Bread Crumbs for the World: The Failure of Hunger and Church Groups to Support Farm Justice

“A little child shall lead them.”  

Isaiah 11:6d

“In truth I tell you, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.”  

Matthew 18:3

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community … is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”           


Martin Luther King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

“Tell me why you’re crying my son…./Do yo know more than men that are wise?/Can yo see what we all must disguise…?”   

Peter Yarrow, “Day is Done”  

“Almost 80 percent of the world’s undernourished people live in rural areas (UN Millennium Project, 2004) and most depend on agriculture, including livestock, for their livelihoods.”


The State of Food and Agriculture

Livestock in the Balance

Mounting the White Horse of Farm Bill Justice

There’s a great scene in the BBC version of Pollyanna.  Pollyanna has been hit by a car and is bedridden under the care of the aging Dr. Warren.  She can’t move her legs and is listless.  Elsewhere Dr. Chilton is discussing a new treatment with Mr. Pembleton.  They each have had dramatic conflicts with Pollyanna’s Aunt, and haven’t spoken to her for years.  Pembleton’s main concern is a fear of giving Pollyanna false hopes.  “It’s not the worst thing being confined to a wheelchair.”  Chilton replies:  “While there’s still a chance that Pollyanna could walk again, surely we should take it.”  But, then, that would open nasty old wounds. “It’s all a little awkward,” Chilton moans.  Meanwhile little Jimmy Bean, the recently adopted orphan boy, comes into the room.  “If Pollyanna heard you say that she’d sick up her lunch!” he interjects.  “Jimmy.  Go to your room,” Pembleton barks. “Which one?” “Any of them.”  “She would though.”  Jimmy won’t be silenced.  “Who cares if it’s awkward,” he challenges. “…What happens when she finds out that you didn’t give her this chance.”  The scene immediately shifts.  Dr. Chilton is riding off on his white horse to confront Aunt Polly, his former lover.  Powerful, inspiring music bursts forth.  He breaks through, and Pollyanna is saved.

Divided Progressive, Religious, Food Groups Fail the World’s Poor

That’s just exactly where many well meaning farm and food advocates were on the 2008 Farm Bill (Dr Warren, Aunt Polly, Dr. Chilon), where the food and hunger movements, mainline churches, and progressives still mostly are, and (with Jimmy Bean or mounting white horses) where we all need to be.  First, farmers around the world have been severely wounded by U.S. farm policy.  Their suffering is intense, and extensive.  There is virtually no hope.

The cause is the lowering of U.S. price floors for major storable commodities 1953-1995, and then their elimination in 1996.  It amounts to a return to what my grandfather called free market “Hooverism,” the farm depression under Herbert Hoover.  Hooverism was cured by the great parity commodity programs of the 1930s and 1940s.  

Because the United States is the dominant farm commodity exporter and price leader, the lowering of our prices lowered prices all around the world.  It’s called export dumping, and is exactly the opposite of what OPEC countries did with their sufficient, but smaller export market share.  OPEC raised oil prices, vastly increasing it’s profits on exports, as the US lowered farm commodity prices, transforming it’s profits into losses.  For example, the prices for a bushel of soybeans or wheat or a hundredweight of rice were higher than the price of a barrel of oil back about five or six decades ago.  Even a bushel of corn, on a record high year, 1947, tied the yearly average price of oil, at $2.16.  Even with greatly increased production (four times bigger for corn, for example,) income for individual commodity crops has usually been lower, (adjusted for inflation, of course,) than it was during the forties when Price Floors were set at living wage levels.

Instead of raising price floors, as farmers demanded, Congress eventually started paying them money, to cover part of the failure of the free markets. So, farmers in developed countries became somewhat protected by subsidies.  According to my estimates, since Price Floors were first lowered in 1953, US farmers got about $1 in subsidies for each $8 of market failures, (subsidies of about $500 billion in 2010 dollars, in compensation for value reductions, [price x bushels of US production, about $4 trillion in 2010 dollars, and assuming about 10% greater reduction in supply,]).  We might call that 7/8 of partial Hooverism.  Meanwhile, farmers in poor countries got the full impact 8/8 of this partial Hooverism.  (I call it partial, because Price Floors were gradually deregulated or lowered over a number of decades, so we didn’t arrive at full free market impacts until the 1996 farm bill).   

We see then that, like bedridden Pollyanna, the poor farmers lie helpless, isolated, as when “Aunt Polly” refuses Polyanna’s request to consult “Dr. Chilton.”  They have no vote in our country, USA, the global export price leader (huge export market share,) to fight the root cause of their “Hooverism.”

