The Straits Times

JUL 8 1999


The politics of food



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 revolution.

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 democracies.

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 modified food.

But perhaps the most fascinating dimension of food politics is the way it connects with debates about identity in a more globalised world.

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 complex.

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 about identity.

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.]



Copyright 1999 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.