8-Misc: An analysis of the politics of GE food
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TITLE: The politics of genetically engineered foods:
The United States versus Europe
SOURCE: Phil Bereano & Florian Kraus, University of Washington,
Seattle, Washington, USA
sent by the Loka Institute, USA
DATE: November 1999
----------------- archive: http://www.gene.ch/ ------------------
THE POLITICS OF GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOODS:
THE UNITED STATES VERSUS EUROPE
by Phil Bereano and Florian Kraus
Friends & Colleagues:
Why are genetically modified foods ("gene foods") more hotly
contested politically in Europe than in the United States? In
this Loka Alert, Phil Bereano and Florian Kraus argue that
actually U.S. citizen concern about gene foods is growing, and
that U.S. government policies may, as a result, be shifting. They
also dissect factors -- ranging from contrasting political
systems to cultural, historical and technological variations --
that help explain why the politics of agricultural biotechnology
have been playing out differently on opposite sides of the
This Alert also offers brief updates on the Loka Institute's
project to create a Community Research Network and on other
initiatives worldwide to make research, science and technology
more democratically responsive.
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(I) THE POLITICS OF GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOODS: THE UNITED
STATES VERSUS EUROPE
by Phil Bereano <firstname.lastname@example.org> and Florian Kraus
University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA
"Why are people in the United States seemingly untroubled by a
technology that causes Europeans so many difficulties?" --
Science magazine, on genetically engineered foods (16 July 1999)
The clash over foods made from genetically modified plants ("gene
foods") highlights the clash between economic, scientific, and
cultural interests in the world that is being shaped by the World
Trade Organization. U.S. agricultural exports were worth $50
billion last year, more than 7 percent of the nation's total
exports. Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat has warned
that the resistance of the European Union (EU) consumers to
genetically modified crops "is the single greatest trade threat
that we face."
"In Europe, across the whole food technology front, confusion and
hysteria have displaced reason and economics, with incalculable
costs to those who are trying to bring new and beneficial
innovations to the market," editorialized the Wall Street Journal
recently. Using intemperate and emotive language, the Journal
referred to the European "Luddite tides," charging that "in
Europe, on matters of trade and technology, the mob has been
running the show for awhile."
This growing controversy over genetically altered foods has
recently occupied the U.S. radio waves, appeared in front page
stories of national and local newspapers, and been featured in
the major electronic 'zines.
In early June, when the EU's environmental ministers agreed to a
de facto moratorium on the approval of genetic foods for several
years, the San Francisco Examiner noted that "the biotechnology
industry -- led by Monsanto, Novartis, Dow, DuPont, AgrEvo, and
Zeneca -- calls rising criticism in Europe 'hysteria and hype'
from the food scare over 'mad cow' disease in England and dioxin
in feed, poultry, beef and butter in Belgium."
THE "OFFICIAL LINE"
The bioindustry and U.S. government officials have united in
denying that genetically engineered foods are significantly
different from natural ones. "A tomato is a tomato is a tomato,"
said Brian Sansoni, of the Grocery Manufacturers of America,
evoking the image of Gertrude Stein plopping down to a summer
salad. Trying to quarantine the "contagion" threatening American
exports and corporate profits, their spin on the situation
consists of three main arguments: the Europeans are technophobic,
they are anti-American, and they have a strong distrust of
Jim Murphy, an Assistant U.S. Trade Representative, attributed
European timidity to old-world conservatism: "They are culturally
risk-averse to try new things," he said, adding that he jokes to
his European friends that "the definition of an American is a
"Agricultural protectionism" was the reason offered by The New
York Times: "Europe resents the fact that many of the patents on
genetically modified crops with bred-in high yields and
resistance to parasites are held by American companies like
Monsanto, DuPont and Dow." Science magazine blamed regulatory
According to Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, "[the
Europeans] just don't have, really, the same kind of
sophisticated mechanism to scientifically examine food products
and determine if they're safe that we do." (This ignores the
reality that 76 million Americans are food poisoned annually,
despite such vaunted U.S. regulatory vigor.)
However, consumers in the United States are demonstrably
concerned about genetically engineered foods. Why, then, has it
been so easy to establish the myth that Americans are "accepting"
of this technology? We suggest three reasons:
(1) unlike in Europe, a very large proportion of Americans are
ignorant about the extent to which genetic engineering is
affecting the foods they already consume;
(2) there has been active corporate/governmental collusion (with
media cooperation) in the U.S. to pacify the development and
expression of any such concerns; and
(3) American political culture provides a limited range of
possibilities for such concerns to be expressed and debated.
