The enemy of my enemy: Why a Bush veto of the Farm Bill is bad for the food movement (and the world)

My former boss in DC 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 over at Gristmill 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 the many others outlined on Gristmill, 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 mis-use 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, whole lot more that we didn’t get. But hell if I’m going to support handing our wins over to Bush so he can push through his version of “reform.”

Glass half full courtesy of iStockphoto.

13 Responsesto “The enemy of my enemy: Why a Bush veto of the Farm Bill is bad for the food movement (and the world)”

  1. Jim says:

    I don’t see why it wouldn’t be better for the existing Farm Bill to stay in place until a new president and a new congress could deal with the situation in a more progressive manner.

  2. I agree, Jim. In fact, it seems like an opportunity to possibly break up this beast of legislation and move individual pieces of legislation, with conservation, support for organic, etc. coming up for consideration FIRST. Get those programs all the dollars you can, and subsidies for commodity crops can get the leftovers, which, if things are done correctly, would automatically mean a reduction in subsidies.

    Passing a fairly bad bill now and waiting 5 long years to maybe get something incrementally better — when other factors may very well make the situation with regard to conservation, small family farms, etc. substantially worse — seems like a mistake to me.
    We’re talking about the opportunity where there will be a Democratic Congress with a much stronger hand than the current lame-ass incarnation, and potentially a president who has shown flashes of ignoring political CW and choosing to chart a new course.
    When it comes to the Farm Bill, let’s face it, a new course is desperately needed.

  3. Elanor says:

    The WTO hopes to have an agreement on the Doha Round negotiations by the end of 2008. That’s why I think the Bush veto is dangerous: he wants it because it will send a message to the WTO and trading-partner countries that the U.S. is “serious” about making reforms, even if those reforms haven’t actually been made. If that signal is enough to resuscitate Doha, we could see some big concessions made by developing countries by the end of the year. Those concessions would open their markets up further to powerful agribusinesses and could further compromise their food security. Plus, it could make it harder for U.S. advocates to pass sustainable-food laws without corporate or WTO retaliation. Under the WTO, for example, you’re not allowed (except in a very, very small number of circumstances) to ‘discriminate’ against foreign-produced products by choosing to buy the same product locally, if that local product isn’t cheaper.

    Would an Obama administration renege on Bush’s promises at the WTO? I guess it’s possible. But his (and most Dems’) line thus far on trade agreements has been to let them through as long as they contain labor and environmental provisions. That doesn’t do much to address the structural power imbalance between corporations and voters that’s present in the WTO and our food system.

  4. Bill Harshaw says:

    Problem is the “farm bill” has already expired.  Congress has to pass and the President has to sign something or there’s no bill.  So everyone who’s succeeded in getting something good in the bill (i.e., increases for food stamps, organic farming, conservation) has a difficult choice.

  5. Elanor says:

    I think what we’d be looking at is a 1-year extension of the 2002 Farm Bill. So the question is- how does that compare to the proposed 2008 Farm Bill? I vote for the ’08 bill– there were lots of things that we wanted and didn’t get, but there were very few (if any?) things that we had in the ’02 bill and lost in this one. (Sodsaver being the one example that I can think of.)

    I was just talking with someone in DC about this and they raised something similar to F the C’s proposal above to break up the bill. They suggested that we could pass the ’08 Farm Bill, secure the small gains that we made there, and then push through bigger reforms on commodity and competition (and other things) in separate bills before 2012. There’s nothing stopping us from using the momentum we’ve generated around this bill and the frustration over the omnibus process to do that.

    But that doesn’t require vetoing this bill.

  6. An interesting thing about the WTO rules on farm programs is that there are no limits on payments for conservation programs or rural development (they both fall into the WTO’s “green box”).  Limits are set for “blue box” programs like direct payments and counter-cyclical programs. The blue box programs are intended to be a temporary transition from trade-distorting “amber box” programs to the non-trade-distorting “green box” programs.

    Thus, if compliance with the WTO rules was first priority, Congress and the Bush Administration could shift lots of money from direct payments and countercyclical programs into conservation and rural development programs.  I imagine that many sustainable ag supporters would be quite happy to see such a transition (I certainly would be).  But it is highly unlikely (too many ruffled feathers in Big Ag).

    More details on the WTO boxes can be found at the World Trade Organization and the USDA.

  7. Janet says:

    The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s report card on the 2008 bill might be instructive for many people:

  8. Parke says:

    I’m more sympathetic to the case against the current Farm Bill.  The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s report card makes a rhetorical point by recording “win” after “win” on  a long list of achievements, many of which are tiny in scope, but the one big “miss” they acknowledge on failure to reform the main row crop subsidies gets just a brief plank like the others at the very bottom of the report card, even though it is a multi-billion-dollar item.
    Every side of the Farm Bill debate is made up of advocacy coalitions that include groups with public interest motivations and selfish motivations.  I wouldn’t fail to insist on stronger farm bill reform just because the administration also does so.
    The issue with trade isn’t about just a negotiating plank in the Doha round.  It is that some of the major row crop subsidies, such as cotton, immiserate farmers overseas, who are much poorer than U.S. farmers.  I hope even local food advocates, who prefer to steer clear of long-distance traded food in their own food buying, can see the injustice in that.

