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Hold the hormones.

What do the French know about food anyway?

PITY LE PAUVRE GRAND MAC. WHENEVER THE UNITED States and some fretful foreigners get into a spat, you can bet that somewhere a McDonald's restaurant is going to suffer some sort of indignity. As the imagined corporate flagship of America s global white fleet, McDonald s seems to be blamed for everything the rest of the world elects to dislike about America.

Recently several McDonald's restaurants in France were assailed under door-bursting avalanches of rotting fruit. French farmers were demonstrating their distaste for a series of tariff hikes on food exports to the United States. Those hikes came in response to Europe's refusal to accept U.S. hormone-enriched beef on its shores, but the dispute reflects a broader and, for American food producers, multibillion-dollar problem: European nations' resistance to U.S. food products.

At the heart of the conflict are two visions of food production. Many Europeans favor a "small is beautiful" approach based on local production and traditional agricultural methods. Les americains prefer to supersize it, following an industrial model of agriculture that requires large-scale, centralized production and distribution.

The European model offers greater variety, the American, greater bounty. The Achilles' heel of the American system, however, is its deep reliance on high-tech production methods. America is the homeworld of genetically modified and chemically and hormonally soaked food products. Europeans argue that the possible environmental and health consequences of biotech food, while not yet satisfactorily demonstrated, remain potentially devastating to European humans and European ecology. They've refused visas to a variety of U.S. food products, from soy beans to sides of beef.

And it is not just the ever persnickety Prince Charles and his European ilk who have been turning up their noses at American food imports. A federal judge in Brazil has banned sales of Monsanto Corporation's Roundup Ready soybean seeds--gene-altered to resist fungus and weeds and to tolerate Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. And, in a blow to U.S. marketing experts who have managed to prevent similar outbreaks of informed consumerism on these shores, Japan plans to require labels on all genetically modified food products.

There are, of course, other forces behind the resistance to U.S. designer food. Europeans fear the obliteration of centuries of gastronomically centered culture before an invasion of cheap U.S. prepackaged food. They worry about a global flattening of tastes and food selection that will homogenize palates and menus around the world.

But genetically modified or chemically addicted food represents more than just an imagined threat to European identity. The onslaught of globalized food is, to Europeans, another example of the imposition of American free-market ideology on a reluctant world; a level of resentment against American global hegemony is certainly part of the drive behind this food fight.

On another level, this food anxiety suggests the global public's distrust of a biotechnology industry that promises a bright future for all but seems ethically distant in its ambitions and diabolically unreal in its practices. Who can blame common folk for choosing a cautious "no thanks" to the Frankenfood coming out of U.S. laboratories and off our chemically saturated farm fields?

But let's not rationalize away the foreigners' fear of our food too quickly. Could it be that they have it right? That what the world needs now is not a genetically spliced potato-cum-pesticide or a hamburger pumped up on growth hormones but the renovation of a sustainable, local agricultural system?

The U.S. green revolution produced an awesome amount of food but not without great cost to the environment and agricultural workers. Americans seem to have quietly accepted a food-delivery system that places a premium on product appearance, shelf life, and marketing appeal without acknowledging a parallel sacrifice of quality, nutrition, selection, and taste.

U.S. food conglomerates say their model of industrial food production is the only way that the earth's growing population can be fed, but that profoundly self-serving argument should be subjected to more strenuous review. A growing body of evidence suggests that localized, sustainable food production systems can feed the world without the inherent risks of a worldwide agri-monoculture, chemically dependent on U.S. biotechnology and intrinsically susceptible to global blight.

Maybe those petulant Europeans are trying to tell us something worth hearing. They're afraid of our food. Why aren't we?

By KEVIN CLARKE, managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications in Chicago.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Nov 1, 1999
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