Perceptions of Food That Are an Ocean Apart


May 12, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in The Financial Times on May 12, 2004.

Despite strong ties and many common views, Europeans and Americans see some basic things differently thanks to varying cultural perspectives. One of these things is food, manifested by the transatlantic controversy over genetically modified foods. The decision on Monday by Monsanto, the agricultural biotechnology company, to drop plans to sell its genetically modified spring wheat to farmers takes these different views into account.

Many farmers in the US and Canada feared that Monsanto's GM wheat would not be marketable in Europe and Japan because of consumer opposition to biotech products. The Monsanto wheat was altered to make it resistant to the company's own Roundup herbicide, enabling farmers to kill weeds without harming the wheat itself.

Monsanto cited economic factors for making its decision, including a 25 per cent drop in spring wheat acreage in the US and Canada since 1997 and a lack of "widespread industry alignment" on GM wheat. Groups opposed to GM foods hailed the action as a victory in their anti-biotech campaign.

European Union rules, which are stricter than any others in the world, took effect last month. They require labelling and tracing of GM foods. Many in Europe—where polls show more than 70 per cent of Europeans oppose GM food—see the new rules as a consumer protection measure designed to inform millions of people about food safety.

But more than a difference in cultural taste is needed to legally uphold the EU restrictions against GM crops. Unable to reach agreement, the US, Argentina, Canada and Uruguay have brought a case against the EU to the World Trade Organization in an effort to open up European markets to GM products. WTO regulations say countries may ban imports only on condition of scientific evidence of risk. The EU now faces a challenge to show its aversion to GM products has a scientific as well as a cultural basis.

US biotechnology companies contend that the European rules are unnecessary, protectionist and potentially harmful to American agricultural markets abroad. Scientists have been genetically modifying crops for two decades to make them more resistant to disease, insect damage and herbicides, or to make them more nutritious. Because some GM crops require fewer pesticides, some scientists believe that modified crops may not only be safer to eat but may cause less damage to the environment.

The US, the world's leading producer of GM crops, points out that 81 EU-funded research studies on GM foods in the past 15 years have found that crops with gene modifications posed no dangers to human health.

Despite the research findings, Europeans persist in emphasising precaution when dealing with GM foods. This is largely because of the contrasting cultural perspectives.

Many Americans view food as fuel that keeps bodies operating and mealtimes merely as necessary interruptions. It is common for them to gulp down their meals, which is often fast food, in cars, on desks, or at the kitchen counter. In Europe, dining is the highlight of the day. Food is savoured at length and is integral to culture. Europeans often linger over dinner and even lunch for hours, turning meals into social occasions.

As a result, genetically engineering food—a central element of the culture—is abhorrent to many Europeans.

Europeans and Americans also have different perceptions about agriculture. While much of US farmland is devoted to large-scale, single-crop agri-business, European farms are smaller and often family-run, with greater crop variety per operation. So while the switch to GM crops is seen as a change in business operations in the US, it is perceived in Europe as a change in the way families earn their livelihoods.

Moreover, a greater percentage of Europeans than Americans live in rural areas. Changes to the countryside—through industrialisation by agribusinesses supporting GM crops—are perceived as threatening to their very way of life for some Europeans. Such changes are also seen as threatening the traditional variation in the distinctive, locally produced food products that are a source of regional pride.

Yet another difference hinges on the varying perceptions of government competence. Europeans' confidence in their regulatory bodies has plummeted because of recent food-related scares. By comparison, Americans tend to have confidence in their government's pronouncements about food safety.

All this explains why what looks good to Americans on the food menu often looks frightening to Europeans. In many ways, where you eat continues to determine what you eat.

The writer is an associate policy researcher at the Rand Corporation

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