Food Fight

Europe's parliament has passed stringent new rules for genetically modified food, raising American objections. Noëlle Lenoir , the new French Minister for Europe, dissects the issues involved.

The adage that "you are what you eat" holds two meanings. It admonishes us to maintain a healthy, nutritious diet. It also reminds us that food forms an integral part of our cultural, religious, or regional identities, because what we eat and how we produce our foods are deeply rooted in our histories and traditions. Indeed, the peculiarities of national cuisine provide some of our most descriptive nicknames for one another. To the English, we French will forever be "frogs" because we eat frogs's legs, as the Germans will always be "krauts" because of their love of sauerkraut.

The evolution of European attitudes toward genetically modified foods and plants reflects just such a dual concern with health and identity. Since April 1990, when the EU Parliament, with no significant opposition, adopted the first two directives on the use and release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), public opinion has grown increasingly suspicious and hostile. What incited such fierce sensitivity about GM foods?

Seven years ago, the President of the European Commission requested the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (of which I was a member) to examine the "ethical aspects of the labeling of foods derived from modern biotechnology." Our opinion, released in May 1995, deemed food safety a fundamental ethical imperative and called for barring the commercialization of questionable products. It also argued that labeling GM foods is required in accordance with consumers' right to make informed choices about what they eat.

The opinion also included the following remark: " modern biotechnology, as a technique used in food production, cannot be regarded in itself as ethical or unethical ." It seemed to me a trivial and harmless dictum. Yet when the opinion was released, I provoked a general outcry by quoting it to the assembled journalists. I realized at once that opposition to GM crops and foods has as much to do with social and political values as with concerns about health and safety.

A candid international dialogue is indispensable to a better understanding of Europe's differences with the US and other parts of the world concerning GMOs. Such discussions might help negotiators settle ongoing disputes over the "Codex Alimentarius" (global food standards set by the World Health Organization and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization), the EU regulation on labeling and tracing genetically modified organisms, and the application of World Trade Organization rules.

Two questions, in particular, merit attention. First, why are Europeans more reluctant than Americans to embrace biotechnology? Second, why must GMOs be addressed as a global issue?

In contrast to the US, information on GMOs in Europe emphasizes risk rather than benefits (in particular, reduced use of pesticides and insecticides). For example, national advisory bodies in the UK, the Netherlands, and France recently insisted on additional regulatory measures for GMOs intended to prevent adverse side effects--for example, allergic reactions--on consumers' health. Americans find it difficult to understand why Europeans insist on such restrictions, and accuse the EU of practicing bio-trade protectionism.

Europeans are undoubtedly more pessimistic than Americans about progress in general, and recent events merely seem to have reinforced this stance. Having faced successive contamination crises in recent years--first BSE and then hoof and mouth disease--we feel particularly insecure about food. Nor is this fear limited to consumers.

Farmers across Europe are anxious about the future of agriculture in a globalized world. Americans, including farmers, are more accustomed to paying for innovative technologies and products--a disposition reflected in a recent US Supreme Court decision that extended the scope of patents on plants. In Europe, agriculture and intellectual property are more often at odds.

Europeans consumers' growing awareness of their rights and farmers' increasing fear of dependence on multinational companies are symptoms of a deeper concern about values and priorities: the type of environment we want, the role of biodiversity, our tolerance for risk, and the price we are prepared to pay for regulation. Outside Europe, the GM green revolution holds more stark implications. Eight hundred million people worldwide are chronically malnourished. Are GMOs a blessing or a curse for these people and the farmers among them?

I am inclined to believe that the problem of malnutrition in poor countries has little to do with technology or development as such. As the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen compellingly argues, hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food, but by a scarcity of democracy. Even so, once the political causes of famine and malnutrition in developing countries are resolved, the use of modern biotechnology in agriculture and food production could potentially make an immense contribution to social welfare and economic advancement.

However, we must first address the political factors that underlie most misunderstandings between America and Europe. Above all, we must reckon with the rise of ecological awareness, which in Europe is reflected in the formation and strength of Green parties, and which nurtures anti-globalization sentiments. In Europe and beyond, GMOs became emblematic of the powerful economic fears that globalization inspires. In country after country--France, Britain, Germany, New Zealand, and elsewhere--farmers and ecologists jointly oppose, and sometimes sabotage, trials of GM crops.

Hostility to GMOs is symbolic of broader opposition to the encroachment of market forces that are perceived to be creating a world in which money rules with nary a consideration for historical traditions, cultural identities, and social needs. Whatever the truth in this perception, it is little wonder--and perhaps fitting--that a fight about the future of food should form a key battleground in a fight about who we are.