The hidden reason why U.S. policy has been to lose money on farm exports, is that it secretly subsidizes farm commodity buyers, including animal factories that have taken most of the value-added livestock away from diversified farmers.  The big buyers, which are highly concentrated, are giant multinational corporations that now, with other agribusiness firms, spend about $100 million per year to influence Congress (and fund campaigns). The benefits to the buyers are not government checks, government subsidies.  They’re the benefits from the lowering of the prices for what they buy, below fair trade gains, and in recent decades, below cost gains.  Cargill and ADM get multibillions of dollars worth of below cost gains year hear.  These firms have then had record profits, as farmers have lost money.

Farmers have long criticized these policies and called for a restoration of fair trade, living wage Price Floors instead of subsidies.  In so doing, over six decades, these “farm justice” farmers, (usually called the Family Farm Movement,) called for  urban people, (ie. food consumers, taxpayers,) to join them.  Over more than four decades, that movement never arrived with sufficient strength to help farmers win justice.  Meanwhile, as most US farmers were run out of business, and leading farm justice advocates grew old, retired, and died, the mainstream media and a new large Food Movement began blaming problems on the US victims, farmers, not on the hidden beneficiaries, the giant agribusiness corporations.  Farmers have been blamed for getting the compensations, except they have not been seen as compensatons.  Meanwhile, progressive leaders like Bill Moyers and David Beckmann of the hunger organization Bread for the World even claimed that farmers (“cotton growers,” “corn growers,” “rice growers,”) the losers over more than five decades, were the second largest lobby in Washington.  Farmers were seen by Beckmann, degradingly, as those with their hands in the cookie jar.  The $4 trillion dollars in reductions remained hidden leading to most US farmers being put out of business were not seen.

All of this is confused by World Trade Organization rules, which don’t offer any hope, but which point the finger at farm subsidies.  Countries are allowed to protest against subsidies, but not against deregulated “free” market policies, the real cause of export dumping.    The lowering and elimination of price floor mechanisms, the real  cause of our export dumping of farm commodities, is “free trade,” which is the goal of WTO!  Our ongoing policy of exporting farm commodities at a loss is not specifically disputable.  Only commodity subsidies, which have virtually no impact on market prices, are somewhat disputable.  

An analogy can illustrate this more clearly.  The reduction of price floors is like a forest and prairiefire that is burning down our farms.  Subsidies are like firetrucks that show up to put out the fires, but that do not undo most of the damage.  Thus most farms went out of business, but some subsidies were paid. Subsidies started in 1961, and they increased sometimes when Price Floors were lowered a lot (but not increased as much as the reductions were increased).  These WTO rules are weak compromises the U.S. won for agribusiness megacorporations.     

Back to our story from Pollyanna, we find that important progressive leaders have come forth as healers.  Unfortunately their analysis is weak or false.  For example they claim that the commodity programs today are basically the same as back in the 1940s, but that the need for them has drastically changed (see the hunger documents below on this point).  

The truth, however, is just the opposite.  The programs were gutted and ended, as described above, and as can easily be proven.  The reason they’re needed, however, remains.  Farm commodity supply and demand, food demand for example, do not respond quickly to low prices.  People don’t double their intake just because food is half price.   Likewise, on the supply side, low prices don’t cause farmers to plant only half of their land.  Capital costs are too high.  So the aggregate, the whole of what farmers plant and sell varies little with price.  Only the government can step in to prevent Hooverism.  That’s what commodity programs originally did, and did quite well.  Today we again have Hooverism, except it’s all covered up with the “scapegoat” of subsidies.  

Ending subsidies would dramatically expose U.S. Hooverism, (should prices crash again, as many predict,) but it wouldn’t cure it.  Subsidies are unfair.  US farmers should go broke under programs to lose money on US Farm Exports. Ending them, however, won’t raise farm prices for farmers in Least Developed Countries. Unfortunately, the Dr. Warrens of the progressive movement don’t grasp that fact.  Among the worst are groups like Bread for the World and Oxfam, just the ones who should be advocating real solutions to severe dumping.

I’ve conducted an analysis of a dozen major progressive documents (or collections) on this question (and the documents of dozens more organizations and organizational leaders, including the books, films and articles of the food movement).  I’ve examined their commodity provisions.  Among them I’ve found four “Dr. Warrens” giving incredibly false farm bill histories, as described above, and offering ineffective commodity proposals.  Bread and Oxfam DON’T EVEN MENTION the absense of real price floors and the de facto “subsidization” (below cost gains) of individual agribusinesses (and foreign countries) at the multibillion dollar level, (that’s Billion, with a “B,” even multibillions per year).  It’s also multitrillions below the traditional fair trade standard of parity. These false groups and documents include:   

 • Bread for World Institute, Healthy Food, Farms and Families.

 • Oxfam,  Fairness in the Fields

 • American Farmland Trust,  Healthy Farms, Healthy Food, Healthy People

 • Church World Service, Sowing Justice for Family Farmers Everywhere.

