Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Pigs and (GM-)Plants: German Travels/American Thoughts

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By Luce

In just a few days I leave Germany and I’m looking forward to finally heading home, though I find it hard to believe that soon I will be starting a semester’s work. Undoubtedly I will miss the relaxation of a country where weekend mornings find at least a dozen men drinking beer at the corner café by 10 AM. There are of course many things I won’t miss, particularly the phenomenon of dead Sundays, which compels you to join the men and their beers since there’s nothing better to do (my compromise has always been to have first a cappuccino, then a beer). I will also miss a certain German Gemütlichkeit, the admirable if always startling German penchant for nudity in nature, the haphazardness of Berlin, the tamed wildness of their forests. But most of what I will miss surrounds German food, and the way it is eaten here.

"GM-Food? No Thanks" Sign on an organic food store in Bamberg.

I was initially worried about what I would do for two months in a country that prides itself on its great hunks of pig, but I actually think it’s relatively easy to avoid meat in Germany, in part because it’s a wonder what they can do with a potato. There’s also a tradition of German vegetarianism tied in with other Lebensreform movements that began in the pre-World War I period (historian Steven Aschheim claims this was in direct response to Germany’s rapid industrialization), and most menus will offer a few decent vegetarian options. In any case, it’s hard to complain about their food when their beer is so nourishing.

Most symbolic (and since this is food we’re talking about, most enjoyable) for me is the German breakfast. Unlike the Italian breakfast, which is quickly finished off with a mini-pastry and shot of espresso, or the French breakfast, a paltry offering of white bread and bad coffee, the German breakfast can go on for hours. A variety of sliced cheeses and meats, boiled eggs, individual fruits and vegetables, delicious quark, cornflakes with whole milk, jams and rolls packed with nuts and grains (fascinatingly, what the Germans call a “Fitness-Brötchen” is just a roll packed with twice the normal nuts and grains). Overall there is a piecemeal quality to the breakfast. You see the foods in minimalist form, it is you who decide what to combine together, and in the end, you know exactly what you’re putting into your mouth.

Sheila Jasanoff writes that when passing its stringent 2004 law on growing genetically-modified crops, the German government, “sought to avoid controversy by opting for a legislative framework that reduced the risk of ontological mixing or impurity—thereby also minimizing the possibility of normative conflicts.” She goes on:

Key provisions included restrictions on the amount of land to be planted with GM crops, a national register to keep track of these crops, and a requirement that farmers pay damages to non-GM growers whose fields are contaminated by GM varieties. The horror of unregulated things, so prevalent in the German legal order, came through in a parliamentarian’s comments on the law: ‘In the interest of farmers and consumers, we do not want genetically altered foods uncontrolled and initially  unnoticed to sneak onto our grocery shelves’ (Deutsche Welle, 2004b).

It is not hard to see how this emphasis on the ontological stability of food is ingrained in the very practice of eating in Germany. I’m of course coming from the perspective of someone already invested in certain eating practices. It’s not as if Germany has outlawed processed foods, which are easily found on supermarket shelves. For all I know, there may be thousands of Germans stuffing themselves silly with Cheez Whiz as we speak. Nonetheless, it is striking when I look back on my two months here and realize that, without having made any conscious effort, taking advantage only of what was on offer and even relatively cheap, I cannot think of one piece of food whose ingredients weren’t readily apparent to me: breads, yogurts, vegetables, eggs, fruits, potatoes, and so on. These have been the stuff of my diet and it lends some credence to the idea that the Germans have a very clearly defined idea of what “food” is, and it’s less important whether it’s a meat or a vegetable than whether their great-grandparents also would have recognized it as “food.”

Popular U.S. food activists, such as Michael Pollan and more recently,  Jonathan Safran Foer, focus on encouraging localism, eating less or no meat, and pushing for government legislation to change the way food is produced (both in terms of cruel and environmentally-unfriendly factory farming, as well as our reliance on “monocultures of corn and soy in the field and cheap calories of fat, sugar and feedlot meat”). In contrast, the popular focus in Germany seems more firmly turned toward the threat of large corporations pushing GM-foods. Stores advertise themselves specifically as not carrying genetically-modified foods (in the US there is the more all-encompassing, fuzzy “organic,” and many stores carry both organic and non-organic products, leaving it to the customer to decide). German researchers have attempted in the past to keep GM-crop sites secret for fear that anti-GM activists would sabotage them. In contrast to Foer’s Eating Animals and Pollan’s Food Rules, German bookstores have recently been displaying Monique-Marie Robins’s Mit Gift und Genen: Wie der Biotech-Konzern Monsanto unsere Welt verändert (With Toxins and Genes: How the Biotech-Corporation Monsanto Is Changing Our World).

Daily (except dead Sundays of course) Bamberg fruit market.

I’m no expert on why Germans might tend to focus more on global corporations and GM-foods than individual, vegetarian choices, but I can take a few guesses. First there’s the tradition of the small, European Union-subsidized farmer in Germany, and more pride in regional food and recipes (living in Bamberg this past month, it’s nearly impossible to get away from their local Frankish method of dousing everything in heavy sauces). There is a daily fruit market in Bamberg (an old, medieval city that emerged from WWII largely intact) in a square next to a street called “Obstmarkt” (i.e. fruit market). It makes me wonder if the city’s residents haven’t been buying their fruit in this square for centuries. There has also already been concrete government involvement in banning factory farm practices. In 2009 a German law passed making it illegal to keep chickens in small, individual cages (in the States, this has been banned only in California), there is a detailed system of numbering eggs according to how the chicken was raised, and recently there’s been a governmental scandal involving accusations of animal cruelty against a minister of agricultural resources. High politics and animals mix in a way they don’t in the US, and Germans may feel they have a better sense of where their meat came from, how it was treated, and how it connects to traditional norms of eating.

