Old Europe and New GM Foods

Now that the Old Europe has caved in its opposition to US policy on Iraq, President Bush has found a new issue on which to bully Europe, food. The president portrays widespread European resistance to genetically modified food as not only a violation of "free trade" principles but also the cause of Third World hunger. This time, however, Europeans would do well to hold their ground. But before European leaders claim too much of the moral high ground, the US, Europe, and the developing nations need to engage the issues of world hunger more fully.

A long line of environmentalists and social critics going all the way back to Thomas Malthus in the 18th century has explained hunger by a simple equation: Too many people are chasing too little food. For more than 50 years now, corporate agribusiness has argued that there is a simple answer to the Malthusian dilemma: Unleash the engines of technology and trade and the world will be able to expand food faster than population increases.

Simple as this answer may seem, even the diagnosis of the problem is wrong. In a recent issue of the London-based Guardian, Jeremy Rifkin reminds us that "80% of undernourished children in the developing world live in countries with food surpluses. The hunger problem has more to do with the way arable land is utilized. Today, 21% of the food grown in the developing world is destined for animal consumption. The animals, in turn, will be eaten by the world's wealthiest consumers in the northern industrial countries."

Most of the developing world already produces enough food to feed itself. Nonetheless, the distribution of income both within these nations and internationally leaves large numbers of their citizens with too few resources to afford this food. Throughout many of these nations, land holdings since at least the colonial days have been heavily concentrated in the hands of a narrow elite.

Paradoxically, post World War II experiments in "Green Revolution" technology assistance to these nations have often only exacerbated the concentration of wealth and land. Only the larger farmers could afford or gain favorable terms for the new fertilizers that expanded their production. Their success in expanding production made the position of smaller farmers even more tenuous. And farmers across all classes found themselves increasingly dependent on corporate suppliers and large multinational marketing conglomerates.

Even if GM crops represent a scientific breakthrough, economically they are part of this same old story. Guardian columnist George Monbiot points out: "By patenting transferred genes and the technology associated with them, then buying up the competing seed merchants and seed-breeding centres, the biotech companies can exert control over the crops at every stage of production and sale. Farmers are reduced to their sub-contracted agents. This has devastating implications for food security in the poor world: food is removed from local marketing networks -- and therefore the mouths of local people -- and gravitates instead towards sources of hard currency."

The peasantry in the developing world, just like the AIDS-devastated population in many of these nations, suffers not because those nations violate "free trade" but because current international trade agreements represent something far less than genuinely competitive market principles. Developing nations are expected to observe and enforce patent and copyright protections that yield monopoly profits for western multinationals even as their farmers must compete in both domestic and international markets with subsidized US agribusiness.

On this issue, however, blame goes well beyond the Bush administration. Farm state politicians of both parties have fallen all over themselves in extending lavish federal subsidies that disproportionately benefit large agribusiness concerns. Though European nations have been more generous in direct assistance to developing nations, they too have pursued subsidy and tariff policies making it hard for farmers in these nations to compete.

The battle over GM food may represent a watershed regulatory issue for President Bush. Though the administration has won most of its regulatory battles, it may find the going difficult here. The issue brings together growing concerns about world hunger, international trade, and food safety. Bush wants the World Trade Organization to rule that European laws requiring all GM food to be labeled as such are an unfair impediment to trade.

I am an agnostic on the question of just how safe those foods are, but capitalism as a system is indefensible without some notion of the right of the consumer to basic information about what he or she is buying. Most Americans -- even wealthy and upper-class citizens -- have enough concerns about these foods to insist on a right to know what they are eating. Their concerns, along with those of trade reform and global justice advocates, could become a powerful barrier to Bush's new war on Europe.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

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