A High-Level Food Fight

A High-Level Food Fight

The so-called clash of civilizations is not limited to militant Islam against superpower Christianity, nor to wealthy nations opposed by a multitude of poor ones.


The so-called clash of civilizations is not limited to militant Islam against superpower Christianity, nor to wealthy nations opposed by a multitude of poor ones. A ripening conflict in globalization pits the wealthy against the wealthy–Europe versus America–in a fight over the cultural meaning of food. American farmers have already opened a brave new frontier in capital-intensive agriculture–biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) crops. Europe resists. Having recently experienced the man-made catastrophe of mad-cow disease, European consumers are not willing to accept industry’s standard assurances that GM food poses no risk to human health and safety or the environment. They don’t want it; they won’t eat it.

In response, the European Union has devised a fiendishly clever way to keep GM produce out of Europe’s food system, but without violating the WTO’s hallowed principles of free trade: Label it honestly. If consumers see a GM content label on the food products, they are unlikely to buy it. This past summer the European Parliament enacted a new regulatory system designed to replace Europe’s de facto moratorium on approving any of the new genetically altered strains developed by Monsanto, DuPont’s Pioneer and other biotech firms. In addition to labeling, the new system requires farmers, food processors and supermarkets to maintain a record that traces the origins of GM corn or soybeans from the supermarket back to the farm–a rule that will clearly pin down the legal liability if anything goes wrong.

This new approach throws a huge wrench into the expansive plans of the biotech food industry, because united Europe will have 450 million people when it adds ten more nations next spring and an internal consumer market larger than that of the United States. Multinational food companies will at best have to keep a segregated pipeline in production, processing and distribution–GM-free for Europe and probably some Asian nations like Japan and South Korea, where people share the same fears, but GM-produced for Americans and anyone else who wants it. More likely, many major brand names will decide it’s not worth the hassle and declare themselves GM-free.

“This is a major blow to the genetic food industry,” says Jeremy Rifkin, the American critic who has served as a consultant to EU leaders on biotech issues. “What Monsanto lost sight of is that food is a deep statement of culture in all the countries that make up Europe. The way people process and prepare food is the story of who they are. In a world of globalization, where people feel increasingly that they are losing control over so many aspects of their lives, the one place they feel they still have some control is the food they put on the table–and damned if they are going to give that up for globalization.”

But American interests, including the US government, protest: Where’s the hard science that proves there’s any risk? For Europeans and others, that is their point too. The fact that US regulators have cleared GM seeds for marketing does not begin to satisfy Europe that science has fully explored the dimensions of risk. So they are embracing the “precautionary principle”–a higher standard demanding that new technologies and commercial products be proved safe before they can be marketed. So many industry claims have proven false in the past, Europeans no longer wish to be guinea pigs in the next mass-market experiment. “Europe,” Rifkin explains, “is entering into a new era, based not so much on ‘If it can be done, it will be done’ but, instead, on ‘Show us it can be done safely or it will not be done.'”

But this food fight isn’t over. Environmentalists are alarmed by reports that Brazil, a leading soybean producer, is opening the door to GM soy, a big win for biotech if it happens. The issue puts the WTO in the middle, and regardless of which side it takes, it could become a major blow to its authority. If the United States files a formal protest against the EU labeling system and the WTO rules in its favor, Europeans will be in revolt. But how can the WTO decide that the neutral act of consumer labeling violates free-trade principles? The global system puts commerce ahead of culture, but most people think it should be the other way around.

What would happen if Americans woke up to discover that multinational agribusiness was willing to provide content labels on food for French, German, Italian and other Continental consumers, but used its political muscle to block the same reform here? Maybe they wouldn’t mind, but maybe some Americans would realize that on certain matters, Old Europe is in the vanguard and is willing to leave us behind.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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