Trans-Atlantic Food Fight

Posted January 1, 2003

Categories: Articles, Food

At the Sunday market at the Place de la Bastille in Paris, the produce proudly announces its origins. There are bananas from Martinique, olives from Spain, artichokes from Brittany and broccoli from Saint-Malo, the place names written just above the prices. Signs tell which family dairies the cheeses come from and whether the lamb grazed on salty coastal grasses. The provenance of the wine on display is even more precisely noted. The open-air markets in France are a good place to understand terroir, the French belief that local conditions such as soil and weather produce distinctive tastes.

The markets are also a good place to understand why the French — and most other Europeans — are so up in arms over genetically modified (GM) crops. In Europe people want to know how their food was raised and made. For quality control, they generally trust farmers over biotechnicians. In 1998, responding to consumer demands, the European Union blocked the commercial introduction of new GM products and required the labeling of all foods containing — by design or by accident — 1 percent or more of GM ingredients. The EU is now considering legislation that would lift the ban but lower the threshold at which labels are required. It also wants the food industry to establish a precise paper trail for all GM ingredients. This “traceability” would lead investigators back to the culprit should some unfortunate Swede inexplicably keel over after eating chow mein stir-fried in GM canola oil.

Open-air markets are comparatively rare in the United States, and most Americans have no idea where their food originates. An orange from Florida, an orange from Brazil — what’s the difference? Most Americans, too, have obliviously ingested years’ worth of genetically altered soy beans, canola oil and corn. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers a tomato that’s genetically modified for longer shelf life to be essentially the same product as an ordinary tomato — “novel enough to be patented,” as Michael Pollan points out in his best-selling book The Botany of Desire, “yet not so novel as to warrant a label telling us what it is we’re eating.”

For a European who appreciates the entire process by which food is grown, the FDA focus on end products is just another example of the inexorable vulgarity of the United States, Alice Waters and other terroir-influenced American chefs notwithstanding. For their part, two successive U.S. administrations have argued that European fear of genetically modified organisms is the result of emotionalism and unsound science. The Americans insist that biotechnology will end world hunger, decrease the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizer, and even solve critical medical problems.

The latest round of this sparring has coincided with a ratcheting up of tensions between the New World and “old Europe” over war in Iraq, which has added animus to the Bush administration’s previous impatience. It now seems more likely than ever that the administration will act on its threat to haul the European Union before the World Trade Organization. The administration claims that EU policies on transgenic food and feed are largely a cover for plain old protectionism and have already lost U.S. companies an estimated $300 million yearly. But money isn’t all that’s at issue. This is a clash of civilizations, of terroir versus McWorld, of Old World cautiousness versus New World impetuousness — and on the GM-organism front, at least, there is little hope of real compromise.

Genetic Revolution
In five short years, from 1996 to 2001, genetically modified crops moved from scientific experiment to mainstream product. Worldwide, the farmland devoted to such crops increased thirtyfold. By 2001, nearly 50 percent of all soybeans grown, including 75 percent of those in the United States, were genetically modified. The spread of GM crops and the resulting contamination of conventional ones have been so significant that the U.S. seed industry — the world’s largest — can no longer guarantee that its seeds for ordinary soybeans, corn or canola are entirely free of genetic modification.

Genetic engineering has become the centerpiece of U.S. governmental and corporate strategies for maintaining a lead in agriculture and for addressing food deficits in the developing world. Scientists expect greater yields from GM crops and, when they insert pest-resistant genes into common crops, dramatic reductions in the amount of pesticides used in commercial farming. GM animal feeds could provide an alternative for farmers in Europe and elsewhere who are looking for a cheap, high-protein substitute for the bonemeal feed that is the probable cause of mad cow disease. Meanwhile, a second generation of crops is being heralded for its medical virtues. Genetic engineering has reduced the level of mycotoxins in corn, with the potential to lower the risk of certain cancers. And “golden rice” promises to reduce vitamin A deficiency throughout the developing world.

