CONSUMERS REBEL AS FRANKENFOODS' ARE STUFFED DOWN THEIR THROATS,
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- Subject: CONSUMERS REBEL AS FRANKENFOODS' ARE STUFFED DOWN THEIR THROATS,
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- Date: Fri, 24 Dec 1999 19:00:42 -0800 (PST)
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Thanks John Whiting
From: John Whiting <email@example.com>
Maria Margaronis and her husband Don Guttenplan are a pair of fine
American scholars and journalists living in London. Recently Don phoned to
tell me they were working on an article for The Nation (for years one of
America's best analytical news journals) on the British-led revolt against
GM food and its repercussions in the US. This was good news. I suggested a
few of the usual suspects, including our own Tim Lang, and they made good
use of them.
The result is one of the best brief wrap-ups you'll find in print - not
only in its historical summary but particularly in its warning of future
tactics to be expected from the supranationals. Especially threatening -
and we can see it evolving every day - is the prospect of a two-tier food
service whereby the rich dine organically and the poor eat the rejects.
Much of the Nation's current issue is devoted to the politics of food.
I'll be forwarding other articles during the next few days, including a
couple not available from the web site. (I'll try to get them out before
our computers sieze up for the millennium.)
The Nation, December 27, 1999
The Politics of Food
AS BIOTECH FRANKENFOODS' ARE STUFFED DOWN THEIR THROATS,
by MARIA MARGARONIS
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, Neuromancer
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
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
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
* * *
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
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 Confidiration Paysanne, the
country's second-largest farmers' union and political home of Josi Bovi,
famous for taking apart a new "McDo" in Millau to protest American food
imperialism. Last year Bovi 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 Bovi 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 refusis 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 Josi Bovi, "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.
Maria Margaronis is a Nation contributing editor living in
London. Thanks to D.D. Guttenplan for additional reporting on
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