Of these groups Bread for the World seems to have the largest mobilization movement.  Their false materials are used in many denominations, as seen for example at the web site of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, (and other mainline church web sites).  What happens, I ask with Jimmie Bean, when the world’s poor find out that these US Farm Bill proposals wouldn’t at all end Hooverism, but that these US-based organizations could have supported proposals that would? 

I’ve also found some “Aunt Pollys.”  They offer no false farm bill diagnosis, but remain stuck on the wrong side of the issue.  Their analyses don’t even mention these issues.  Their proposals on the commodity core of the farm bill are ineffective, offering the false hope of commodity caps and green subsidies.  They too maintain the underlying Hooverism of dumping, and multibillion dollar benefits for giant animal factories and feedlots competing with their own sustainable farmers.  Giant multinationals like Cargill and ADM get, not millions, but multibillions per year in de facto subsidies.  Under their proposals America continues to export at a loss, ongoing, as wealthy foreign food buying countries are subsidized with below cost grain at the expense of the world’s farmers.  The focus of these groups is usually internal to the U.S. as shown by their policy positions and sign on lists.  The groups and documents include:

 • National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, “Farm Bill Primer.” 

 • Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, No Time for Delay.

 • Farm and Food Policy Project, Seeking Balance in U.S. Farm and Food Policy.

 • Catholic Rural Life (Magazine), “Opportunity for Farm Bill Reform,”  Spring 2007, based upon FFPP (CRL, formerly a great group on these issues).

 • Center for Rural Affairs, Farm Bill Policy Statements.

 • California Coalition for Food and Farming, “Farm Bill Policy Platform.”

Fortunately, several other groups are “Dr Chiltons.”  They offer more than bigger “bread crumbs for the world,” much more.  Their proposals would end dumping, forcing agribusiness and commodity buying nations to pay fair prices.  The first two groups have extensive worldwide affiliations, showing massive support for genuine price floors.  These documents are must reads for anyone who has only been exposed to the deficient and false materials listed above.  The groups and documents are:

 • National Family Farm Coalition, which references the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center’s, Rethinking U.S. Agricultural Policy. See NFFC’s Food from Family Farms Act, at nffc.net.

Where, you may ask, are the “Jimmy Beans,” who seem so obnoxious in creating the Letter-from-Birmingham-Jail “tension” aimed directly at hunger and food leaders, and to get “Dr. Chilton” (top farm justice organizational leaders,) onto his white horse to reconcile with “Aunt Polly” and overrule “Dr. Warren” for the sake of the masses and masses of impoverished, starving “Pollyannas of the world?” 

Well, I’m here, I have a couple of friends on twitter, and a lot of others I’d like you to meet.  And you?  How about you?  Will you join me in working to get hunger and church groups to advocate authentically against export dumping in the US Farm Bill?

Bottom line:  if you’ve heard my message and you say you really don’t want to enter this realm of “tension” against “the good people in the Food Movement, in the mainline churches and in the big hunger groups:”  remember:  “If Pollyanna (global victims, especially female, especially children) heard you say that she’d sick up her lunch!”

The Key Proposals that are Needed

Brad Wilson, “Fact Sheet: Farm Justice Proposals for the 2012 Farm Bill,” ZSpace, 5/11/12, http://www.zcomm.org/fact-sheet-farm-justice-proposals-for-the-2012-farm-bill-by-brad-wilson.

Brad Wilson, “Primer: Farm Justice Proposals for the 2012 Farm Bill,” ZSpace, 5/11/12, http://www.zcomm.org/primer-farm-justice-proposals-for-the-2012-farm-bill-by-brad-wilson.

On correcting the false history of the New Deal Farm Bills in several of the documents listed above, (ie. the claim that they addressed temporary needs,) Henry Wallace, Achieving a Balanced Agriculture: How the National Farm Program Meets the Changing Problems, September 1934 / Revised April 1940, http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008002965For a great 21st century econometric report supporting all of that see: (pdf) “An Analysis of a

Market-Driven Inventory System (MDIS),” Harwood D. Schaffer, Chad Hellwinckel, Daryll E. Ray, Daniel G. De La Torre Ugarte, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, Dept of Agri. & Resource Economics, U. of Tenn., Institute of Agriculture Knoxville, Tennessee, http://nfu.org/images/stories/NFU-April2012-FinalReport-AsSentToNFUApr2-2012.pdf.

The best online document (and pdf slide shows) from and agricultural economist on the US Farm Bill and these global food poverty issues, see  Rethinking U.S. Agricultural Policy:  Changing Course to Secure Farmer Livelihoods Worldwide, Daryll E. Ray, Daniel G. De La Torre Ugarte, Kelly J. Tiller, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, Dept of Agri. & Resource Economics, U. of Tenn., Institute of Agriculture Knoxville, Tennessee which includes econometric research supporting the key policies (the Food from Family Farms Act of the National Family Farm Coalition).

