My former boss in D.C. once said that if she ever found herself on the same side of an issue as the Bush administration, it was time to go back and look more closely: There must be a hidden agenda. That was the thought that struck me as I contemplated the administration’s farm bill veto threat on Friday.

I understand the calls from some in the sustainable-ag community to veto the farm bill (and thank Tom Philpott and the comment crew for outlining them). The argument appears to be that, while there were important wins, this farm bill does not include most of the bigger reforms we want, and the community would do better to support a veto and try again anew. I don’t happen to agree; some of the reasons why are also outlined in Tom’s post and the comments. But I respect the sustainable ag organizations that take this position.

It all gets more complicated, though, when these groups find themselves on the same side of the veto issue as the Bush administration, which is not known for caring much about sustainability in any sense of the word. It gets extra-complicated when the phrase “subsidy reform” passes the lips of spokespeople from both the farmers-market complex and the agribusiness-industrial complex. This strange coalition of convenience was highlighted recently in a San Francisco Chronicle article by Carolyn Lochhead: “It is the rarest of moments: President Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are on a collision course over a giant farm bill, but it is Bush who is broadly aligned with liberal Bay Area activists pushing for reform, while the San Francisco Democrat is protecting billions of dollars in subsidies …”

Yesterday on Mulch, the Environmental Working Group’s Ken Cook lamented how hard it will be to whip Republican members of Congress to sustain a Bush veto. That has to be a historic first — a progressive enviro group pushing for Republicans to agree with their own administration.

I have a lot of thoughts about the subsidy issue generally, which I happen to think distracts us from the root causes of our current food-system disaster. I’ll leave those for another day, though (or you can read Tom’s Victual Reality column on it, which says it much better than I could). For now: Even if you believe that subsidy reform would bring about substantial change in the food system, Bush’s support for the veto has nothing to do with this goal. As my former boss might put it, he’s got darker aspirations.

And for that reason alone, if not for many others, I am terrified of any veto with his name on it. Passing this farm bill, in my opinion, is cutting our losses while we can.

Distract locally, deregulate globally

The administration’s mainstream message (and yes, I did just link to Fox News, my own historic first) sounds an awful lot like the rhetoric used by some progressive reform groups. Officials take every opportunity to toss around “wealthy farmer” references as rationale for why they think we should limit government subsidy payments. But officials have also suggested that if we don’t reform subsidies, it would “complicate our relationship with trading partners” — in other words, it would majorly piss off the World Trade Organization. Something tells me that they care a lot more about that than they do about the misuse of some ag subsidy dollars. I mean, really — has the Bush administration ever seen a loophole it didn’t like?

Bush’s goals in the free-trade arena look a lot like those of Reagan, who led the first real push for a global reduction in agricultural trade barriers, subsidies, and any other policies that kept U.S. agribusinesses from penetrating too far into other countries’ markets. The World Bank and IMF followed Reagan’s lead, requiring developing-country borrowers to reduce public support for agriculture, including public research, credit, and policies that protected small producers. Over the next 25 years, government support for local farmers and food systems was systematically dismantled around the world. It’s no wonder developing countries are rioting about high food prices: Now largely dependent on food imports, they are at the whim of a global market that in turn is at the whim of a few giant agribusinesses and Wall Street speculators. (For a deeper look, see this excellent report from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.)

The WTO’s involvement in agriculture escalated with the start of the Doha Round of trade negotiations in 2001 and a call to further dismantle trade barriers. On its current track, it will bring more of the same. As some analysts have shown [PDF], the gains to developing countries from the Doha Round pale in comparison to what developed-country agribusinesses can get from opening up the globe to unfettered trade on their terms. And here at home, trade agreements that prioritize corporate interests will mean a reduced ability to pass laws that harm those interests in the name of the public good.

The WTO’s agriculture negotiations have been criticized from many corners, from the international farmers’ movement Via Campesina — which calls for governments to refocus on domestic agricultural production and away from global ag trade — to a group of African countries in the WTO, which proposed [PDF] a new WTO approach that would manage the global supply of commodities, check corporate monopolies, and help ensure stable prices for farmers. (Needless to say, the WTO hasn’t gone for it.) The overwhelming consensus among critics is that if the WTO moves forward as intended, we will see more corporate power and less public investment in sustainable food systems globally.

Strange bedfellows can bite

All of this begs the question of why we should support Bush’s agenda by calling for a farm bill veto when it would give the U.S. greater leverage in WTO agriculture negotiations. Do agribusinesses win big under the current farm bill proposal? Yep. Would they win even bigger if we got a veto? It’s entirely possible. Despite how disappointing this farm bill is, siding with Bush seems even more risky.

I realize that this argument puts me in the awkward position of sounding like I’m on the side of subsidies. That’s not my intent. The choice, as I see it, should not be between a subsidy system and unfettered free trade in agriculture. It should be between a system that gives voters the right to choose how and when to protect their environment, their food security, and their rural communities, and one in which multinational companies get to call the shots. We won’t get the former with this farm bill, but we will protect some of our policy space by slowing down the WTO train. That’s space we can use to push through real reform on local and state levels, and nationally with the Child Nutrition Authorization Act (next year) and the 2012 Farm Bill.

In the words of the IATP analysts cited above:

Agricultural deregulation has allowed global food corporations to squeeze farmers around the world out of their own domestic markets in the name of “market access.” The result is that today it is agribusiness, not farmers, who are dominating global agricultural commodity markets. … [W]e need to challenge our current agricultural trade deregulation model, which is one of the root causes of the growing food crisis. We need more appropriate management of agricultural markets on behalf of our common public interests, rather than continuing to defer to narrow private interests.

I couldn’t agree more. We need greater public investment in agriculture — not in the form of subsidies, but in the form of more funding for organic research, stronger protection against corporate power in livestock markets, money to help beginning and minority farmers, laws that allow schools to source local food instead of the cheap industrial stuff, and funding for conservation programs on working lands.

And guess what? We got all of those things, in one form or another, in the 2008 farm bill. We also need a whole lot more that we didn’t get. But hell if I’m going to support handing our wins, limited though they may be, over to Bush so he can push through his version of “reform.”

This post originally appeared in The Ethicurean.