The U.S. government insists that genetic engineering is safe, and indeed GM foods have yet to be implicated in any major health or environmental problems. Most foods pose some risk, points out Gregory Jaffe, the director of the Project on Biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “If you did a risk assessment for a peanut today,” he says, “it would not necessarily be approved.” With this general proviso, his influential organization has accepted GM organisms. “In general,” Jaffe says, “we have looked at the food safety of the current biotech crops and the evidence from independent scientists, and we are comfortable in telling our [800,000] subscribers that these products are safe to eat.”

The critics, however, are not satisfied. Some scientists have tried to link the resurgence of infectious diseases over the last generation to genetic modifications in the American food supply. Other skeptics point to studies showing immune-system damage in rats fed GM potatoes and what might have been allergic reactions among people who ate taco shells contaminated with StarLink corn, a GM animal feed.

Because of the StarLink incident, which led to the recall of 300 corn products in 2000, fissures have also opened up between the food and biotech industries. Kathleen Hart, author of Eating in the Dark, says, “After the StarLink corn incident, the food industry got burned. People were saying off the record, and sometimes even on the record, ‘Why should the food industry take the bullet for the biotech industry?'” More recently, when corn genetically engineered for pharmaceutical use showed up in soybean shipments — leading to the destruction of 155 acres of corn in Iowa in September and the quarantining of 500,000 bushels of soybeans in Nebraska in November — the food industry went ballistic and won approval for much stricter U.S. regulations separating pharmaceutical crops from the food supply (though the industry’s enthusiasm for GM food continues unabated).

But of all those who have expressed reservations about biotechnology, the Europeans have emerged as the toughest and the most influential. The EU is not categorically opposed to genetic engineering. Since the early 1990s, it has allowed the sale of such diverse GM products as pesticide-resistant corn, rabies vaccine and carnations modified to be more colorful. In general, however, the European Union has been cautious, and European consumers have been adamant. Some 70 percent of them don’t want to eat any GM foods at all. A GM-organism label in Paris or Berlin might as well be a skull-and-crossbones, so that even legally permitted GM foods are rarely on the shelves of European supermarkets. European activists have trampled GM-organism test plots, sponsored boycotts, and filled the streets with placards and noisy demonstrations. High-profile protesters such as French activist Jose Bove — he of the handlebar moustache and the sledgehammer approach to McDonalds — have gone to jail for their preemptive strikes against GM crops.

Are Europeans being overly sensitive? The bottom line, the skeptics insist, is that we just don’t know yet. Meanwhile, they say, European policy-makers are wise to adhere to the precautionary principle of better safe than sorry. If GM products were to hit European supermarkets without labels, the competition from these lower-priced foods would gradually force many European farmers to switch to the new technology. And once GM crops were being grown on a large scale — in the kind of corporate operation that favors monocropping over crop diversity, long-distance transport over local use, efficiency over sustainability and price over taste — the inevitable cross-pollination and contamination would quickly make it impossible to preserve GM-free foods, or Europe’s culinary traditions.

Inside European Politics
For the last year, Europe has been at work on a new GMO policy. The negotiations have not been easy to conduct or to follow. Food politics in the EU is a multitiered enterprise, with action going on in 15 member states, the European Parliament and an assortment of executive agencies, committees and councils of ministers. The European Parliament passed draft legislation in July 2002. In October and December, the agriculture and environment ministers of Europe met and hammered out their own proposed variations, with results that require almost Talmudic powers to interpret. Still to come is a second reading in the European Parliament, reconciliation of rival versions of the legislation and a final decision — perhaps as early as May — by Europe’s heads of state. Until then, it’s difficult for someone outside (and maybe inside) the black box of European politics to tell which side is winning.

In fact, it can even be difficult to determine what the sides are. European biotech lobbyists, unlike their American counterparts, support some variant of labeling and traceability, while most European national governments actually want the GM-organism moratorium lifted as soon as possible, if only to stanch the current biotech brain drain to the United States. In Brussels, more stringent proposals for the labeling of GM-organism contaminated foods seem to be going forward alongside proposed regulations on seed purity that are not strict enough to prevent contamination. As Geert Ritsema, the GM-organism campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth Europe, put it recently, “The [EU bureaucracy] is contradicting itself. On the one hand it is saying that consumers have the right to choose, but on the other hand it will allow a high threshold for seeds, undermining the GM-free food supply.”

