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The Politics of Food - by MARIA MARGARONIS

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The Nation, December 27, 1999

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. 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 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 

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 

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 
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 this piece.


                               *  The Activist  *
 This is not about the world that we inherited from our forefathers,
     It is about the world we have borrowed from our children !!