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Weekly Edition 071: Saturday 6th July 2002

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An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

Thinking About Food - Part Five

In the last four articles of this series we have had a brief peek at concerns with 'Big Food'/'junk food' and the potential legal battles that seem to be brewing. Much of the real in fighting will probably become very bitter and the 'Big Food', etc, producers will try, of course, to keep as much of it as possible out of the press. There will be intense lobbying behind the scenes and undoubtedly many 'deals' will be attempted. That is the way of the 'modern' world.

There looks set to be similar intense lobbying and 'possible deals' trying to be made in another aspect of the food world that concerns us all, the famous so-called GM Foods, genetically modified foods. These GM foods have been called 'Frankenstein foods' by some of their opponents, a labelling that may be a little bit strong for a type of project that theoretically started out with the best of intentions, to save the world from hunger. The project seems, however, to have possibly been hijacked on the way from theory to practice. Money, greed, business and power seem to have turned - like so many things - an idea that was beneficial into a situation of potential concern and confrontation. It boils down to the ancient struggle between ethics and money. Sometimes these contrasts can be seen much more clearly from outside of the 'modern' world, by cultures that are philosophical and ancient and can analyze our own 'modern' foibles with an unfogged mind. I will give an example from Vanuatu, in the southwest Pacific. Nearly 20 years ago I was having a long series of discussions with an old friend, a chief from the island of Ambrym (an island renowned for sorcerers), about the problems of violence in the 'white man's world', a distant, isolated, sometimes feared world. "I have heard there is a council called the United Nations which groups together the big islands of the world, is this true?", my friend asked. "Yes", I replied. "I have heard that inside this council there is another council called the Security Council that looks after the peace of the world, is this true?", he said. "Yes", I replied. ôI have heard that America, England, France and Russia are the most important members of this peace council, is this true?" "Yes", I replied. "I have also heard that America, England, France and Russia are also the countries that make the most rifles and fighting tools and they sell them to the other counties in the United Nations, is this true?" "Yes", I replied. "How can this be? If we set up a council of high men to control and stop the making of bad magic stones (there are good ones) by bad sorcerers (there are good ones), we do not put those men making the stones in the council". No reply.

GM foods may be a little bit like that. Good in theory, but when one looks at the alleged track record of some of the giant corporations involved in the selling of the prime GM material (seeds, sprays, etc), then it is only natural that one can become a bit wary. I am making no comparisons here whatever, only posing a theoretical query: what if Coca-Cola was produced, sold and distributed by the Mafia? Would you then be slightly cautious of it even if you liked it? Wouldn't you begin to wonder? In spite of all the pro-GM publicity on how safe such types of food are for humans, there are still doubts. It is obvious that 'GM' foods have not been around long enough for anyone to be absolutely certain that such food will cause no long-term eventual problems. Be that as it may, and in spite of great pressure from US 'interests', the European parliament in Strasbourg voted on 3rd July to legislate for the most stringent GM food labelling and food sourcing rules that now exist anywhere. This vote was enacted in spite of 'massive lobbying from US biotechnology companies', and was effectively a major slap - more of a punch, really - in the face for them. This was only voted through by a narrow majority. If the vote stands up, all foods in Europe derived from GM crops, at least those containing more than 0.5% of GM material, must be so labelled. European consumer groups estimate that a minimum of 30,000 food products will now need to be labelled as containing GM material - mostly derived from GM Soya or maize - including 'non-food' items such as breads, cakes, chocolates, crisps and sweets. There is no provision, though, for enacting rules for a 'GM - free' label for foods that either do not contain GM material or contain less than the 0.5%. This latter omission poses a problem for those wishing to produce and sell organic food. However, 'the nature of the beast' is such that already - or in the very near future, there may almost be no easily available food products that do not contain some trace of GM material. More below as to the reason why.

