In A Worse State Than China

03 Feb 2002

Globalization – a word people praise, criticize, fight about and even die for. Speaking of globalization, last week Porto Alegre, Brazil, staged the World Social Forum, while the most powerful people on the planet, who used to meet every year at Davos in Switzerland, got together in New York City. In the Big Apple, the world’s leaders began to speak about no-global issues for the first time ever; maybe they haven’t cottoned on to the fact that there should be room for everyone in advantageous global development. In the stifling Brazilian summer, thousands of people debated, studied, tables proposals and even had fun in what was rightly defined ‘a supermarket of ideas’. In fact, the ideas for a fairer world with new economic models were so many, it was hard to keep up with all of them. Yet one does have the pleasant sensation that, slowly but surely, something is beginning to change in the world.

Ideas evolve and gain in strength, and movements grow to fight the pre-established order. Yet certain knots now really do seem hard to unravel. Take the recent and by no means marginal case of Europe’s ban on shrimps from China. In China and Vietnam, they pump the crustaceans up with chloramphenicol, a potentially dangerous antibiotic for man, then sell them to restaurants in Europe. The immediate reaction is to say that the EU is right to ban such imports; after all, who likes the idea of swallowing chloramphenicol, a medicine said to cause allergies, genetic mutations and cancer? But if we rise above food scandal sensationalism for a moment, and stop to think about oriental restaurants, the plot thickens.

In countries such as China, India and Mexico, health care is a luxury that few can afford. Chloramphenicol is no problem in places where you can die prematurely anyway for lots of other causes. These countries have become the world’s garbage tip; we dump all sorts of trash there and even sell them dangerous medicines. GMOs as a way of sating the appetite? In the West, the idea would be seen as harmful and unacceptable; in the East, they accept it because they don’t think in terms of quality and they’re not scared of an antiobiotic that fattens their shrimps fast, so they can sell them to their fellow countrymen round the world at very low cheap prices. Chinese restaurateurs here buy them up because they don’t think in terms of quality either; their sights are set on profit. They’ve got loads of fellow countrymen to compete against and they want to keep their prices low as possible. Nowadays Chinese restaurants are even serving and pizza – just how hybrid can you get?

In China, a new member of the WTO, the view is that this restrictive EU measure against shrimps represents unjustified, unfair competition. Which is understandable. The fact is that globalization is fine as long as it means us dumping our waste on them and conquering their markets. But then we have the face to refuse to eat their produce. So who’s most evil: the Chinese or us?

First published in Agricoltura – La Stampa 03/02/02

(Adapted by Anya Fernald)

Carlo Petrini

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