landscape; half of the world's hungry people are smallholder farmers. Many farmers in the U.S. are struggling as well.
A big part of the problem for farmers in the global South is that trade agreements have cut poor countries' ability to protect their farmers with tariffs and other measures. These agreements have also helped foster a model in which monoculture crops are produced by a petroleum- and pesticide-intensive process, then shipped long distances. This cuts the market price of crops while racking up high costs to biodiversity, to the environment, to local food security, and to communities.
While a few large farms in the global South may benefit from adopting the export-driven model, most small farmers overseas are often unable to compete; many are forced to join the ranks of the urban poor. Farmers in the U.S. also feel a financial squeeze, as they are forced to adopt the agribusiness model in order to produce at the market price, and therefore must buy pesticide-resistant or other (often genetically modified) seeds and raw materials at "company store" prices.
In addition to the problems caused by the agribusiness farming model and by the limitations that trade agreements put on the policy options of poor countries, many farmers in the global South are hurt by the fact that wealthy governments heavily subsidize their own farmers in some areas, cutting the already low market price of some crops. One of the starkest examples of this is cotton. In 2005, the U.S. paid its 30,000 cotton farmers more than $3.3 billion, with three-quarters of that going to the largest 10 percent of producers. Those producers then dump cotton on the world market for substantially less than the cost of production, spelling disaster for the more than 20 million Africans who depend on cotton farming to survive. As economist Francis Ng'ambi puts it, "The subsidies are killing us in Africa."
U.S. FARM SUBSIDIES are not even set up to effectively help rural communities in the U.S. Fewer than one in 30 rural Americans are farmers. The 2007 U.S. farm bill, a series of agricultural-related federal programs, is currently making its way through Congress. However, the farm bill's complicated programs offer little support to the non-farm rural poor—or, indeed, to many farmers. Instead, billions of dollars each year are devoted to commodity subsidies—payments to growers of wheat, rice, corn, cotton, and a few other "program crops." This encourages overproduction that hurts farmers in the global South, as well as the environment. In addition, commodity subsidies often go to the largest farmers: 72 percent go to the top 10 percent of recipients. And the payments—which make corn and soy (but not fruits and vegetables) cheaper—help fuel America's high-fructose, partially hydrogenated obesity epidemic. (A separate part of the farm bill authorizes the food stamp program, a highly effective anti-hunger strategy that helps more than 25 million Americans.)
The good news is that U.S. citizens are well placed to have an important voice in what happens to farmers (and to biodiversity, the environment, and the rural poor). The farm bill, which is revamped and reauthorized every five years, is due for an update in 2007. Congress can and should rewrite the bill to move away from commodity subsidies and focus instead on rural community development and environmental preservation.
Elizabeth Palmberg is assistant editor of Sojourners.