IGNORANCE AND COLLUSION
A poll this summer by the world's largest independent public
relations firm found that 62% of Americans were unaware that gene
foods were already being marketed. In actuality, 35% percent of
the 1999 U.S. corn acreage and 55% of soy acreage has been
genetically modified. It is estimated that approximately 60% of
the processed foods in a U.S. consumer's shopping cart may have
genetically engineered constituents.
In the 1980s, the Republican Administration decided that the new
technology of genetic engineering should be handled by using
existing regulatory statutes rather than -- as in Europe -- going
to the legislature for a new comprehensive law. As a result,
there was little public discussion and the resulting U.S.
"regulatory" scheme is makeshift, full of absurdities and
loopholes, as a cover story in The New York Times Magazine
entitled "Playing God in the Garden" documented a year ago.
Based on a policy authored by his industry Council on
Competitiveness, then-Vice President Dan Quayle announced in May
1992 that the U.S. government would consider genetically
engineered crops to be no different from those bred
traditionally. The official Food & Drug Administration(FDA)
document asserted that "the agency is not aware of any
information showing that foods derived by these new methods
differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way."
In fact, under records uncovered in the course of a pending
lawsuit, we now know that the U.S. Government ignored the advice
of its own FDA scientists that gene foods should get special
evaluation because of their risks of producing toxins and
allergies. One FDA scientist had written that"there is a profound
difference between the types of unexpected effects from
traditional breeding and genetic engineering, which is just
glanced over in this document," adding that aspects of genetic
engineering "may be more hazardous".
Another staffer characterized the FDA as "trying to fit a square
peg into a round hole," concluding that "the processes of genetic
engineering and traditional breeding are different, and according
to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different
President Clinton's Secretary of Agriculture has railed against
the EU's apprehensions by saying, "We will not be pushed into
allowing political science to govern these concerns." The new
U.S. Ambassador to the EU has chided Europeans to "separate
science-based risk assessment and regulations from the political
process." And in Europe in recent weeks, three top officials of
the U.S. Commerce Department have lectured Europeans to stop
their "irrational and collective fear" and adopt a process "based
on science and not on anxiety."
Yet, it is the U.S. government that has hypocritically elevated
politics and economics above a reasoned scientific assessment of
U.S. CITIZEN CONCERNS
Actually, there has been a considerable amount of U.S. citizen
concern about the applications of new biotechnologies, as even
the Wall Street Journal noted earlier this summer.
Numerous consumer surveys have shown that huge majorities of
Americans support mandatory labeling of genetically modified
foods and would avoid buying them if they were clearly labeled.
Two years ago, even biotech giant Novartis found 93% of Americans
in favor of labeling; the last poll conducted by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, in 1995, found 84% in favor, and a
Time magazine survey within the past year put the percentage at
Why aren't these polls more effective in determining U.S. policy?
Dick Morris, former policy director in the Clinton White House
(who relied extensively on surveys and focus groups for advising
the President) has indicated that government officials ignore
such majorities to pursue the goals of elite minorities, "just as
they ignore the 72% who want to increase taxes on the wealthy,
and the 77% who feel that corporations have too much power, and
the 64% who want guaranteed health care for all."
This spin is exemplified by a recent major article in the New
York Times which suggested that U.S. consumers "seem hardly to
care" about genetic alterations of what they eat. Media and
policy makers conveniently forget that the 1992 Food & Drug
Administration deregulatory initiative stimulated almost 4,000
comments, with many calling for safety testing and the vast
majority asking for labeling. Among those making such requests
were the Attorneys General of 8 U.S. states, the American
Association of Retired Persons, and the trade association of US
Consumers Union, the oldest and largest association of American
consumers, has repeatedly and persistently opposed -- on behalf
of its 4.7 million member households -- U.S. government failures
to adequately handle this new technology. In its September 1999
issue of Consumer Reports, it called again for gene food
evaluation and labeling. The National Nutritional Foods
Association, a trade group representing the retailers and
manufacturers of dietary supplements and natural foods, has
called for U.S. labeling on the simple ground that "the public
has a right to know what they are eating."
Last year, almost 270,000 letter writers testified in opposition
to a proposal of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture that would have
allowed gene foods to fall within the definition of "organic."
(The agency has now apparently agreed to exclude them). And last
June, a petition carrying 500,000 signatures in support of
labeling was presented to the White House, Congress, and U.S.
Thus, there is plenty of evidence that U.S. consumers are
becoming aware of gene foods and support mandatory labeling so
that they can avoid consuming them. This is hardly the mark of
IS U.S. GOVERNMENT POLICY CHANGING?
Corn and soy exports from the U.S. have been drastically reduced
because U.S. producers have not segregated the genetically
engineered varieties. Buyers, especially in the EU, won't buy the
tainted mixtures. As a result, U.S. corn farmers have probably
lost about $200 million this year. One of the largest domestic
exporters, Archer Daniels Midland Corporation, has announced that
farmers and grain elevators must segregate corn for export; and
Gerber baby foods is making its domestic and European practices
consistent by refusing to use genetically modified ingredients.
