Published on Wednesday, March 7, 2001 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
Sacrificial Lambs on Europe's Altar
by Naomi Klein
The Taliban destroys 2,000-year-old Buddha statues and we rightly shake our heads: How barbaric in these modern times to sacrifice graven images at the altar of religious purity. And yet, while Buddhas are bombed in Afghanistan, the European Union is engaged in its own quasi-biblical cleansing ritual: the fiery sacrifice of tens of thousands of animals to appease the hungry gods of free-market economics. When I first heard the farm animals described as capital's sacrificial lambs (it was German environmentalist Mathias Greffrath who said it to me), I thought it was hyperbole. Surely those hillsides were burning to protect public health, not the market value of meat or future access to foreign markets.
More than 50,000 animals are being or have already been killed in Britain, with another 10,000 marked for death. In Germany, where I've been visiting this week (studiously avoiding meat, which, let me tell you, isn't easy in a country known for menu items such as "meat with meat sauce"), 1,500 sheep have been destroyed. There was no evidence of infection -- simply a chance that the animals might have come in contact with foot-and-mouth disease.
Some of this, of course, has to do with health, but not all of it. Foot-and-mouth disease is of little heath risk to humans, and we can't get it through food. The disease can be cured quickly in animals with proper medicines and quarantines, then prevented with vaccination. Where the virus takes its true toll is on the market. And the market demands grand gestures to restore faith in its systems.
Make no mistake: A system is on trial in Europe's latest food scare. When a highly contagious virus such as foot-and-mouth enters the food chain, it forces consumers to think about how our food gets to the table. Polite phrases such as "integration," "homogenization" and "high intensity" suddenly take on graphic meaning.
The process of assessing the safety of each bite rudely yanks back the curtain of packaging and exposes massive factory farms and abattoirs, huge warehouses, the mega-chain supermarkets, and the long distances that animals travel in crowded trucks and boats in between each of these links in the industrial farming chain.
It increasingly seems that what is on trial in Europe is the tyranny of "economies of scale" that governs every aspect of food production, distribution and consumption: seed companies, factory farms, supermarkets and fast-food outlets. In each of these areas, the players follow the familiar formula of lowering their costs by consolidating and expanding operations, then using their clout to press suppliers to meet their terms.
Not only does this recipe hurt small farmers and cut down on the variety of foods available, it's also a time bomb when it comes to disease. Concentration means viruses spread quickly through large numbers of animals, while globalization ensures they are carried far and wide.
Which is why Germany's agricultural minister is talking about new subsidies to help 20 per cent of the country's farms turn organic. And why British Prime Minister Tony Blair is making noises about loosening the grip of the big supermarket chains. It's also why those hoping to barrel ahead with genetically modified foods are no doubt watching all this with dismay.
This latest food scare could well be the decisive opportunity for which anti-GMO campaigners have been waiting. After all, the most immediate danger posed by GM crops is the way in which altered seeds are carried by the wind, mixing with unaltered ones. Yet it has been tough to get the public interested in this subtle and invisible threat to biodiversity. That's why groups such as Greenpeace have tended to focus their campaigns more on potential dangers to public health, which, though more accessible, are less scientific.
But foot-and-mouth disease, which is spread through the air, now has much of Europe thinking about microbes and wind, about how connected the food supply is, how difficult it is to control any particle, no matter how small, once it has entered the system. "So be a vegetarian," some are saying. "Go organic." The Financial Times editors insist that "phasing out intensive agriculture is too glib an answer," and propose more "consumer choice." Somehow, I doubt that Europe's food-safety crisis will be solved this time with more organic niche marketing. After more than a decade of debates about mad-cow disease, E. coli, GMOs and now foot-and-mouth, food safety is ceasing to be a health issue, or a consumer issue, and becoming an economic issue, one questioning the most basic bigger-is-better assumptions of industrial agriculture.
It's about shaken faith -- in science, in industry, in politics, in experts. The markets may be satisfied with their sacrificial lambs, but I think the public may demand more lasting measures.
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