|The politics of
By GERALD SEGAL
THERE are international trade
disputes about steel or telecommunications, but
the gathering debate about trade in genetically
modified food makes it clear that there is
nothing quite as intense as arguments about food.
Similarly, there are domestic
political scandals about money or sex, but as the
food contamination problems in Belgium, Britain,
Hongkong or Malaysia have made plain, food can
become intense high politics.
Why is food so contentious? The
easiest answer is that food disputes seem to
stimulate a wider range of controversial taste
buds. For example, in the case of genetically
modified food, what becomes evident immediately
is that what is at the core of concerns is a
still underdeveloped debate about the genetic
While scientists understand
that we stand on the cusp of a great revolution
-- the ability to remake major parts of the human
body and the living world around us -- the
general public is not ready for the leap into a
complex field of choices.
The argument that crops should
not be genetically modified in order for us to
use less pesticides should strike most people as
perverse. But our media can keep a straight face
when discussing the risks of "Frankenstein
Foods" because deep down people in
democratic countries do not know how to decide
how far and how fast the genetic revolution
should be allowed to go.
The poverty of the genetically
modified food debate is, in fact, part of a wider
problem that in liberal democracies there is an
inability to judge scientific public policy.
When confronted with
conflicting scientific advice as we have had in
most domestic food scandals, a public with not
even a decent scientific education finds it hard
to mate the kinds of rational choices that are
essential for the smooth functioning of
Wild and shoddy research on the
risks of genetically modified food gets big
headlines, but far less attention is given to the
devastating refutation that follows months later.
Jittery politicians respond to
the public hysteria by taking the easy course of
postponing decisions and in effect, closing down
debate. The politics of food are also hard to
handle because they are at the cutting edge of so
many of the new trends in domestic and
international affairs. For one thing, they
highlight the growing distrust of government.
The fact that officials are
slow to deal with food scares or lack leadership
in confronting new forms of food, is merely part
of the process whereby power has been leaking
away from government. Power has in part gone to
large corporations who are major players in the
food industry, and to vocal non-governmental
organisations who often beat the politicians to
the moral high ground.
Research and development
spending by governments in all major Western
countries is below 40 per cent of total spending
and falling as governments privatise companies
and de-regulate economies.
Citizens and politicians are
finding it increasingly hard to ensure the
accountability of companies in a global economy.
Under these circumstances, it
is not surprising that in international terms
power is also shifting.
Genetically modified food has
been grown for more than a decade in the United
States and the major food exporters, such as
Australia, Canada and Argentina, have joined the
US in grabbing market share from the Europeans
who have been much warier of genetically modified
foods and biotechnology as a whole.
Even China is becoming very
interested in the prospects of genetically
But perhaps the most
fascinating dimension of food politics is the way
it connects with debates about identity in a more
At first glance, one might
forgive countries with great cuisines -- France,
Italy and China -- for a conservative defence of
food purity. Who would expect the Americans,
Canadians or Australians with their polyglot
society to take food seriously?
And yet, what is happening in
the food and service industries in the developed
world suggests that approaches to food are more
In all major cities, one sees
wonderful new fusion foods as cultures interact
and a more mobile population demands higher food
standards and greater diversity.
Some forms of these new mixes
are distinctly odd -- for example, McDonald's
sale of bastardised Indian food -- but even these
are responses to the new more sophisticated
demands of consumers.
These forces of globalisation
not only lead to higher standards of taste, but
also to higher standards of health. Italians and
the French have discovered that their range of
much-loved traditional cheeses are sometimes
dangerous to eat.
German beer drinkers are now
confronted with the risks of their traditional
methods of brewing. The Japanese used to claim
they could not import cheaper American rice as
their stomachs were not suited to foreign rice.
Everywhere, people have to make
complex choices about their food priorities when
in fact the choices they are making are in part
In this environment where
scientific debate is poor, governments are
weakening, power is shifting and identity is
under strain, it should not be surprising that
debates about food are as strenuous but as
incoherent as they are.
Blaming it all on globalisation
and large foreign companies with contaminated
products (for example, Coke) may make some people
feel better, but until the population becomes
scientifically literate and prepared to face the
new century of biotechnology, we will be stuck
with distastefully confused food policies.
[The writer is director of
studies of The International Institute for
Strategic Studies in London.]