Such actions by major producing corporations will bolster the
economic value of growing unmodified varieties.
Despite efforts of members of U.S. Congress (led by Senator John
Ashcroft of Missouri, where Monsanto is headquartered) to get the
Administration to push for "success in world markets" by
"removing unfair trade barriers" to engineered foods in Europe,
the Administration may be signaling some change in its policies.
Last April, in a speech at Purdue University, U.S. Secretary of
Agriculture Glickman noted:
"We cannot be science's blind servant. We have to understand its
ethical, safety and environmental implications. Our testing has
to be rigorous....We also can't force these new genetically
engineered food products down consumers' throats....[D]ismissing
the skepticism that is out there is not only arrogant, it's also
a bad business strategy....Also, we have to be careful about
ratcheting up the expectations on some of these technologies.
There is no one silver bullet that will allow us to meet all of
tomorrow's agricultural and food security challenges....[L]et's
not put all of our eggs in the biotech basket."
Meanwhile, a recent report for the Deutsche Bank, Europe's
largest, recommended that investors sell their holdings of
genetic engineering stocks. It noted that:
"The European concerns are very real. In the past month, a senior
manager at a European-based chemical giant expressed serious
reservations to us about the benignness of GMOs [genetically
modified organisms] and said that given a choice, he would select
non-GMOs any day. By the way, the company he works for is
actively involved in ag-biotechnology."
U.S.-EU SOCIETAL DIFFERENCES
While North Atlantic culture is highly homogeneous when
contrasted with other portions of the globe, there are still
considerable differences between Europe and the United States.
However, the explanations for their biotech policy differences
are not those offered by official industry and government
apologists attempting to justify the American failure to provide
oversight. Five areas probably account for the significant
- Contrasting political mechanisms;
- The role of industry in the political economy;
- The role of the media;
- Geographic factors; and
- Historic and cultural factors.
In Europe, the electoral system is based on proportional
representation systems. Like-minded groups, such as the
environmentalists who formed the Green parties, are represented
in the legislative bodies as long as they attract a sufficient
number of votes to cross a relatively low threshold (normally
5%). From this position, they have been able to insert genetic
engineering concerns into public discourse. However, due to the
"winner take all" electoral system in the U.S., minorities of 49%
(and their issues) can be ignored by legislative representatives.
THE AGRIBUSINESS/GOVERNMENT REVOLVING DOOR
A major Canadian national paper, Toronto's Globe and Mail, has
"Monsanto, which makes large donations to both the Democratic and
Republican parties and to congressional legislators on food
safety committees, has become a virtual retirement home for
members of the Clinton Administration. Trade and environmental
protection administrators and other Clinton appointees have left
to take up lucrative positions on Monsanto's board, while
Monsanto and other biotech executives pass through the same
revolving door to take up positions in the administration and its
One Monsanto Board member is Mickey Kantor, the chairman of
Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign and a former U.S. Chief
Trade Negotiator. Marcia Hale, another former Clinton aide, is
now Monsanto's international regulatory director. At the cusp of
the Bush and Clinton Administrations, when the Food & Drug
Administration (FDA) was drawing up its position against the
labeling of gene foods, one of the key decision makers was
Michael Taylor, previously a lawyer for Monsanto. When the FDA
approved recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) for use in cows
in 1993, the regulatory process was guided by former Monsanto
employees, then at the FDA, who subsequently went back to work
for the company.
A 1998 analysis of Monsanto's workings in the St. Louis Post
Dispatch found that "where Monsanto seeks to sow, the US
government clears the ground." Administration officials have
taken the lead in lobbying for the company and the rest of the
biotech industry in trade confrontations with Europe, New
Zealand, and Asia.
ROLE OF THE MEDIA
The variety of opinions reflected in the media of the United
States is limited, and coverage of biotech issues has been
sporadic and generally uncritical. As Max Frankel of the New York
Times editorial board has put it, "a corporate plutocracy
dominates political speech in America."
The choice and coverage of topics in the U.S. media appears
strongly dependent upon two factors: corporate ownership
patterns/interlocking boards of directors, and sources of
advertising revenues. Furthermore, the companies controlling U.S.
media have steadily consolidated during the last decades, as the
recent CBS/Viacom merger typified. In Europe it is nearly
impossible to have such a concentration of media power in the
hands of a few companies.