Additional References:


Wenonah Hauter, Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America, New York: The New Press, 2012.

A variety of historical video sources are available at YouTube, FireweedFarm, “Farm Bill & Food Bill”.  Some specifically address the consumer side and global hunger.  They show how “farm justice” farmers, (activists in the family farm movement over the past six decades,) have been much stronger on the key, big Farm Bill policy issues than recent hunger, church and food movement leaders and organizations.

I crunched some rice numbers to in comments below the article here:  C. Peter Timmer, “Japan and a Solution to the World Rice Crisis,” July 15, 2008, http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/18189#9396  

Here I tie this in to efforts to run farmers off the land in the U.S., and by implication, worldwide:  Brad Wilson, “Farm ‘Shock Doctrine?’”  https://zcomm.org/zblogs/farm-shock-doctrine-by-brad-wilson/

African American Farmers, (members of the National Family Farm Coalition,) understand Jimmy Bean’s nausea: http://lists.iatp.org/listarchive/archive.cfm?id=121152.  Cf. Brad Wilson, “WTO Africa Group with NFFC, Not EWG,” ZSpace, 4/1/11, http://www.zcomm.org/wto-africa-group-with-nffc-not-ewg-by-brad-wilson.

While I focused on the failure of mainline churches on these issues two years ago, more recently I’ve focused on similar failures in the food movement, such as here:

Brad Wilson, “Michael Pollan’s False Paradigm on Farm Subsidies,” https://zcomm.org/zblogs/michael-pollans-false-paradigm-on-farm-subsidies-by-brad-wilson/

Brad Wilson, “The Farmie-Foodie Coalition:  A Winner for Ag-Biz,” https://zcomm.org/zblogs/foodie-farmie-coalition-by-brad-wilson/

Brad Wilson, “Pollan’s Folly in a Nutshell: ‘Food Inc.,’ ‘Fresh’ and Beyond,” http://www.lavidalocavore.org/showDiary.do;jsessionid=138C176DF085DD34CF1E1B423BF8FD07?diaryId=3085

University of Tennesse on how Henry Wallace was an effective Dr. Chilton.  http://apacweb.ag.utk.edu/weekcol/325.html.  Cf. Henry Wallace, Achieving a Balanced Agriculture:  How the National Farm Program Meets the Changing Problem, Division of Special Reports, Office of Information, USDA, 1940. 

Tufts University on the multiBillions (which, as I point out, are completely missed by many groups).  http://www.ase.tufts.edu/gdae/Pubs/rp/CompanyFeedSvgsFeb07.pdf

Longer, to correct false  AFT/Bread/Oxfam farm bill history:  Crisis by Design, IATP, http://www.iatp.org/iatp/publications.cfm?accountID=258&refID=98205.  


George Naylor (ed.) The United Farmer and Rancher Congress brochure is a great historical document that is, available online 10/31/07, In Motion Magazine http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/ra07/ufrc_all_lo.pdf.  Parts are also available as web pages:  “A Legacy of Crisis” and “Farm Bill Basics.”

For the year commodity subsidies started for various commodities see the Agriculture Factbook 1994, USDA, Table A-3, pp. 174-175; online:  http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/farmincome/FinfidmuXls.htm, scroll down to United States by Program 1933-2008.  Rice subsidies started in 1977, more than two decades after price floors were first lowered to bring prices below parity levels.

On more recent farm bill history:  http://apacweb.ag.utk.edu/ppap/doc/2004/RayLecture2004FromGretchen1st.pdf

History: When Churches Supported Farm Justice

“Rural Crisis Resource Packet,” National Council of Churches of Christ, USA, 1980s, included a resolution fully supporting the “Save the Family Farm Act” (today it’s the “Food from Family Farms Act.” They also did a study of major mainline church statements, finding that the price issue was the highest major priority, in the 1980s.

The Church: Responding to Rural America: a Report Approved by the 203rd General Assembly (1991), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Rural Community in Crisis: A Report from Rural America to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

United Methodist Church Statement on the Environment,” 1988,  “Develop a marketing and government support system that will guarantee the cost of production to farm families.” “Provide for commodity reserves, isolated from the market, to be established at a level adequate to protect consumers from supply disruption and meet domestic agricultural disaster and global humanitarian food aid requirements.” “Reform federal tax laws to remove unfair competition and discourage tax shelter motivated capital in agriculture.” http://www.acton.org/public-policy/environmental-stewardship/theology-e/united-methodist-church-statement-environment.  Cf. http://nccecojustice.org/downloads/anth/meth.pdf.

Presbyterian Church:  See my 2 comments to a blog here:  http://presbyterian.typepad.com/foodandfaith/2008/05/food-films-galo.html

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