Warning that the nation's food supply "is now threatened" by the current crisis in agriculture, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops yesterday called for "special measures" to rescue debt-ridden family farmers and "redirection" of federal programs away from agricultural corporations and toward small farmers.

"At risk are the food necessary for life, the land and water resources needed to produce that food, and the way of life of the people who make the land productive," church leaders concluded in a document scheduled to become a chapter in the bishops' overall pastoral letter on the economy.

Like the rest of the bishops' pastoral document, the 1,400-word agriculture chapter will be studied and discussed at the bishops' spring meeting next month, preparatory to development of a second draft.

In urging that "governmental interventions in the farm sector be redirected to give first priority to small and moderate-sized farms," the bishops said most benefits of "established federal farm programs . . . are now going to the largest farmers."

Specifically, the bishops called for "access to emergency credit and programs of debt-restructuring" to help "viable family farms that are threatened with bankruptcy or foreclosure."

They also urged that "local lending institutions facing problems because of nonpayment or slow payment of large farm loans should also have access to temporary assistance."

Allowing corporate farms, whose primary interest is high return on investments, to become the primary source of the nation's food, the bishops argued, "would make our food system overly susceptible to fluctuations in the market for investment capital."In contrast, full-time farmers "with a heavy personal investment in their farms" and strong ties to the land and farming as a life style "are likely to continue in their work in the hope of better times and thereby enhance national and global food security," the bishops said.

They argued that family farmers who see their land as a heritage for future generations are more inclined to follow sound ecological practices "not damaging to land or water." Since such practices contribute "to the good of the whole society, it is thus appropriate for the public to bear a share" of their costs.

Meanwhile, the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church sent a letter to the denomination's 39,000 churches expressing distress and concern over the current farm crisis but avoiding any public policy recommendations.