Compared to agribusiness in the U.S., farm land in Europe is much
more integrated into citizens' daily lives. Government planning
provides sharp urban boundaries where farms exist, and commuters
may even pass livestock daily. Europeans have more contact with
farming, in part because many more of their relatives still live
in rural areas. There is heightened awareness in Europe of the
way food is produced. The production of food is not a mystery,
only visible in terms of its output, plastically wrapped on
In America, farming and everyday urban life are largely
separated. The actual share of people working on a farm is only
two percent of the population. The EU rural population is 50%
OTHER CULTURAL AND HISTORIC FACTORS
The American self-image is one of pioneers and adventurers. Thus,
one news magazine recently surmised that "Americans may be
culturally more inclined to embrace new technology than are
Europeans." Yet any visitor to Europe knows that it is chocked
full of power plants, telecommunications gadgets, and consumer
goodies. The problem with biotechnology may be not that it is a
technology, but that it is dealing with food.
The noted science journalist Daniel Greenberg agreed in the
Washington Post: "The transatlantic difference may be that
Americans are accustomed to a steady stream of novel products
from a highly competitive food industry, whereas Europeans tend
to be more traditional about what they eat." Every American
traveler to Europe is aware of the fact that food occupies a
place of high importance in the European lifestyle, far beyond
what is common in the United States. Major European cities are
still full of many small markets and specialty food shops.
In contrast to the homogenization fostered by U.S.
multinationals, Europeans prize the variety of local foods;
Churchill once referred to France as a "nation of 350 cheeses."
For many foodstuffs, national laws are in place to intricately
regulate the wording on their labels -- Appenzeller cheese is
only from one place in the world, as is Chateau Neuf-du-Pape
Whereas the US word "farm" symbolizes an agribusiness production
facility, the European notion encompasses something traditional,
rural, and idyllic. Travel agencies in Germany, France and Italy
offer vacation holidays on the farm, so that individuals or whole
families can get back to their bucolic roots.
In recent decades, Europe has experienced a series of severe
negative impacts from the use of modern technologies, undoubtedly
playing some role in shaping that continent's attitudes. European
caution is often chided as childish anxiety by U.S. critics,
rather than a mature willingness to learn from experience. The
modification of agricultural products in foods to create "super
organisms" evokes the memory of the Nazi plan to create a "super
race" by genetic selection.
However, it is the experience with Britain's mismanagement of
"mad cow disease" which has convinced European consumers that it
is best to proceed cautiously with food technologies. In June
1987 the British government knew that the feeding of meat and
bone meal to cows were the main infection routes. Stating that
there was no evidence that humans could catch the disease, it
allowed infected cows to be sold for human consumption. This
calculus, placing short-term economic interests (this market for
beef and veal is worth $3.1 billion) over human health, made
European consumers extremely suspicious of governmental
regulators. The recent discoveries of dioxin in Belgian
foodstuffs and tainted Coca-Cola have perpetuated this consumer
demand for prudence.
Other technologies touted as totally safe and necessary for a
modern economy, most notably nuclear power, have had disastrous
consequences in Europe. The meltdown of the Chernobyl plant in
1986 exposed millions of Europeans to high levels of radiation,
and resulted in the necessary destruction of huge amounts of
plant and animal foodstuffs.
PRUDENCE IS A VIRTUE
According to Gillian K. Hadfield, a professor of law at the
University of Toronto:
"It's wrong to view consumer resistance as just anti-science
hysteria. Many people make food choices based on ethical
considerations, deciding not to eat veal, or mass-produced
chickens or non-organic produce. If biotechnology raises ethical
and environmental concerns for them, it is not irrational for
them to act on these."
The fundamental ideology in Europe is not "timidity" but rather
the Precautionary Principle. Europeans prefer to step back in the
face of uncertainty and act prudently rather than recklessly. The
U.S. used to abide by this approach in public policy, but it has
increasingly abandoned it under pressure from powerful
corporations seeking short-term profits.
There are many reasons suggested above for the early European
heightened concern about genetic engineering. But U.S. public
discourse is now approaching that common in Europe. Today,
transnational corporations which have agreed to leave genetically
engineered components out of their European foods are being
pressed to do the same for American stomachs.
In democratic societies, citizens have the right to protect
themselves from having risks thrust upon them for the economic
benefits of others. "Look before you leap" -- requiring adequate
risk assessments of genetically altered foods, requiring the
proponents of these technological changes to demonstrate that
they are safe, and requiring labeling so that citizens can make
informed choices these are reasonable public policies on both
sides of the ocean.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Phil Bereano <email@example.com> is a
professor at the University of Washington in Seattle specializing
in technology and public policy. He is a member of the Loka
Institute's National Advisory Board <http://www.Loka.org>, and
also active in the Council for Responsible Genetics <http:/
www.gene-watch.org>. Florian Kraus is a German Fulbright scholar
who has been doing graduate work at the University of Washington.
An edited version of this essay appeared in the Seattle Times
newspaper (8 November 1999).
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