For that matter, the European Union, in its aversion to risk and its passion for standardization, has favored regulations that undermine both terroir and local farming: It has restricted the sale of certain vegetable varieties and even considered banning raw milk cheeses. About all that enables European bureaucrats, activists and agribusinesses to achieve a rough consensus on GM organisms is the threat of a common enemy: the United States.

Trade Wars
In 1999 the EU blocked imports of hormone-treated beef, citing safety concerns. The U.S. and Canadian governments called the action a nontariff barrier to trade, took the European Union to the World Trade Organization and won three times. The EU dutifully paid its penalty and has continued to block U.S. beef from entering Europe.

The trans-Atlantic dispute over genetic engineering threatens to be much more divisive. The United States is considering two separate WTO challenges — one over Europe’s current moratorium on new GM products and another over labeling. For the moment, both are overshadowed by the Iraq crisis, but the U.S. Trade Representative is quietly rounding up partners for the claim against Europe. If the United States and France continue to feud over Iraq, one place the Bush administration can be expected to seek revenge is the World Trade Organization.

Not that this would resolve anything. Challenging the EU moratorium would likely only delay current plans to lift it. As for the labeling complaint, Jean Halloran, executive director of the Consumer Policy Institute, points out that the WTO will rule against labeling requirements only if they are applied inconsistently. For this reason, according to one EU official, speaking off the record, beer and cheese produced using European GM processes may soon be subject to the same labeling rules as GM food and feed coming from North America. But even if the United States were to prevail on the labeling issue, the European Union could fall back on its previous tactic of paying the penalty and keeping the regulations. And EU consumers, already furious at U.S. unilateralism in other realms, could doom GM products in the market as effectively as any official ban.

In the long run, the United States may not care. As food-industry consultant Don Westfall confessed to the Toronto Star in January 2001, “The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so flooded that there’s nothing you can do about it.” While the European Union fights to restrict GM food and feed, the United States is spreading its seed around the world. With the help of Argentina and Canada, it’s also exerting pressure outside the European Union. When China, South Korea, Croatia, Sri Lanka and others have proposed policies on labeling and traceability, the U.S. government has brandished the WTO stick.

Indeed, the main significance of the current U.S.-Europe dispute over GMOs may be that agriculture ministers the world over are watching it very carefully. Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi — African countries on the edge of famine — all made headlines last August when they refused U.S. gifts of surplus GM corn. At first blush it seemed that their refusal was nonsensical; surely the risk of starvation exceeded the risk of consuming GM food. But as African leaders pointed out, if their farmers had planted kernels of the U.S. corn, the gift ultimately might have destroyed their ability to export food to European or Japanese markets. Only when the United States finally agreed to mill the corn before sending it did the shipments — except to Zambia — go through.

Of course, the larger issue for the Southern Hemisphere is government-subsidized overproduction in both the United States and Europe, which propels the two agricultural giants to dump food overseas and has devastating effects on Third World farming. Increasing American and European crop yields through genetic engineering can only add to that problem — a problem neither Europe nor the United States is willing to tackle.

Instead, over the next few months, Brussels will remove a moratorium on GM products knowing that a shadow version imposed by consumers will take its place. Washington, meanwhile, will make a great deal of noise about European regulations while seeking to render them irrelevant by spreading GM seeds as liberally as possible. The conflict over GMOs will rage on because Europeans are protecting something (terroir and a more cautious approach to food safety) and Americans are pushing something (a powerful new technology that might help end hunger and disease), and neither side understands or trusts the other.

Is it possible to explore the benefits of biotechnology without committing us all irrevocably to a world of generic, flavorless and potentially dangerous food? Given the trans-Atlantic clash of cultures, the hard economics of farming and the sheer sexual promiscuity of plants, such a substantive compromise is as elusive as a ripe, juicy tomato in midwinter.

American Prospect, April 11, 2003

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