A High-Level Food Fight

Article excerpt

The so-called clash of civilizations is not limited to militant Islam against superpower Christianity, nor to wealthy nations opposed by a multitude of poor ones. A ripening conflict in globalization pits the wealthy against the wealthy--Europe versus America--in a fight over the cultural meaning of food. American farmers have already opened a brave new frontier in capital-intensive agriculture--biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) crops. Europe resists. Having recently experienced the man-made catastrophe of mad-cow disease, European consumers are not willing to accept industry's standard assurances that GM food poses no risk to human health and safety or the environment. They don't want it; they won't eat it.

In response, the European Union has devised a fiendishly clever way to keep GM produce out of Europe's food system, but without violating the WTO's hallowed principles of free trade: Label it honestly. If consumers see a GM content label on the food products, they are unlikely to buy it. This past summer the European Parliament enacted a new regulatory system designed to replace Europe's de facto moratorium on approving any of the new genetically altered strains developed by Monsanto, DuPont's Pioneer and other biotech firms. In addition to labeling, the new system requires farmers, food processors and supermarkets to maintain a record that traces the origins of GM corn or soybeans from the supermarket back to the farm--a rule that will clearly pin down the legal liability if anything goes wrong.

This new approach throws a huge wrench into the expansive plans of the biotech food industry, because united Europe will have 450 million people when it adds ten more nations next spring and an internal consumer market larger than that of the United States. Multinational food companies will at best have to keep a segregated pipeline in production, processing and distribution--GM-free for Europe and probably some Asian nations like Japan and South Korea, where people share the same fears, but GM-produced for Americans and anyone else who wants it. More likely, many major brand names will decide it's not worth the hassle and declare themselves GM-free.

"This is a major blow to the genetic food industry," says Jeremy Rifkin, the American critic who has served as a consultant to EU leaders on biotech issues. …