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Sunday, November 7, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Politics Of Altered Foods

Special To The Times

THE CLASH over gene foods highlights the clash between economic, scientific, and cultural interests in the world being shaped by the WTO. U.S. agricultural exports were worth $50 billion last year, more than 7 percent of the nation's total. Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat has warned that resistance of the 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.

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 government regulators.

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 risk-taking European."

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" (ignoring the reality that 76 million Americans are food poisoned annually.

Ignorance and collusion

A poll this summer by the world's largest independent PR firm found that 62 percent of Americans were unaware that genefoods were already being marketed. In actuality, 35 percent of the 1999 corn acreage and 55 percent of soy has been modified. It is estimated that approximately 60 percent of the processed foods in a 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 US "regulatory" scheme is makeshift, full of absurdities and loopholes, according to a cover story in the New York Times Magazine entitled "Playing God in the Garden," of a year ago.

Based on a policy authored by his industry Council on Competitiveness, Vice President Dan Quayle in May 1992 announced that the U.S. government would consider genetically engineered crops to be no different from those bred traditionally.

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 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").

Clinton's Secretary of Agriculture has railed against the European Union's apprehensions by saying "we will not be pushed into allowing political science to govern these concerns." Yet, it is the U.S. government that has elevated politics and economics above a reasoned scientific assessment of genefoods.

U.S. citizens' concerns

Consumer surveys have shown large 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 percent of Americans in favor of labeling; the last poll conducted by the US Department of Agriculture, in 1995, found 84 percent in favor, and a Time magazine survey within the past year put the percentage at 81.

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 percent who want to increase taxes on the wealthy, and the 77 percent who feel that corporations have too much power, and the 64 percent who want guaranteed health care for all," he said.

This spin is exemplified by a recent 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 FDA deregulatory initiative stimulated almost 4,000 comments, with many calling for safety testing and the majority asking for labeling. Among those making such requests were the attorneys general of eight states, the American Association of Retired Persons, and the trade association of chefs.

Consumers Union, the oldest and largest association of American consumers, has repeatedly and persistently opposed - on behalf of its 4.7 million member households - the government failures to adequately handle this new technology. In its September 1999 issue of Consumer Reports, it called again for genefood evaluation and labeling.

Last June, a petition carrying 500,000 signatures in support of labeling was presented to the White House, Congress, and governmental agencies. 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 apathy.

Is government policy changing?

Corn and soy exports from the U.S have been drastically reduced because producers have not segregated the genetically engineered varieties. Buyers, especially in the EU, won't buy the tainted mixtures. Corn farmers have probably lost about $200 million this year. One of the largest domestic exporters, Archer Daniels Midland, 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.

Meanwhile, a 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 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."

While North Atlantic culture is highly homogeneous when contrasted with other parts 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 show the more significant factors:

Politics: 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 percent). From this position, they have been able to insert genetic engineering concerns into public discourse. However, due to the "winner take all" system in the U.S., minorities of 49 percent (and their issues) can be ignored by legislative representatives.

The agribusiness/government revolving door: Canada's national paper, The Globe and Mail, has observed:

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 regulatory bodies.

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 the company's international regulatory director. At the cusp of the Bush and Clinton Administrations, when the 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 process was guided by former Monsanto employees then at the FDA who subsequently went back to work for the company.

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 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.

Geographical factors: Compared to agribusiness in the U.S., farmland 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 supermarket shelves.

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 percent larger.

Other cultural and historical factors: The American self-image is one of pioneers and adventurers. 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 chock-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.

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 this country. Major European cities are still full of many small markets and specialty food shops.

In contrast to the homogenization fostered by 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 wine.

Whereas the U.S. 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.

Technological fiascoes: 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.

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.

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.

"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," according to Gillian K. Hadfield, a professor of law at the University of Toronto.

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.

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. ------------------------------- Phil Bereano is a professor at the University of Washington specializing in technology and public policy. He is active in the Council for Responsible Genetics and the Washington Biotechnology Action Council. Florian Kraus is a German Fulbright scholar who has been doing graduate work at the University of Washington.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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