WHEN SCOTTISH scientists announced last month that they'd successfully cloned a sheep, Brother David Andrews CSC, was discussing livestock issues with U.S. Department of Agriculture officials in Washington, D.C. News of the first cloned mammal struck a nerve in him.

”I don't want to sound like a Luddite by saying it's all bad, but we must think of the moral and ethical considerations,” said Andrews, executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC), an independent organization that monitors the health of American rural life.

Andrews is monitoring the developments especially closely because of the potential impact on farm life. One purported application of the technology would be cloning the most productive farm animals, to maximize outputs of milk, wool, and other products. “My immediate reaction was to think about what's possible in biotechnology, and the theory that says, ‘If you can do it, let's do it,’ without passing the question through the religious and moral dimension,” he said.

He wondered about the secrecy that surrounded the experiment, from the time the lamb was born to the present, a seven month period. He also suggested that the technology begged economic and moral questions. “There ought to be other levels of consideration beyond simple scientific reasons.”

As science continues making strides, the U.S. bishops, through the NCRLC, are responding to the problems of food production, ownership and distribution problems of farmers in other ways. Bishop Raymond Burke of LaCrosse, president of the NCRLC, for example, aided dairy farmers during a recent strike.

The Green Bay Exchange dropped the price of cheese which forced the price of milk down. In response to the strike, the Diocese of LaCrosse joined forces with the Area Synod Evangelical Lutheran Church of American. Bishop Burke and Lutheran Bishop April Ulring Larson not only issued an ecumenical pastoral statement, they also paid for the farmers'processing of milk and distributed the cheese to local food depositories.

”The number of Wisconsin farms has decreased dramatically in the past decade,” Bishop Burke said, adding that the financial stability of many farming families is at risk. “They're working to try to create a union of farmers so that they can negotiate a new price (for dairy products). I'm convinced that it has to be the farmers working together to negotiate a fair price as opposed to government intervention.

”I'm not accusing anyone of maliciousness, but the production of food is driven by economic considerations,” Bishop Burke said. “Herds are housed in cramped quarters; cows are milked repeatedly; they are medicated so that they can withstand the living conditions; some cows are injected with hormones; and overall, they have a shorter lifespan.

”It's ultimately disrespectful of nature itself. I can't believe that milk production in that way is healthy,” he added.

To rectify the situation, the LaCrosse diocesan Justice and Peace Office has encouraged farmers to attend local meetings, and Bishop Burke has held private meetings with political leaders to discuss implementing the pastoral letter he coauthored.

Bishops in other parts of the country are also taking actions to support smaller farms. In a joint letter to Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, Bishop John McRaith of Owensboro, Ky., who chairs the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Food and Agriculture subCommittee of the Domestic Policy Committee, and Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., a past president of the NCRLC, expressed consternation over the situation of minority farmers.

”There is concern about overt racism by the government regarding farm practices,” Brother Andrews said. Farmers of small farms are particularly at risk, he added, because federal legislators are considering redefining the definition of “farmer.”

Some lawmakers propose changing qualifications by increasing the amount a farmer must produce from $1,000 to $10, 000, making the smallest farms ineligible to receive federal aid. According to Andrews, this change would wipe out 90 percent of minority farmers, including 50 percent of all farmers in Texas.

”The small farmer has reverted back to the condition of tenant farmer,” Brother Andrews said. The U.S. bishops have asked the federal government to give priority to farmers of small and moderately-sized farms, he added.

Another ongoing problem is the concentration of food processing. Seventy-five years ago, a few corporations controlled 40 percent of processing. Today that number is up to 80 percent, leaving farmers with only limited access to markets, Brother Andrews said. The NCRLC has joined the Western Organization of Resource Councils in a petition to the Secretary of Agriculture asking him to use the Packers and Stockyard Act of 1921 to break up existing monopolies.

The NCRLC is particularly concerned about the industrialization of agriculture. Andrews compared the raising of livestock by multi-national corporations to the assembly-line method of car production. He used the hog industry as an example. Large producers force hogs to be on the same cycle so that the young are born at the same time, he said. The method, he added, leads to a proliferation of waste from the young hogs which results in pollution and the contamination of streams and lakes.

”They claim that science will solves these problems,” said Brother Andrews, who called this type of production, the “cult of efficiency.”

”We need a ‘culture for the common good.’We need to be aware that there are structures of evil and sin-enterprises with investment capital that are maximizing profit at the expense of people,” he said. “When you make the human person subservient to the economy, you violate the order under which things should operate.

”The most at-risk groups are the small and moderately-sized farm families doing traditional farming,” Brother Andrews added. States from Minnesota to Louisiana have been affected by the failure of traditional farming. According to censuses from 1980 to the present, the population decrease of the Mississippi River Valley directly corresponds with its decrease in food production.

Not only do farmers face “the vast bureaucracy of the federal government but also the bureaucracy of uncontrolled capitalism,” he said. “Industrialization of agriculture has meant the development of a factory model farm. This negatively impacts the quality of life of people who live in these areas,” he added.

Bishop Burke agreed: “It's not primarily a farm crisis, but a crisis of the stewardship of the earth. We are becoming more and more distanced from production of our food. People need to be alert because it's a far different thing to build a car than to care for animals.”

Theresa Carson is based in Chicago.