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The Politics of Food | The Nation

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The Politics of Food

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Case sawed shakily at his steak, reducing it to uneaten bite-sized fragments, which he pushed around in the rich sauce.... "Jesus," Molly said, her own plate empty, "gimme that. You know what this costs?" She took his plate. "They gotta raise a whole animal for years and then they kill it. This isn't vat stuff.
   --William Gibson,
Neuromancer

About the Author

Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis writes from The Nation's London bureau. Her work has appeared in many other publications,...

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A year ago, Monsanto chairman Robert Shapiro had the future in his pocket. His vast "life sciences" corporation was at the cutting edge of the new agricultural revolution, genetic modification; the spread of GM seeds throughout the United States, he told his shareholders, was the most "successful launch of any technology ever, including the plow." The little matter of European distaste for the new crops would, he felt sure, be resolved by the right kind of PR and some careful scientific reassurance. As Ann Foster, the company's personable British flack, patiently explained to anti-GM campaigners here, "people will have Roundup Ready soya, whether they like it or not."

So far, things have not gone according to plan. The European Union has a de facto moratorium on the commercial growing of GM crops, pending further discussion (the only exception is the Swiss company Novartis's Bt corn, currently being grown in Spain). Austria, Luxembourg, Italy and Greece have total or partial bans on the technology. Even the Blair government, in love with the sleek promises of high-tech business and keen to keep Clinton sweet, has bowed to public pressure and put off the commercial planting of GM seeds in Britain for at least three years. (Environment Minister Michael Meacher, whose views on the subject are carefully tracked by the CIA, has reportedly said in private that GM crops will never be grown commercially here.) Shoppers have rejected GM food in droves, prompting a breathless race among the supermarket chains to go GM-free. As a report by the British government's Science and Technology Committee put it, "At the current rate at which food manufacturers are withdrawing GM ingredients...from their products, there will be no market for GM food in this country."

US soy exports to Europe are down from $2.1 billion in 1996 to $1.1 billion in 1999, and anxiety about GM crops (or genetically engineered crops, as they're generally known in the United States) is blowing across the prairies. Last spring and summer a series of reports by the influential Deutsche Bank urged investors to pull out of agricultural biotechnology altogether: "The term GMO [genetically modified organism] has become a liability. We predict that GMOs, once perceived as the driver of the bull case for this sector, will now be perceived as a pariah." In October a chastened Shapiro apologized to Greenpeace for his "enthusiasm," which, he acknowledged, could be read as "condescension or indeed arrogance." Monsanto's stock has gone seriously pear-shaped, and the board has reportedly considered a company breakup.

What happened? How did a loose assemblage of European environmental activists, development charities, food retailers and supermarket shoppers stop a huge multinational industry, temporarily at least, in its tracks?

The first protests against genetic modification took place in America in the late seventies, when activists from a group called Science for the People destroyed frost-resistant strawberries and delayed the construction of Princeton's molecular-biology building. Then they fizzled out. Americans, by and large, trust the FDA to keep the levels of toxicity in their daily bread down to a psychologically manageable level and don't worry too much about the source of the goodies that fill their horn of plenty. The great grain factories of the Midwest work their magic far from the places most people visit to enjoy nature. In much of Europe, though, nature and agriculture go hand in glove, occupying the same physical and social space. Europe's layered patchwork of farming and culinary landscapes has taken shape over 2,500 years, altered by small and large migrations, the conquest and loss of colonies, wars and revolutions. Europeans feel strongly about what they eat: Food is a matter of identity as well as economy, culture as well as nurture.

The most dramatic changes in European farming in this century came about partly as a result of the experience of famine during World War II: The much-reviled Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European Union has its origins in the determination that Europe should never again see mass starvation. By protecting and supporting their farmers against the vagaries of trade while simultaneously investing in intensive agriculture (a contradiction in terms, you might say, since roughly 80 percent of Europe's farm subsidies go to 20 percent of its farmers), European governments hoped to insure long-term food security for their people. But, as they usually do, the contradictions eventually came home to roost.

"The fourth agricultural revolution," says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University and one of the new food movement's intellectual lights, "is beginning just as the third one--agrochemicals and intensive farming--is unraveling." The unraveling has made itself felt both in the economic crisis that affects many of Europe's farmers and in a series of food-safety scandals caused by deregulation and overintensive production. The outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Britain's cattle in the eighties and its appearance in humans as the fatal new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in the nineties was the most powerful catalyst for the public's loss of faith in governments and food producers. In one terrifying package, BSE tied together the new "economical" farming practices (in this case the feeding of ground-up cow carcasses to cattle), the easing of health and safety standards, and government's willingness to lie for the food industry even at the cost of human lives.

So far, new-variant CJD has killed forty-three people in Britain; the chief medical officer recently warned that millions may still contract it from beef they ate fifteen years ago. By some estimates, the whole affair has cost about $6.5 billion, much of it put up by the European Union. Elsewhere in Europe, similar stories break with depressing regularity. Last summer, for instance, a cover-up of dioxin contamination in animal feed brought down the Belgian government and part of the Dutch Cabinet and had worried gourmets across the continent throwing out chickens, eggs and Belgian chocolate to the tune of $800 million. (The Coca-Cola crisis that followed, in which 30 million cans and bottles of the elixir of life were poured down the drain after a number of people reportedly fell ill, turned out to be a genuine case of mass hysteria.) The anxiety is only partly contained by sideshows like the Anglo-French beef war, in which the British agriculture minister decided to boycott French food in retaliation for France's refusal to lift its ban on British beef with the rest of the European Union--simultaneously publicizing an EU report that found sewage sludge processed into French animal feed. The happy tabloid trumpeting that ensued momentarily restored the beef of Old England to its rightful place as a bulwark against the filthy Frogs, allowing the Daily Mail to boost its circulation with pictures of cows in berets and toilet-paper necklaces amid cries of "Just say Non!"

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