Taking Food from the Table
This essay is a response to Orsolya Ujj’s article in The New Atlantis, in which she explores the differences in European and American views on genetically modified food. Beginning with the very title, two fundamental assumptions are woven into the narrative unchallenged:
The first assumption is that there is a sufficient level of social cohesion within the populations of the United States of America and that of the European Union for it to be meaningful to talk about their essentially homogenous preferences and aligned interests. The second assumption is that government policies in these societies are approximate expressions of these preferences and interests. Both assumptions are quite common in discussions of democratic societies, but as we shall see in the context of agricultural policies, they do not quite match observable reality.
La Dolce Vita
Before delving into the specifics of genetically modified food, let us take a bird’s eye view on agricultural policies and the motivations behind them.
Imposing import tariffs on foreign agricultural produce and subsidizing domestic agricultural production and export have always been hostile acts. The immediate victims of these policies are foreign producers and domestic consumers. Superficially, it is the domestic producers that seem to be the immediate beneficiaries. Thus, even at this level we can see that there is a clear conflict between domestic producers and consumers and that government policies clearly favor one group at the expense of the other. In developed societies, the number of people involved in the production of food is very small, while everybody needs to eat. So, even taking everything at face value, the democratic government enforces policies favoring a small minority at the expense of the overwhelming majority. But there is more to it than making a few individuals rich at the expense of making everybody else a little poorer.
Agricultural policies are responsible for much more than that. As an example, let us look at a product whose production and trade have long been subject to very aggressive government interference on both sides of the Atlantic: sugar.
Most of the sugar consumed by Europeans is produced from sugar beet. As noted by Orsolya Ujj, this plant was among the ones European policymakers attempted to exclude from imports citing the precautionary principle against GMO’s. Outside of Europe (and the former Soviet Union), beet sugar is only a very small fraction of all sugar consumed. Is it really the case that European tastes differ that much from the rest of the world? Clearly not, since the favorite sugar of the rest of the world (excluding the U. S.), cane sugar, is sold at premium in Europe, so European consumers clearly prefer it to beet sugar. It also happens to be much cheaper than beet sugar, even including transportation costs (but excluding customs duties). So why do people even bother with planting and processing sugar beet, genetically modified or not, if it results in an inferior product at a higher cost? The immediate answer is, of course, subsidies and tariffs, but why do European governments impose it on their subjects?
Well, food shortages, food price hikes and — in the extreme case — famine, as well as threats thereof have always been very powerful tools of subjugating a population. That who has the power to control a population’s food supply has very real power over that population, no matter who the nominal government of that population is and whether or not there is any. Thus, driving a foreign country’s food producers out of business by flooding their market with subsidized food is not a generous gift to their population, but a move for military advantage. Similarly, excluding foreign food and subsidizing domestic production is simply a means of keeping the levers of power over life and death (by starvation) firmly in the government’s hands. From this perspective, the seemingly crazy policies suddently make sense: sugar beet is a weapon, not an economic crop. It is hardly surprising that the person primarily responsible for the popularity of beet sugar in Europe is none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. Without military research and government intervention in markets, sugar beet would not even exist.
For very similar reasons, the United States implements an even more agessive policy regarding the sweet stuff, by subsidizing HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup) in addition to (and to some extent instead of) sugar beet. A product that is generally inferior even to beet sugar, let alone regular cane sugar.
So-called “intellectual property rights” over genetically modified crops are yet another means by which food producers can be controlled by governments foreign and domestic. Hence, the push for and against GMO’s is in many cases just a struggle for power over food production, with made-up arguments about safety and free trade to conceal a far more sinister agenda.