The Politics of Food

The Politics of Food

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.


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,


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!”

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

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.

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.

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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