Says one panelist: ‘The faith community’s voice has always been important to address these longstanding equity issues’
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Interfaith Power & Light, a partner of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), held a webinar Tuesday exploring both the political and the faith-based aspects of the Farm Bill, which expires Sept. 30 and is reauthorized every five years. Watch the hour-long forum here or here.
Karyn Bigelow, co-executive director of Creation Justice Ministries, put the question directly: Why should faith-based communities care about the Farm Bill, most of which goes to provide food assistance to people who need it, including students?
“There are faithful principles for the Farm Bill,” Bigelow said, adding that members of a coalition “have collectively come together as interfaith organizations to call on Congress to pass a Farm Bill that will support God’s people and the planet.”
Creation Justice Ministries uses five principles in which the first letter of each of the first five words together spell out “FAITH”:
- Frontline, BIPOC, elderly, youth and/or disabled communities must be centered in policy work.
- Accelerate the transition to a sustainable agriculture and food system that supports small- and medium-sized farm operations and local food economies.
- Invest in climate resilience and diversify crop insurance.
- Transform farm subsidies from supporting majority commodity crops to more specialty crops.
- Honor Creation through the protection of land, the elimination of food waste and the reduction of harmful farm practices that result in high greenhouse gas emissions.
Scott Faber, senior vice president for Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group and an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown Law, said more than 80% of the Farm Bill goes to anti-hunger assistance programs, particularly the United States Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP. About 11% goes to farm subsidies, with another 6% for conversation payments.
There are two kinds of subsidies: commodity subsidies for crops including corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice and peanuts, and crop insurance subsidies. Commodity subsidies are subject to payment limits, are means tested and are transparent. Crop insurance subsidies have none of those qualities, Faber said. Some large producers receive $1 million to help them buy crop insurance, “but we don’t know” who receives those subsidies, Faber said. “When your neighbor gets tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars [in subsidies], it creates an unfair playing field,” Faber said.
The top 1% of recipients receive $41 per acre to buy crop insurance, while the bottom 50% receive $22 per acre.
While many people, including members of Congress, argue the current system ought to be renewed in part because the United States is feeding the world, “in fact, farmers aren’t,” Faber said. “Where we do send food, we aren’t feeding the world. We send most of our food exports to wealthy countries,” Faber said. Most of that is animal feed. “We feed the wealthy, and it’s mostly meat and dairy or animal feed” so that other countries can produce their own meat and dairy.
Turning to the Farm Bill’s environmental considerations, Faber said the agricultural sector currently produces 11% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, most of it as nitrous oxide through fertilizer and animals and their waste. If things continue as they are, agriculture’s share of U.S. emissions will be 32% by 2050, the largest share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. “It’s terrible news for the climate and for farmers,” Faber said.
The good news is that a recent analysis by Boston Consulting Group shows that helping farmers adopt good practices with fertilizing, feeding animals, storing waste and tilling the soil — Faber called them “a suite of well-known practices” — could “dramatically change the picture,” Faber said, reducing agriculture’s share of U.S. greenhouse gases to 21% by 2050.
“Farmers are eager to help share those costs, but most of the funding we provide to farmers to help the environment doesn’t go to those farmers helping reduce greenhouse gases,” Faber said. More than 70% of the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program grants go “to practices that do nothing to reduce greenhouse gases,” Faber said.
Faith-based organizations might consider these their priorities in the coming months, Faber suggested:
- Protect SNAP, “the top of everybody’s list,” Faber said.
- Support family farmers in particular and limit subsidies to large producers.
- Protect the $19.5 billion in climate-smart funding included in the Inflation Reduction Act. Some members of Congress have proposed cutting that funding.
- Ensure that most conservation funding reduces greenhouse gases and builds soil carbon in the acres set aside from production under the Conservation Reserve Program.
During a question-and-answer session, Faber said there are bipartisan efforts underway to adjust portions of Farm Bill programs. U.S. Senators Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, and Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, are working together to change EQIP’s funding formula. “That is a real opportunity,” Faber said, “to make some progress on this Farm Bill.”
Asked about racial equity concerns, Faber said that “there has been an effort to provide justice to farmers who were denied loans by the USDA,” but “it didn’t go as far as we needed to.” Farm programs generally tie commodity support to a farmer’s production history. “If you have been denied the loans and other supports your white neighbors received for many decades, you have not built that same production history,” Faber said. “It enshrines our history of racism.”
“Now is a great time to raise your voice,” Faber said to those on the call who want to exert influence on the Farm Bill. Hearings are underway this week and next, and “I expect we’ll see it on the floor of the House and maybe the Senate this summer.”
“The faith community’s voice has always been important to address these longstanding equity issues,” Faber said.
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