EPPN Lenten Series PART TWO: Food, Global Poverty, and the MDGs

March 1, 2007

If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday... You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. – Isaiah 58

Around the world, more than 800 million people go to bed hungry each night. One of the reasons so many people are starving is that farmers in poor countries have difficulty selling their crops in world markets as a result of agricultural policy in rich countries. It is a complicated topic but it comes down to this: farming is a critical livelihood for the world's poorest people. If they can't earn money, they can't feed their families.

The link between U.S. farm policy and the fight against deadly hunger and poverty around the world is one reason we are spending so much time this year working on reform of the Farm Bill. The legislation, which governs food and agriculture policy in the U.S., provides commodity subsidies (or payments) to American farmers. Reforming that system to ensure that commodity payments go to small farmers, not large, would be good for rural America. It would also give a fair shake to farmers around the world.

Why is this? Currently, commodity subsidies -- more than $1 billion per day given by rich countries like the U.S. to domestic agriculture -- encourage U.S. farmers to overproduce crops which are then sold at artificially low prices, undercutting small farmers in poor countries. This is one of the chief barriers to the ability of poor countries to trade fairly. For instance, according to the World Bank if the United States were to eliminate its subsidy of domestic-cotton production, countries living in deadly poverty in west and central Africa would increase their cotton production earnings by between $94 and $360 million.

The original intent of U.S. commodity payments to help rural America and small farmers is simply no longer a reality. The truth is that subsidies have become concentrated across fewer and larger farms, which also tend to be the wealthiest. While the current system does allow some smaller farms to remain profitable and in business, it also discourages the growth of family farming by raising the price of cropland and making it difficult for many small-scale farmers to buy or rent land.

How can this situation be remedied? There are many answers ranging from a cap on commodity payments to ensure that they go only to small and medium-scale farmers, to alternative support systems for rural America that give farmers the safety nets they need without distorting trade for poor countries. Congress should examine the full range of possibilities and pass a Farm Bill that is good both for farmers in the U.S. and for poor communities around the world.

CLICK HERE to send a message to your lawmakers asking them to pass a Farm Bill that is good for the livelihood both of U.S. farmers and of poor communities around the world.