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The Politics of Food | The Nation

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The Politics of Food

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In the war over the fourth agricultural revolution, the first round seems to have gone to the citizens. But this is only the beginning. The global food economy is regulated by the awkwardly interlocking gears of bodies like the EU and the WTO, themselves dominated by transnational corporations with budgets larger than those of many small countries. The patterns of competing interests and overlapping jurisdictions are dizzying. The Anglo-French beef war was partly a tempest in a teapot over market share, partly a struggle to determine whether the European Union or France's own freshly minted food-safety authority gets to vet what French people eat. The Clinton Administration has used the WTO to declare Europe's exclusion of American hormone-fed beef illegal (allowing the United States to levy $117 million in sanctions), and unless the great salon des refusés that gathered in Seattle wins some significant victories, it will almost certainly do the same with Europe's attempts to restrict GMOs. The loyal Blair government has already challenged Europe's de facto moratorium as a violation of WTO trade rules.

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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Like all victories, however partial, this one offers valuable pointers for the future. The opposition to GMOs in Europe has been informed and led by environmental organizations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth--part of the tidal wave of campaigning groups that filled the vacuum left by government in the neoliberal eighties. But the foot soldiers who really blocked the biotech firms' confident advance are the women and men who refused to buy their products--consumers, or citizens of global capitalism, voting in the only way they can. In the European movement against GM food, Ralph Nader's old strategy of organizing consumers at the point of consumption has found its best vindication yet.

Consumer politics, though, has its limitations. Transnational corporations are many-headed hydras, with the capacity to sprout new body parts in the blink of an eye. Once it had seen the writing on the wall, Monsanto immediately set about regrouping; at a series of closed meetings with environmental organizations earlier this year, it offered to use its gene databases to help farmers create new varieties of crops through traditional crossbreeding methods. Not surprisingly, Monsanto has also tried to push forward into countries where it believes people have more pressing worries than the possible risks of eating GMOs. In Georgia, for example, it held illegal trials of GM potatoes for two years before being exposed by Greenpeace and Elkana, a Georgian organic-farming group.

The challenge facing the great Internet-linked coalition of activists that makes up the new food movement is to keep on thinking globally while acting locally. In Europe, the GM debate has brought people's concern about the safety of what they eat to critical mass: British shoppers' demand for organic food has increased by 40 percent in the last year, as evidenced by the advance of pricey, rustically packaged organic produce--70 percent of it imported--along the shelves of Sainsbury's and Safeway. Farmers are slower to catch up, although some are trying. The government's program for organic conversion had exhausted its budget for 1999-2000 by March of this year, in spite of a $17 million top-up; Labor MP Ruddock has introduced a bill to increase the amount of land under organic cultivation over the next ten years. The Iceland chain, ever at the cutting edge, has begun a drive to provide affordable organic food by buying ingredients from places where conditions allow intensive cultivation with a minimum of chemical assistance--for instance, wheat from western Canada. Bill Wadsworth's strategy for the future is based on extending the principle of vertically integrated supply--"Grow me my soybeans that will go into my beefburger." But what will this mean for producers in poorer countries? Are we looking at a new United Fruit scenario, in which tropical islands grow wall-to-wall organic pineapples for Northern supermarkets while their people eat genetically engineered mush peddled by Monsanto's subsidiaries?

In November nine Indian farmers visited Britain, sponsored by Iceland and an international exchange group called Farmers' Link. Crammed into a small meeting room in Westminster, they told Ruddock about their intense frustration at being shut out of the WTO discussions that will determine their future. In India, where 75 percent of the population is directly involved in agriculture, trade liberalization has had a devastating effect: Importing cheap food means importing unemployment. "Your people have rejected GM food," said Vivek Cariappa, an organic farmer from southern India who is active in his country's thriving anti-GM movement. "Where will it go? It won't go into the sea. It will go to countries like ours." With careful honesty, Ruddock explained to the farmers that their British colleagues, on the whole, don't share their concerns: "Britain has been run as multinational farming enterprises with subsidies from the CAP. It is mostly people in urban areas, pressure groups, pushing for change in agricultural practice, except for a small organic minority." When Juli Cariappa asked if Britain really wants to leave its food basket in the hands of the multinationals, Ruddock paused, looked her in the eye, and said, reluctantly, "Yes."

If the biotech companies have their way we could soon be on course for William Gibson's nightmare future, in which the rich eat real food grown by artisan farmers and the poor eat genetically engineered "vat stuff" when they eat at all. As long as food is treated as a commodity like any other and traded to maximize profits, there is little chance of a reduction in world hunger or of a significantly safer diet for the fortunate few. As Tim Lang puts it, "We have to see that it is the production of food that matters, not just its consumption." Or, in the crisp words of José Bové, "We are faced with a real choice for society. Either we accept intensive production and the huge reduction in the number of farmers in the sole interests of the World Market, or we create a farmer's agriculture for the benefit of everyone." The shape-shifting global coalition that tripped the advance of genetically modified crops in Europe and staged the carnival of protest in Seattle has its work cut out for it. But the genie is out of the bottle. Food--which in its progress from seed to stomach links ecology, labor, poverty, trade, culture and health--will be a key item on the menu of the next century's struggles for democracy against the arbitrary power of the giant corporations.

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