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A Future for Food that May be Hard to Digest

Belgium - 16/04/2014

What would you say to your neighbor if he and the other residents of your housing complex informed you (with your only notice the demolition crew in front of your house) that he and the others have decided to raze the building and there is nothing you can do about it? This might seem an odd question, yet it might be useful to ask oneself: Can democracy justify an individual’s ability to make decisions for others, without the interested parties’ participation in the discussion?

 The governments of modern countries are the delegates of the world’s housing complex. What happens if they make a decision that doesn’t resonate with the majority of the citizens they represent, or if it jeopardizes freedom of choice for oneself and one’s children?  Those decisions, then, should not only be able to be freely discussed, but should, at the very least, be allowed to be made public.

 This is what terrifies me about the imminent ratification of the transatlantic trade agreement TTIP (one of those common cryptic acronyms- Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). If passed, our everyday food system, which already lends itself to drastic and surreptitious change, will continue to become even more disconnected from the purview of the people.

 The treaty is proclaimed an extraordinary economic growth opportunity, one which would foster economic growth and magically make both Europe and the US richer. I say magically, because Nobel Prize winner in Economics Joseph Stiglitz wrote openly that the theory that if the upper class becomes even richer the entire society benefits is simply a lie. The free trade agreements, from NAFTA on, have not actually lead to an increase in a quality of life for small producers and those at an economic disadvantage, but have only multiplied the earnings of the richest speculators.

 It would be nice if the TTIP were in place to define common standards of health safety, if it could protect national production and the lands that give them life.

It would be a noble agreement, a generous compromise. Unfortunately, we all know that this won’t be the case, and that multinational players will once again prevail, to the detriment of many citizens that live and work far from the upper echelon. With no thought to the consumers and their rights, this trade agreement is proceeding at full steam ahead, the negotiations taking place behind closed doors.

 In fact, the delegations of the European Commission and those of the United States carry out their sessions away from the eyes and ears of the public, working on documents that are then never distributed to the public. The only information that has leaked out is that there will be a transatlantic commerce tribunal. This is not linked to a political authority and it will serve as arbitration of the highest level, through which large corporations will be able to ask for and obtain sanctions against the States that could, in some capacity, limit the reach of the agreement through laws or other legal means passed by their own representative institutions. I hope that it is understood what it really means that multinational players will be able to take legal action against the States. If the US does decide that the treaty is in accordance with the Constitution, it will certainly be the birth of a new world order.

 For consumers, and mostly for European citizens, the future meal that we are preparing for ourselves does not bode an easy digestion. This is even more true so when it is cooked in a style that reflects the decisions that rain down from above, in the name of national interest. As the scholar Moses Finley warned 40 years ago, it is very often the interest of the few, easily recognizable, and absolutely elitist groups. Gone are the times of lobbyists clamoring in the hallways; multinational corporations now acquire the ability to scold imprudent governments.   

 It seems incredible to me that we are in our current situation. Delegates whose democratic legal process allows secret discussion of the terms of an agreement that citizens will be able to access, largely only when it is ready to be signed: They are forced sign it or leave it.

 This is all done with the intention that it will be impossible for EU member nations to go back and change the content of the document. Even if the citizens of the nations in question were to voice their concern and wanted to go down a different path, the legislation prevents such action.

 I find myself doubting ever more that the political institutions that decide our future are actually working to benefit our most fundamental of needs, that of food security. They instead end up serving themselves, thus contradicting their original mission.

 I had already come to this conclusion when the WTO “tribunal” established that the beef hormone ban was unjustified. It was passed in Europe to public acclaim in the 1980’s due more to public outcry than to unequivocal scientific evidence of the harmful consumption of said meat. I nourish great respect for science and I believe that such decisions should not be made by base instincts or by a troubled acceptance of demagogy. And so I ask myself, why don’t we oblige those who want to sell meat produced with growth hormones, or products containing GMOs, to indicate it on the label?

 As in the past with the chocolate industry using fats other than cocoa butter, why do we consent to these alternative methods and allow the sale of a product that is actually quite different from the one we think we are buying? Why don’t we require the manufacturer to reveal their production methods, thus allowing consumers to make decision for themselves? Why is it that can I decide not to eat meat or gluten, but not to avoid products that are derived from hormone use or GM agriculture?

 I highly suspect that the answers to my questions are the same interests that lie at the bottom of the decision to develop the TTIP agreement behind closed doors, devoid of transparency and without the possibility of amendment after the fact. 


Carlo Petrini


Article first published in La Repubblica, April 12

Translation: Elisabeth Sievers

Photo: © Marco del Comune


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