Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Reforming the Farm Bill

The Rev. Linda Maloney wrote this excellent op-ed piece for the Rutland (Vt.) Herald about the need for reform of the Farm Bill currently in front of the U.S. Senate.

It’s been a summer of bounty in Vermont. Milk prices are up, the strawberries were spectacular, and the apple trees are groaning with a fine crop. Vermont farmers are meeting the energy crisis in creative ways that actually combat pollution of air and water. And Vermont and California dairy producers are working together to develop a sustainable pricing system not dependent on government help.

But across the country, and around the world, the picture is not so positive. Earlier this summer I was in Minnesota and heard small farmers talk about how the 2002 Farm Bill, now up for revision, has been hurting them. In July, I made a personal visit to Washington, D.C. to ask our Senators and Congressman to support reform of the bill, to shift money from harmful commodity subsidies to conservation, energy, and rural development programs—the kinds of things Vermont farmers need to sustain their creative work and grow their incomes. Congressman Welch did vote for an important amendment that would have moved our farm programs in that direction, but it was defeated. Now, as Congress reassembles after the August break, it’s the Senate’s turn at the Farm Bill and I hope they will muster the political will to enact meaningful reform that was lacking in the House of Representatives.

Commodity subsidies are the biggest problem. Originally, in the days of the Great Depression, they were meant to provide a safety net for all farmers when prices were too low. But now they have the opposite effect: These aren’t price supports; they’re price depressors! In a crazy cycle, bloated subsidies for just a few crops, flowing almost entirely to just a few farmers, actually drive down crop prices by encouraging overproduction. To be clear, it’s not a small pot of money. We’re talking $20 billion a year but only one-quarter of U.S. farmers receive these subsidies, and of that one-quarter, the top 10 percent get 75 percent of the payments. The bigger the crop production, the higher the check the producer receives. This drives up the price of land by encouraging large scale producers to gobble up smaller farms and expand production. That, in turn, drives farmers off the land and prices beginning farmers out of the market for farmland. Food production is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and in fewer and fewer crops. It’s no wonder the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota called the 2002 “Freedom to Farm” bill really “Freedom to Fail”!

Such policies discourage conservation and good farming practices. They instead promote excessive production of corn, sending thousands of tons of fertilizer and other pollutants down the Mississippi, resulting in an expanding “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Subsidies aren’t good for our health either, as they push cheap high-fructose corn syrup into our diet, helping to cause obesity. Worse yet, our agricultural subsidies keep farmers poor in other countries. And don’t think there’s no direct connection between our overproduction of corn and the migration of Mexican farmers into the United States in search of work!

Cotton is the starkest example. Subsidized overproduction here means low prices for farmers everywhere, and in areas like West Africa that depend heavily on cotton exports, those low prices are deadly. A typical cotton-producing household of ten persons in West Africa earns about $200 per person per year. That includes cash from cotton sales plus the value of food and other goods the household produces for itself. There are 365 days in a year. Clearly, people earning $200 a year are living on less than a dollar a day. And we’re helping to keep them in poverty with our tax dollars.

Meaningful reform of cotton subsidies would raise the world price of cotton enough to increase household incomes in West Africa by $46 to $114 a year for the whole family. Sound like nothing? To us, it might not mean all that much, but for a West African family, it could mean enough food for one child for an entire year, in a region where 40 percent of children under 5 are malnourished. Or it could mean that all the children in the household could attend school. After all, nothing fights poverty like education. Or it could mean that the household could have health care.

We now have the opportunity to make change happen, an opportunity that won’t come around for another five years.. If we love life, if we love the earth, we need to act now. We must call and write our Senators, urging them to reform the commodity title, shifting money away from subsidies and into clean energy, conservation, and rural development initiatives that will help our farmers at home and at the same time make life better for farmers around the world. Let’s do it now. Five years from now will be too late.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Eat In to Help Out -- AGAIN!

It's time to start planning now for our second Eat In To Help Out week - Sat. Oct. 13 - Sunday Oct. 21 -- coinciding with:

*The end of the Jubilee Cancel Debt Fast - Oct. 15
*The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty - Oct. 17
*The Millennium Campaign's Stand Up Against Poverty - Oct. 16/17

Eat In to Help Out is when you host a dinner (or lunch or some meal) for your friends and then everyone puts the amount of money they would have spent "eating out" and you all decide where to send it to "help out" against global extreme poverty (send it to ERD, make a microloan through Kiva, support something in your companion diocese relationship, etc.).

It’s this easy:

STEP 1 - Instead of going out to eat, invite your friends to come over to your apartment or house. Ask them to bring the money they would normally spend going out to eat.

STEP 2 - Once you have set the date, go to our online map and register your party so we can track all the different places that are hosting. Or just click on the "Add Yourself" button on the map above.

STEP 3 – Enjoy a great meal together, using some simple resources EGR will provide to have a discussion about global poverty and the MDGs.

STEP 4 – Take the money you would have spent "eating out" and “help out” – give it somewhere to help make the MDGs happen. You can give online to Episcopal Relief & Development, find a microfinance project on Kiva, give to something you’re already involved in – it’s your choice.

STEP 5 – Get on the map again. Log into our online map and record:-Where the dinner was (San Francisco)-How many attended (7)-How much money was raised ($120)-Where the money was given (through Kiva to a project in Kenya)

STEP 6 - Reflect on what you learned. Did you learn something new? Share it with a new group of friends! Maybe even host another dinner...When we’re all done we’ll have a big map of all the places that “ate in,” all the places in the world that were “helped out” and a running total of diners and how much money we raised. Not a bad night’s work!

The idea is for these dinners is to be a low key way to engage people one on one with the MDGs. They don’t have to be huge, or a big deal – invite 3 or 4 folks over, or 8, whatever works for you and your friends. You can invite friends who are already working with the MDGs, or people who have never heard of them before. Sound like fun? Great!

By Sept. 13, you'll be able to go to and find all of the information that you'll need, including a how-to guide for dinner hosts, an information sheet on the MDGs, possible conversation starters and questions for discussion, and a link to put your dinner party on the map. If you still have questions or reservations, email