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
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.