Global Meat

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
6 November, 2018
Editorial: 253
Fecha de publicación original: 6 febrero, 2001

Whether it fits or not I’ll make you get into it

Let’s go back to the Mad Cow question after our brief look at it last week (see editorial “Poor Cows”). Now that the respective globalisation conferences in Davos and Porto Alegre have drawn to a close, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to consider some aspects of this crisis, brought about by the use of feed of animal origin, and the way it relates to a particular vision of globalisation that both proponents and opponents of this process tend to overlook with alarming ease. One of the catalysts of this European cattle crisis started a very long way away from the Old Continent, before the Internet had even burst out of its academic shell. One person who did break out, sword in hand and on the hunt for adventure, was Argentine General Galtieri at the beginning of the 80s. Remember the Falklands War unleashed by the last military man of the bloody Argentine dictatorship? Remember Margaret Thatcher’s furious response which included the criminal sinking of the Belgrano? Well, it was then, when the fighting came to an end, that Britain found itself with an enemy that sold meat, a European Union in the making and an agricultural and livestock sector threatened on all sides by high production costs. And, it was at this point when some solutions were implemented that were to result in our present problems.

Great Britain, logically enough, decided that they could not import Argentine meat. It wasn’t politically correct. In fact, why import meat from other parts of the world at all when, really, they could turn the tables and become the exporters themselves instead? They already had the Commonwealth as a testing ground, why shouldn’t the rest of the world follow suit? Nonetheless, in order to compete for a decent portion of the world market their cows would have to grow faster, get onto the markets sooner and., above all, enjoy the necessary subsidies for them to be cheaper than those produced in other countries who, with their natural pasture lands and cheap labour, could offer meat at much more competitive prices. The principle was simple: European agriculture had to be protected from producers in the so-called Third World. World Market, yes, but as long as it’s my world.

This was one of the cornerstones of the CAP, the Common Agricultural Policy, on which a large part of European community policy was based. The other piece of the puzzle was GATT, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, immediate forerunner to the World Trade Organisation, at whose forum the industrialised countries negotiated market quotas and conditions for the circulation of products around international commerce. At that time, as I mentioned before, only very few people had even heard of a thing called ArpaNet and Silicon Valley hadn’t even begun to preoccupy Manuel Castells yet. Nonetheless, the rich countries already knew all about how to globalise for their home base, at the cost of excluding the poor. And so the miracle of the loaves and the fishes was achieved and these products always turned up cheaper than those from other parts of the world where despite much reduced wheat –or fishing– costs, strange as it seemed, their products never reached our supermarkets. Have you ever noticed how few products from the Third World are sold in our countries? Don’t they have any cows, pigs or other agricultural and livestock activities in those regions? Don’t they know how to convert them into products to be be sold on the world market? Do they have to consume them “in situ” lest they go to waste? These are rhetorical questions of course because the answers are connected to the control of the doors of international commerce. Subsidies take care of the rest.

Holland’s pig livestock, for example, moves all around Europe to, amongst other things, reduce their environmental impact. Pig purines pollute soil and water. The Dutch don’t have enough land to be contaminate in the first place and their lives are closely bound to their waterways. Environmental laws in Holland are, consequently, very strict. The only way to maintain industrial activity based on pigs (their stock is one of the three largest in Europe), is to raise them in other countries, but within the European Union, of course: Italy, Germany and Spain. In so doing they have turned some Catalonian rivers, to give one example, into open sewers and land pollution in some areas is so bad that it will take decades to repair. So, how much does a Dutch pig cost? Can it possibly be cheaper than a pig from Brazil, India or other countries with “sedentary” herds? Obviously not. But thanks to a lot of juggling with subsidies not only does it cost less but its “health and safety threshold” serves as a guarantee to the European citizen, a goal unattainable for countries beyond the borders of the Old Continent.

Something similar has been happening with the notorious cows. Haste to get them onto the market quickly brought our attention to a key factor: their feed. In order to compensate for lack of natural pasture lands, industry came up with a number of solutions, one of which was feed of animal origin. Thanks to subsidies in this sector, these economies managed to bring down costs very quickly, although never quite enough to justify the fact that animals from other parts of the world hardly ever got into our butcheries. Nobody noticed this, not even the pro or anti-globalisation lobbies. Our habit of having chops and steak on the dinner table seemed to produce a very particular type of amnesia. It caused a “reference library loss” for example. And we haven’t yet managed to shake off this neuronal short-circuit even when we have been brought face to face with a catastrophe which puts the whole continent’s livestock in a very tight spot indeed, as well as national and supranational political systems, consumer health, our eating habits, infrastructures, science and the very idea of the European Union itself.

In the meantime, we are witnessing all sorts of weird things. Increase in immigration has extended lines of distribution. In lots of European neighbourhoods shops and supermarkets whose origins (smells and flavours) are Pakistani, Chinese, Indian, Korean, Latin-American or African, have opened up. A mere stroll through them is proof of the wide variety of fresh and packaged foods from other climes that never reach large stores based on European capital, unless its “Tibet Day” in some hypermarket or other. This is just one small example of the scale of the globalisation problem. And it shows one of its worst facets here, for it has meant that many thousands of people have already died of hunger despite the fact that what they produce is cheaper and less risky, forcing them to live with the noose of poverty around their necks because they are denied the opportunity to sell their products on world markets.

This should become one of the crucial issues in the debate on globalisation over the years to come. But, the questions to be answered are a lot more complex than those at present under discussion. Are we, the inhabitants of the rich nations, prepared to give up a portion of the wealth we have enjoyed over the last few decades in the name of our deficient agricultural and livestock programme? What conditions will we impose on others in an attempt to preserve the privileges we have attained via our “political fist in an iron glove”? Will we demand that the Third World pass health checks that we were incapable of implementing ourselves in order to “re-balance the rules of the game”? Will we demand that their agricultural workers have trade unions to defend them while in Europe these same organisations defend their jobs at the cost of unsustainable subsidies? Will we be able to open the doors to goods and services, wherever they come from, either industrial or post industrial? Neither Davos or Port Alegre were able to put the Mad Cow crisis in the place it deserved. Not even as a metaphor of these questions. However, this globalisation debate will continue to stumble and fall until this occurs. Until we talk about why supermarkets run by immigrants, still considered very exotic by most of the European population, are the only places where we get even a vague idea of what is going on in other countries. This distorted vision of reality is not a virtual disease, but a very real one indeed.

Translation: Bridget King