Family farms vanishing, Rural Life leader warns
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
JEFFERSON CITY - A knife and a fork can be powerful tools in the struggle for social justice, said Holy Cross Brother David Andrews.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Holy Cross Brother David Andrews, executive director of the Des Moines-based National Catholic Rural Life Conference, tells Missouri Catholics that the decision they make on food purchases impacts the quality of life for family farmers.
"All of us are eaters," said Brother Andrews, executive director of the Des Moines-based National Catholic Rural Life Conference.
"Eaters make choices, and our choices decide a lot of things," he said.
Speaking at a workshop Oct. 2 during the annual Missouri Catholic Conference Assembly in the Missouri capitol, Brother Andrews said the decisions of food consumers to support large-scale corporate livestock and agricultural operations is having a devastating impact on family farms.
"Where does your food come from?" he asked workshop participants. "Does it support the activities of family farmers? Or does it come from a giant factory farm, run by a corporation with no concern for anyone but itself?"
Brother Andrews distributed copies of the 2003 U.S. bishops' statement, "For I Was Hungry & You Gave Me Food," in which the bishops decried the concentration of food production into the hands of a few large corporations.
The bishops noted that there were just 2.16 million farms left in the United States in 2001, down from 5.5 million in 1950. Many of those farms are actually huge corporate operations, and in fact just 10 percent of farms in the United States account for 70 percent of all U.S. agricultural production.
In addition, the bishops noted, the four largest corporate beef firms process 81 percent of all the beef sold in the country, the four largest pork producers process 59 percent of all pork, the four largest poultry firms produce 50 percent of all chickens, the four largest wheat processors hold 61 percent of the market, and the four largest soybean processors control 80 percent of that market.
In addition, the bishops noted, the top five food retailers in the nation increased their share of the U.S. market from 24 percent to 42 percent of all retail food sales just between 1997 and 2001.
"The choices we make shape things," Brother Andrews said.
Brother Andrews urged workshop participants to "think locally" when they make their food purchases, and to purchase directly from family farmers at local "farmer's markets" when possible.
He also encouraged participants to join the "fair trade" movement that insures that producers of important goods, such as coffee, receive a fair price.
The closer to home that food is purchased, the better off the local community will be, he said.
"A community should be able to make decisions for itself that increases its food security," he said.
But Brother Andrew noted that corporate lobbyists have been successful in state capitols, including Iowa, in removing decision-making powers from local governments that regulate the kind of farming operations allowed within a county.
For example, Brother Andrews noted that some counties in Iowa had written zoning regulations to restrict the size of corporate hog and cattle operations that produce tons of animal wastes that leach into the aquifer that is the source of well water for surrounding family farms.
"The state has taken away any capacity of counties to zone out large livestock feeding operations," he said. "We're talking about counties that have wells open to the aquifer. The county wanted to make sure their water supply was not spoiled."
Because these operations function on such a large scale, they drive down the price that smaller, family-based farms can receive for pork, cattle and poultry, he said.
In addition, national farm policies that produce a surplus of cheap, government-subsidized food for export are killing small farms around the world, including Mexico, he said. Unable to live on their own farms, millions of Mexican farmers are now emigrated into the United States, he said.
"We cause a negative result on small farms in Mexico, but we won't admit it," Brother Andrews said. "Instead, we close off the borders."
Brother Andrews urged Catholics to ask questions about the food they purchase.
"How are livestock raised? Are they abused? How about farm workers? Do they have working conditions that are safe? Are they allowed to take breaks? Are they able to live in housing that is humane?" he asked.
Those questions, Brother Andrew said, are central to Catholic social teaching that stresses the dignity of every person and careful stewardship over natural resources.
"This is not an extra. This is not an add-on" to Catholic responsibility to people and the earth, he said. "This is integral to our identity as Catholics. This is part of the bread and butter of the Catholic Church."