In 2002, the farmers of Zambia were starving, eating leaves, sticks and poisonous berries in an attempt to survive the worst famine to rake southern Africa in years. President Levy Mwanawasa declared an emergency. But when the United States offered a shipment of corn, he rejected it, insisting his people would rather starve than eat genetically-modified American grain.
The American agriculture industry was flummoxed. They had been tinkering with the DNA of crops to make it resistant to pests and herbicides, and regarded the results as healthier and better than the food produced "naturally." Americans eat this corn every day with no evidence that the enhancement makes anyone sick.
It turns out that there was another explanation for Zambia's resistance. President Mwanawasa was worried not about the health implications of the engineered food, but about the political consequences. His country had a lucrative trade agreement with the European Union, which rejects genetically modified foods and might have cut off imports of Zambian corn and carrots if the country imported "unnatural" American corn. The fear was that the Zambians would start planting the American corn and then export it, thereby tricking Europeans into eating food that they were attempting to boycott.
As the Zambian episode shows, food can be more than just something people swallow. Increasingly, it has become a politically charged subject bearing on thorny issues of foreign trade, labor rights, scientific experimentation and environmental policy.
Unlike Europeans, Americans tend to resist thinking about the politics of the food we eat. We want it fast and utilitarian. Or we yearn for gourmet meals, which is all about pleasure, not policy. Sometimes we obsess about carbs or calories, and some of us avoid McDonalds because we see the angel of death in French fries. But that's all personal. The idea of selecting one food over another to protest an international trade policy requires an amount of selfless, intellectual effort that seems downright alien in the presence of a tender rib-eye or a juicy melon.
Shopping to avoid pesticides or labor abuses is also, by and large, a pastime strictly confined to the wealthy, who can afford to pay premiums at Whole Foods to indulge their consciences. Most working parents struggle to find time to make their children's school lunches, let alone select the apple from a local organic cooperative that is "GM (genetically modified) free."
But three new books give consumers powerful reasons to start thinking about the American system of subsidized food production. In different ways, the authors detail how the simple act of chomping an ear of corn in Zambia or Glen Burnie can have monumental importance. Depending on your perspective, taking a bite can be seen as an act of buying into corporate meddling in the natural world; enjoying scientific progress that makes food healthier; or endorsing American trade policies that reverberate around the world.
All three of the authors talk about the politics of food, but they offer different perspectives.
In Mendel in the Kitchen (Joseph Henry Press, 350 pages, $27.95), Nina Federoff, a professor of biology at Penn State University, convincingly argues that the Europeans have wrongly politicized and demonized genetically modified crops, to the harm of poor people in the Third World. Federoff (who collaborated on this book with science writer, Nancy Marie Brown) argues that "GM" corn, soybeans and other foods - which are everywhere in American supermarkets, but unlabeled - are more healthful than "natural" crops, because they contain fewer fungal toxins. And they can survive pests better than other plants. Obstructions to engineered food, she insists, deny desperately needed help to starving people in Africa and elsewhere.
Christopher D. Cook, an investigative journalist who has written for Harper's and other magazines, doesn't focus on the issue of genetic modification in his Diet for a Dead Planet (The New Press, 325 pages, $24.95). He writes a blistering polemic that details why American agriculture should be weaned from multi-billion dollar government subsidies that undermine Third World farmers, leaving them impoverished while Americans grow obese.
These farm subsidies cost taxpayers more than $20 billion a year, and account for about 47 percent of agricultural income.
The modern form of the supports began during the Great Depression as a strategy to help family farmers. But most of the subsidies today wind up in the hands of corporate agricultural giants, which use their financial leverage to out-compete and devour family farms. Despite the taxpayer support, nearly 20,000 small farms per year go under and are lapped up by conglomerates, Cook writes.
Across the country, small livestock operations are being replaced by increasingly mechanized beef, pork and poultry factories that pour antibiotics into feed to plump up weights and profits. The result of medicating healthy animals - and neglecting to clean their bins - is a spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are making a growing number of people sick. More than 70 percent of chickens sold in U.S. supermarkets today carry campylobacter, a bacteria from the intestines of animals that causes fever and diarrhea in people who consume the contaminated food. This organism is responsible for at least 2 million food-borne illnesses a year and 200 to 800 deaths.
The agglomeration of farms into ever-larger industrial-style operations - dependent on vast amounts of fertilizers and pesticides - also feeds environmental mayhem. In 1995, a lagoon of feces and urine beside a massive hog farm in North Carolina burst into the New River, releasing 25 million gallons of manure (twice as much volume as the Exxon Valdez). The reeking wave killed 10 million fish and closed 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands to shellfishing.
Cook argues that the federal government should buck the political influence of wealthy agribusinesses and start cracking down on the big farms' pollution, disease and abuse of migrant laborers.
In recent book now out in paperback, It's All for Sale (Duke University Press, 240 pages, $18.95), Village Voice staff writer James Ridgeway gives appalling examples of how a shrinking number of big corporations suck up our nation's agricultural welfare programs.
Ridgeway, the author of several books about the environment and other subjects, points to the Florida sugar magnates Alfie and Pepe Fanjul, who received $64.4 million in federal subsidies in 1993-94 to produce cane at below-market rates. The Fanjuls, heirs to a Cuban sugar empire that fled Castro's revolution, that year turned $1.2 million of the money back to the politicians who helped them out.
The result: artifically cheap sugar, more obesity and political decadence.
What impact do these kind of agricultural subsidies have on poor countries? The U.S. shipped more than 1 million tons of U.S. wheat to Colombia between 1955 and 1971. The grain was priced so low, because of American taxpayer assistance, that it led to 50 percent lower prices for Colombian farmers.
During those years, Colombia's domestic wheat production plummeted by 69 percent and imports rose by 800 percent, leading to a nation that by 1971 had to import more than 90 percent of its wheat, according to Cook.
One is left to wonder: what did these idled Colombian farmers do with this bushel of American generosity? It appears that in recent years, a few have repaid our gift with equally generous cocaine shipments, which hooked Americans on the fruits of Colombian agribusiness. We also subsidize that trade.
Tom Pelton covers the environment for The Sun.