Overview of EU Fight Against Frankenfoods: 1996-99

The Nation 12/27/99




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
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
was the most "successful launch of any technology ever, including the
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
in terms, you might say, since roughly 80 percent of Europe's farm
go to 20 percent of its farmers), European governments hoped to insure
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
one--agrochemicals and intensive farming--is unraveling." The unraveling
has made itself felt both in the economic crisis that affects many of
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
farming practices (in this case the feeding of ground-up cow carcasses to
cattle), the easing of health and safety standards, and government's
to lie for the food industry even at the cost of human lives.
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!"
* * *
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
told British food retailers that they could not--would not--segregate
GM soybeans from the conventional kind, undermining the golden rule of
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
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
A few weeks later Wadsworth was on a plane to Brazil, where he found a
and processor of non-GM soybeans and began to set up a vertically
supply chain for Iceland's processed foods. Iceland began to raise the
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
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
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,
protest. English Nature, the government's own environmental watchdog, and
the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds both added their
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
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
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
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
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
With its usual brash enthusiasm The Express launched a populist crusade
against "Frankenfoods," and pretty soon not a man, woman or child in
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
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
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
the next century. In the words of the government's Chief Scientific
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
of the public mood. Had they proceeded from the start in an open
and careful
manner, acknowledging all the unanswered questions about genetic
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 Confédération Paysanne,
the country's second-largest farmers' union and political home
of Jose
Bove;, famous for taking apart a new "McDo" in Millau
to protest American
food imperialism. Last year Bove 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 Bove; 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
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
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 refusés
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 José
Bove;, "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.

Margaronis is a Nation contributing editor living in London. Thanks to D.D.
Guttenplan for additional reporting on this piece.