  9. Dan Owens says:

    “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.”
    Would it be more appropriate to ask this question:
    “Do family farms/sustainable ag win big under the current farm bill proposal?”  No.  Would they win if we got a veto?  Maybe”.
    Calling for a farm bill veto on the basis of insufficient reform does nothing to advance a pro-WTO agenda.  And agreeing with Bush that a veto should occur is not in any way the same as supporting his reasons for a veto.  And besides, if Bush wants to predicate his opposition in a way that supports WTO, exactly how can those opposing the farm bill on other grounds do anything about that?
    And this farm bill does nothing- and I mean nothing- to slow down the WTO train. Possible exceptions are cotton storage payments and a sugar to ethanol program, both of which are designed to support very small numbers of very rich people.  If the overriding concern is getting the WTO out of agriculture, I don’t see how you could possibly support this bill and remain true to your principles.
    “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.”
    How is Bush’s support for a veto different from the support for the bill from various politicians and groups that have supported policy to screw family farmers for decades?  Somehow, I don’t think the American Farm Bureau, Cotton Council, Saxby Chambliss, Thad Cochran, Steve King, Collin Peterson, Kent Conrad, the National Corngrowers, and the US Rice Producers Association are the erstwhile allies sustainable ag and family farms need, and they sure as hell aren’t going to fight for progressive reforms down the road- just like Bush isn’t.  And Bush will be gone in less than a year, and all of the others will still be around.  So who should we really be worried about influencing to ensure future victories?
    Ultimately, the farm bill is a different legislative fight when compared to WTO.  Bush cannot make promises to the WTO without congressional approval- and that isn’t going to happen while Bush is still in office.  Hell, that Columbia deal by itself has already been kicked down the road, until a new president comes along.
    If I have to fight a WTO agreement, I will.   And if I have to fight a crappy farm bill, I will.  And given that this bill does nothing to help get us out of WTO,  why should I conflate the two?  Based on some nebulous threat of a veto sending a signal to the WTO?
    And Marc makes an interesting and legitimate point.  You can actually use WTO rules to benefit many of the priorities of sustainable agriculture and family farms in the US.  There is a fierce debate over that approach vs. simply scrapping WTO.
    I don’t know anyone who thinks it is actually politically realistic to assume that we can push through reform in intervening farm bill years.  That reform would have to go through the Ag Committee- the same committee that screwed us on reform this time, the same committees that are fighting like hell to override a veto.  They would never consent to bring up the issue of payment limits or a packer ban again.  Never.  The only time to secure these gains is during a Farm Bill debate.

  10. Elanor, I already loved you to death and thought you were a genius BEFORE reading this, but, well… you didn’t let me down this time :)

    One comment I heard from an organic farmer who has been very involved in the creation of organic standards and other political food-related issues was that we don’t need more research, we know how to do things… we need mentoring for young farmers, availability of land for young farmers, markets for farmers, etc. I saw you called for more research for organics. Just curious what you think of his comment. I’d be happy to put you in touch with him to chat if you’d like.

  11. Molly A says:

    Great job, Elanor—clear and to the point, as usual!  Yes, the wins look pretty puny next to the dollar size of the losses… but I don’t want to lose those wins.  Each one required a huge investment of time and effort by civil society organizations, and gives a glimmer of hope that we can do better under a more progressive administration that cares about the well-being of the public.

  12. policyhog says:

    Following up on OrangeClouds115′s comments:
    Circulating existing knowledge may marginally be a more limiting factor than new “discovery.” Fortunately, the Farm Bill provision for dedicated organic “research” does encompass funding and intention for education and extension, as much as for experimental research. The transmission of organic farming knowledge will increase geometrically with this new funding. Along with other provisions in the bill for beginning farmers, local foods, fresh veggies in school, crop insurance fairness, and rewarding conservation benefits of organic, there is a lot for us to work with. Of course, we still have to do all the work of implementing all this and making it mesh! (In other words, we now get to put some money where our words have been, and it has yet to be seen that we can effectively make the most out of the nuggets that we pried out from around the edges of the farm bill swamp.)
    But as for research per se, we also need to realize there is a tremendous amount we don’t know. We depend on a lot of borrowed/adapted conventional tools and bio-band-aids. Organic is still rudimentary in a lot of ways and we have a lot of improvement to do to make it really sustainable. But we now will have some significant resources to start getting serious about it.

  13. In reply to Policyhog:
    If you’re an organic farmer then you certainly know more about what is needed than I do. I was just passing along hearsay in order to hopefully hear others’ opinions on it (and I’m glad you shared your thoughts). If you feel more research is needed – and if the majority of organic farmers feel more research is needed – then certainly I believe you are correct. I’m for whatever methods are the most helpful for improving our food system.