At loggerheads over the quality and importance of food throughout history, Americans and French now diverge on its safety. The old saying that Americans eat to live and the French live to eat takes on new meaning as scientifically altered vegetables and beef move on to the cutting edge of international politics.
Parts of the dispute between Washington and Paris over genetically modified soybeans and corn and hormone-enhanced beef are as old as les collines. The narrow-gauge politics of trade animates a continuing intercontinental food fight, with U.S. farmers eager to dominate markets Europeans would like to keep to themselves. But the fears and suspicions European consumers increasingly voice about so-called Frankenstein food grown in the United States and exported to them seem to go far beyond the usual search for commercial advantage or national pride in agriculture. Food has become a new transatlantic battleground on which science, theology, superstition and trust in government are clashing forces.
American consumers seem indifferent to or unaware of the expanding role that biotechnology plays in their agriculture. Soybeans engineered to resist disease and not require fertilizer or other expensive chemicals were introduced in 1996 and now make up 50 percent of the national crop. About 25 percent of U.S. corn output is genetically modified (GM). This GM food is marketed without discussion or labeling at home.
Such nonchalance is rapidly disappearing on this side of the Atlantic. It would be an exaggeration to call Europe's current food mood hysterical. But there is a whiff of public panic in the air, and politicians are scrambling to find refuge or opportunity as concern mounts.
The Belgian government fell this month in part because of its dismal handling of a food scare involving reports of cancer-causing chickens and animal fats. France and other European countries have swept Coca-Cola from supermarket shelves because of mysterious headaches and stomach upset reported by consumers. Prince Charles recently provoked huge headlines in a country traumatized by mad cow disease earlier this decade by indirectly criticizing Tony Blair's government for being too lax on GM farming conditions.
As usual, France has gladly taken on the burden of voicing Europe's concerns directly to U.S. leaders.
After wining and dining fellow gourmand Bill Clinton in a Paris bistro last week, French President Jacques Chirac pressed Clinton to agree to a world scientific authority that would certify food safety. Clinton rejected the idea then and later at the G-8 summit in Cologne, where he succeeded in shunting Chirac's proposal off to an international study committee.
U.S. officials saw the French idea as a protectionist ploy to facilitate strict labeling laws consigning U.S. beef and vegetables to food ghettos in European supermarkets. Clinton told Chirac that Europe should establish a body similar to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and let scientific analysis be decisive.
Chirac seemed neither surprised nor disappointed. He had shown his concern on food safety, and as French journalists promptly reported, his effort to protect the public from unknown dangers was thwarted by U.S. opposition. The French government said yesterday that it would ask the European Union to ban the marketing of any new genetically modified food.
It would be a mistake to see the political and commercial gain France seeks as the whole story. There is a genuine and growing European consumer backlash to U.S. bioagriculture. Spotlighting the problems may be in Chirac's interests -- but he did not make them up.
Europeans do not seem to be as trusting of science or of their governments and institutions -- at least on food safety -- as are Americans. The anxiety of the unknowns involved in laboratories tinkering with the raw materials of life is heightened by stereotypical images of giant U.S. corporations secretly taking control of "an unnatural reordering of nature's gene pool," as one anti-GM food British campaigner recently put it.
Food safety is becoming an explosive issue that needs to be handled with openness, candor and sensitivity by U.S. corporations and officials. The Clinton administration's simplistic version of globalization has too often pushed for the opening of markets as the be-all and end-all of international economic activity without looking at cultural and political side effects.
Giving the impression that U.S. politicians and corporations are determined to ride roughshod over Europe on food safety would be catastrophic for U.S. political and commercial interests abroad. That approach -- the inevitable consequence of treating this as a narrow trade problem -- must be avoided.