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Bishops call for just farm policies

Excerpts from U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral letters and statements on food and family farm issues:

Others at a disadvantage in making a living are immigrants, the “strangers among us.” Made in the image and likeness of God, newcomers remind us that most Catholics in the United States are descendants of those who arrived here to begin a new life. Different in look, customs and language, newcomers are often discriminated against. It is not a new situation in the journey of many centuries. “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

Such people have faces and futures. One young man sits quietly, his heavily muscled arms folded across his chest. A friend coaxes him to speak, promising that his real name will not be used. Gradually, Julio Lopez relaxes, unfolds his arms and extends a huge, gentle hand. The hand is deformed with scar tissue; its shape distorted. He speaks reluctantly, through a translator, of a poultry-processing injury, which required more than 70 stitches to close. Weeks later, his use of the hand is still impaired. He is told by the medical people available to him that nothing more can be done and that he is not authorized to see a specialist. He has not been compensated for the injury. He is concerned that the disability is permanent, but he will not make a fuss for fear of losing his current job in the processing plant, the job that feeds his family back home. He is desperate to support them, so desperate that he crossed the border into this country illegally. What will happen if he is sent back? Like others who are undocumented, he says it is safer to be silent.

--Pastoral Letter of the Bishops of the South (“Poultry Pastoral”), released Nov. 15, 2000

Record low prices for some crops and livestock, combined with disease, floods and blizzards have created an economic and social strain in our rural communities. These events worsen an already disturbing trend in the declining number of family farms and ranches, a loss of rural residents and concentration of ownership in land and markets. Meanwhile, greater pressures are put on church ministries, public and nonpublic schools, the delivery of government services, the provision of health care, rural businesses, mental health services and eventually the urban economy.

This crisis gives reason to reflect on what the church can offer to matters concerning rural life. In doing so, the church calls upon a social teaching based on the primacy of the human person in every economic and social activity, including agriculture, and the church’s experience as pastors, teachers and ministers to the very people most affected by this crisis in rural life. The goods of creation are meant for all, throughout generations. Excess profits in agribusiness, especially at the expense of the laborer, violate principles of justice. Policies should foster wide distribution of ownership in agriculture rather than concentration, whether in land, animals, technology, seed, genetic make-up, processing or production. Moreover, social and economic policies must provide just compensation to ranchers and farmers for their labor.

-- Pastoral Letter signed by the bishops of North Dakota

We recognize the great contributions that our ancestors made to this region. The original native inhabitants and the early ranchers, farmers, fishers and loggers struggled against almost insurmountable odds to carve out a home in this sometimes inhospitable land. We recognize that damage to the watershed may have been caused by financial need and lack of knowledge more than by a lack of appreciation for the environment.

Our pastoral letter is not meant to criticize people’s efforts to provide a suitable living for their family. We are hopeful that those involved in industry are, by and large, also concerned about the environment.

At the same time, we commend those who have recognized and responded to the environmental challenges that result from commercial and industrial enterprises. It is important for those with deeper concerns about the environment to recognize that farmers, ranchers and other landowners and workers are not their enemies. It is equally important that the latter groups seek to better understand environmental concerns. Protection of the land is a common cause promoted more effectively through active cooperation than through contentious wrangling.

-- Columbia River Pastoral, signed by bishops of the Pacific Northwest, February 2001

What is needed, then, is a fundamental change of federal farm policy in which the good produced by the work of the farmer is reflected in what the consumer pays for dairy products, produce and other foodstuffs. The policy change can happen, if the consumer is made aware of and led to change the serious problems that the farmer faces because of the inadequate prices paid for their products.

As members of a democratic society and as believers in the Resurrection, we know that it is both possible and necessary to lend our voices and actions to efforts to rectify unjust situations. We do have control over the economy, if we choose to exercise it. Farmers and consumers are not merely actors in a play written without their consent. Economic forces and technological innovations are under the control of individuals. Both individuals and the church have the freedom to speak out. We must forcefully and persuasively direct our government to reevaluate so many of its economic and farm policies that have perpetuated these injustices.

--Wisconsin Catholic Conference, 1997

National Catholic Reporter, May 24, 2002