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The Politics of Food | The Nation

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The Politics of Food

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The biotech companies danced into this minefield with all the grace of an elephant in jackboots.

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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Ten years ago, agricultural biotechnology was debated only by what Labor MP Joan Ruddock (former leader of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) calls "men in white coats and men in gray suits," with environmental NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth reporting on their activities but mounting no large-scale protests. In 1990 the first GM additive approved for use in British food, a GM baker's yeast, was swallowed without qualms; so was the GM tomato paste sold by Sainsbury's supermarket in 1996, at a lower price than its conventional equivalent. The trouble started that same year when the American Soybean Association, Monsanto and the US trade associations told British food retailers that they could not--would not--segregate American GM soybeans from the conventional kind, undermining the golden rule of consumer-friendly capitalism: Let them have choice. Around the same time, media and public awareness of the issue reached critical mass, and the supermarkets started getting worried letters from their customers asking them not to use GM ingredients.

The arrogance with which the American biotech firms approached the European food industry is the stuff of legend. Bill Wadsworth, technical manager of the frozen-food chain Iceland, recalls a meeting in September 1997 at which a biotech executive actually said, "You are a backward European who doesn't like change. You should just accept this is right for your customers." A few weeks later Wadsworth was on a plane to Brazil, where he found a grower and processor of non-GM soybeans and began to set up a vertically integrated supply chain for Iceland's processed foods. Iceland began to raise the issue's profile with its customers, pointing out that while Iceland's foods were GM free, those of the other supermarkets were contaminated. Before long every supermarket chain in the country was inundated with mail and phone calls about GM food and had begun to follow suit. In June 1998 a poll showed that 95 percent of British shoppers thought that all food containing GM ingredients should be labeled.

Meanwhile, the field testing of GM crops in Britain by Monsanto, AgrEvo, Novartis and other companies gave a dramatic focus to the environmental arguments against genetic modification. Media-savvy eco-activists in decontamination suits or grim reaper outfits began to pull up trial plantings and leaflet supermarkets; by the summer of 1998, hardly a week went by without reports of some new, inventive, nonviolent protest. English Nature, the government's own environmental watchdog, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds both added their authoritative voices to calls for a moratorium on planting, citing the unpredictable and uncontainable dangers of releasing the new organisms into the ecosystem. Gene transfers could produce herbicide-resistant "superweeds"; crops genetically engineered to be toxic to insects might well affect the whole food chain, further damaging the biodiversity of a landscape already impoverished by intensive farming. In a country where the membership of environmental and conservation groups outstrips the membership of political parties by four to one, the disappearance of cornflowers and skylarks from fields and hedgerows is a political issue. Prince Charles's entry into the fray on the side of the green campaigners did much to enhance the post-Diana credibility of a man who not so long ago was widely ridiculed for talking to his plants.

By the time Monsanto launched its too-clever-by-half ad campaign to sell biotechnology to the British public in the summer of 1998, the bonfire had been prepared. The united front of environmentalists, shoppers and food retailers, animated in part by fury at the hubris of multinationals' trying to pull the wool over their eyes, was joined by an army of development NGOs outraged by Monsanto's efforts to corner Third World seed markets with a technology that could destroy farmers' livelihoods while pretending to "feed the world." The spark that lit the flames was the broadcast that August of a television documentary about the work of Dr. Arpad Pusztai, a researcher at a government-funded institute who claimed that feeding GM potatoes to laboratory rats had slowed their growth and damaged their immune systems. Dr. Pusztai rapidly lost his job amid assertions that his work was flawed and incomplete, but the whole affair catapulted GMOs into the tabloid firmament. With its usual brash enthusiasm The Express launched a populist crusade against "Frankenfoods," and pretty soon not a man, woman or child in Britain was left in the dark. The GM controversy even made The Archers, BBC radio's venerable daily soap about an English farming family: To the relief of fans everywhere, young Tommy Archer was recently found not guilty of criminal damage after destroying a test crop of GM oilseed rape in one of his uncle's fields.

Downing Street has remained largely unmoved by all this protest, allowing Tory leader William Hague (who has himself been caricatured as a genetically modified vegetable) to make political hay out of Labor's urban unconcern for the environment and dazzled obeisance to the biotech firms. To Tony Blair, pro-business to his toenails, the GM revolution is part of the white heat of new technology that will carry the British economy through the next century. In the words of the government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Robert May, "We have played a hugely disproportionate part in creating the underlying science: are we going to lose it like we lost things in the past?" Dolly the sheep, after all, was cloned here.

If we do "lose it" in the long run, it will be in part because of the government's serious misreading of the public mood. Had they proceeded from the start in an open and careful manner, acknowledging all the unanswered questions about genetic modification and treating the population as intelligent citizens instead of superstitious children, the eventual outcome might have been different. But even if--in some parallel universe--that had been New Labor's way, the biotech firms and the American growers in their thrall would never have allowed such caution. Blair may be predisposed to favor all kinds of high-tech business; he is also, as the environmentalist and writer George Monbiot puts it, "having his balls bust by Clinton."

For the United States, Britain is the gateway to Europe--and Europe is, if anything, even less enamored of biotechnology, despite the efforts of homegrown firms like Novartis and Zeneca. In Britain, Germany and elsewhere, resistance to GMOs has been led by green activists and consumers. In France, it has also involved the Confédération Paysanne, the country's second-largest farmers' union and political home of José Bové, famous for taking apart a new "McDo" in Millau to protest American food imperialism. Last year Bové was one of 120 farmers who destroyed silos-full of Bt corn--a GM variety that has been shown to affect lacewings, bees, ladybugs and monarch butterflies--then being grown in France. At his trial Bové made a passionate speech explaining his actions: "When were farmers and consumers asked what they think about this? Never. The decisions have been taken at the level of the World Trade Organization, and state machinery complies with the law of market forces.... Genetically modified maize is...the symbol of a system of agriculture and a type of society that I refuse to accept. Genetically modified maize is purely the product of technology, where the means become the end. Political choices are swept aside by the power of money."

Since then France has reversed its decision to grow the corn, for environmental and health-related reasons, and--after a timely intervention by Greenpeace and activist Jeremy Rifkin with the prime minister's advisers--has argued for an EU moratorium on further approvals of GM crops. In spite of stubborn British opposition, the moratorium is effectively if not officially in place: France, Italy, Denmark, Greece and Luxembourg have declared that they will block the issue of any new licenses until new regulations have been agreed. In addition, all foods sold in Europe that contain a significant percentage of GM ingredients now have to be labeled--a decision that immediately rebounded on US agribusiness, pushing giant grain traders like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland to segregate their silos.

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