Europe is not out of the woods yet: this decision is not yet law and it may be that the extremely narrow majorities that managed to push this vote through in Strasbourg may be even further reduced, or disappear, in the future steps needed to pass the legislation. The European parliament must vote on the issue once again before the end of 2002 and then confer with member states. One can imagine that the big biotechnology companies will not take this lying down and that the knives will be out. The 3rd July vote also raises the possibility of a trade war with the US, which claims that such proposals could seriously affect approximately $5 billion worth of US exports annually to Europe. It is likely that the US will try and block such legislation by resorting to the WTO (World Trade Organization) under the ruse that this is effectively a discrimination against American products amounting to an illegal trade restriction. We have already had a chance to delve into the pros and cons of the WTO in an earlier article.

But how is it that GM crops have actually gotten this far when it seems that the public outcry against them, even in the US, had seemingly reached such a state two years ago that it looked as if the whole concept might have been doomed to oblivion? Well, we underestimate the power of money and the money of power. Millennia ago, the great Sophocles said:

"Money, gentlemen, money! The virus
That infects mankind with every sickness
We have a name for, no greater scourge
Than that! Money it is that pounds
Great cities to piles of rubble, turns people
By the millions into homeless refugees,
Takes homeless citizens and corrupts them
Into doing things they would be ashamed to think of
Before the fee was mentionedů."

And things are no different today, they are even worse. The relatively recent shocking news (for some) about corporate fraud in the US should be opening the public's eyes as to how the system really works. The recent cases of the collapses of Enron, Worldcom and those others that are in the pipeline are just an indication of the depths to which big business has sunk - and this is nothing new, this sort of fraud has been going on for nearly 15 years and involves not only the big companies, but also auditors, banks, stock markets and so on. It is all interlinked, and people have a right to be disgusted with the system. The only surprise is that it has taken so long to come to light. The 'modern' world, so adept at criticizing nations in the 'Developing' world for corruption, should be hanging its head in shame: the sums involved in modern 'corporate fraud' dwarf the paltry hoardings of petty dictators. And is there any saving grace because those involved are from the 'modern' world? No, and it gets worse: of the top 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are business corporations, only 49 are nations. Of the top 200 business corporations in the world, 82 are from the US. Of these 82 corporations, 44 did not pay the full standard 35% US federal tax rate during the period 1996-1998, and seven of these 'actually paid less than zero in federal income taxes in 1998 (because of rebates)'. These include household names - PepsiCo, Chevron, Texaco, McKesson, Enron, Worldcom and General Motors. There are, of course, similar corporations in the UK and Europe; it is just that US companies seem (so far) not so adept at keeping secrets. 'Creative accounting' can do wonders!

So how did the big biotech corporations react when, a couple of years ago, it looked as if the future of GM products was possibly due to be curtailed? A year ago, 35 countries had, or were developing, compulsory GM labelling laws. It looked then as if the vast US agricultural export industry would have to bow to public pressure and keep GM seeds well away from 'pure' crops. What happened? Some say the big biotech corporations went on the offensive, 'genetically' and legally. Whether it was a conscious decision or not is still rather unclear, it may be inherent in the products and the system. The ever-vigilant Naomi Klein hints that it was deliberate. In a perceptive June 2001 article, she outlines the response of the biotechnology industry to the threat of 'GM labelling': "The real strategy is to introduce so much genetic pollution that meeting the consumer demand for GM-free food is seen as not possible. The idea, quite simply, is to pollute faster than countries can legislate - then change the laws to fit the contamination". This is what seems to have happened in the European parliament decision: there is no provision for a 'GM-free' food label as it is now thought that this would be almost impossible - and prohibitively expensive - to enforce. 'GM' pollution has now reached a stage where it seems almost impossible to stop. To make the situation even laughably and tragically worse, one of the biggest biotech companies, Monsanto (whom we have come across in our series on 'Water') seems to be actually suing some of the people who may be being inadvertently polluted! Does this sound like a horror film? It should.

One might say that the solution to all this is to eat only 'organic' food, but that is the problem: within the very near future there will be no pure organic food, GM 'pollution' will have made that impossible. The 'genie' is out of the bottle and it is too late to put it back inside!

Kirk W Huffman

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