"Fuchs Korn: you know what you're eating" -- Sign for one of the bakery chains in Bamberg, which has been in operation since 1885 and uses only grains from the surrounding Frankish region.

But beyond this, I think American food activism is still very much tied up in personal responsibility, while German activism focuses on attacking that which structures and pollutes our choices: the global, the (often American) corporation. In the end, while Pollan and Foer urge engagement with government, their suggested journeys are distinctly individualistic. Just as each of us must take a look at our carbon footprint, each of us must also work to change the world through our daily habits, our patronage of the green market and, if we are to eat meat, the local farm that we ourselves have visited. We are to vote with our forks, and by forks I mean wallets. Perhaps due to a history of corporatism, where industries/professions are expected to self-regulate and trusted corporations drive policy, Germans focus in on companies who have been remiss in their duties, such as agricultural corporations who endanger the purity of “food.”

To get to the point, all this makes me wonder whether an American discourse focused overwhelmingly on individual actions actually causes us to cede responsibility, to fail to hold the bigger picture responsible, and to leave those who lack the time and money to be “individually responsible” in the hands of corporations like Monsanto. Much of this thinking was sparked by an article I recently read by Leslie J. Reagan on miscarriage in America. She describes how there was a brief moment in the 1970s when herbicides/toxins like 2,4,5-T were recognized as causing miscarriages, but the media discourse soon shifted to zone in on individual woman’s responsibilities (e.g. no smoking, drinking, caffeinating during pregnancy).

Media coverage of the effects of industrial and agricultural practices on pregnancy proved short lived, however, and refocused instead on the individual woman. The shift from corporate to individual responsibility for miscarriage and other reproductive misfortunes had broad political ramifications, implying that the solution to the problem of miscarriage would be found in reforming individual women rather than reforming corporate practices… [P]regnant women found themselves scrutinized and criticized by strangers in restaurants and doctors in hospitals. The impact of this philosophy of individual mother-blaming was differentiated by class and race. Low-income women and African American women in particular bore the brunt of official punitive responses to mothers’ perceived misbehavior…

All of this rings very true. My sister just had her first baby, and while what she could eat and drink was the topic of weekly discussions (“Really? No coffee???”), not once did we give much thought to environmental factors that might harm the birth. And all this connects, I think, to the way food activists like Michael Pollan struggle when confronted with activists concerned with hunger and poverty, like Joel Berg. The two had a recent exchange in the New York Review of Books. With a focus on individual eating plans, activists like Pollan haven’t thought enough about how to change the system in such a way as to also benefit those without the money or time (Pollan really needs to recognize that having the time to prepare healthy foods can also be a privilege) to be “individually responsible” in the current sense of the phrase. And this prioritizing focus on personal responsibility can give ammunition to media commentators, who generally like to wallow in their obtuseness, and to take one example, portray urban single mothers as “lazy” or “welfare queens” because their body shape suggests stereotypes of slothfulness (as Pollan is right to emphasize, it is the stuff of cheap food that leads directly to high rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes). This discourse in turn allows the media to blame the urban poor for not taking responsibility for their own health and income.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the individual ethical, am a personal fan of localism and eating less meat, like a lot of what Michael Pollan says, but if this becomes the mantra of American food then we risk leaving a lot of people in the dust, and at the hands of media commentators, McDonalds, and Monsanto.


Written by Kristen Loveland

August 25, 2010 at 11:53

Posted in food, Germany

7 Responses

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  1. Though when you mentioned the “tradition of German vegetarianism” my first thought was of Adolf Hitler, I really loved this post. This American individualism versus European collectivism theme, a big one here at PhD Octopus, really seems to seep into so many aspects of daily life. I definitely think you’re on to something here with food production/consumption. I wonder though, if we who are looking for this cultural difference “find” it when it’s not really there. I’m sure I’m as guilty of this as anyone.


    August 25, 2010 at 13:55

  2. I don’t believe your portrayal of Pollan is accurate, based on what I’ve read by him. Pollan clearly recognizes that both USDA rules and farm bills (influenced by corporate lobbying) effectively set the market prices of industrialized food far below social cost. The details of this are spelled out well in Omnivore’s Dilemma.

    Now if everyone individually could figure out the social cost of what they eat, and choose accordingly, then these distortions don’t matter. But Pollan does recognize that poor people need cheap calories, and that the farm bill leads poor people to consume disproportionate amounts of industrialized food. He does advocate more involvement in the political process, where consumers are typically overwhelmed by industrialized food lobbies. This was all in a NYT magazine article a few years back.


    August 26, 2010 at 12:37

  3. Well, it looks like what began as an excuse to write about the delicious German breakfast has gotten me into deeper waters…

    Weiner: I’m glad you pushed me on the individual/collective theme. I didn’t mean to set up such a stark dichotomy, though I can see how I did. While my thoughts are still in process re: all of this, I would first again suggest that the programs of food activists are structured by the eating habits of their respective populations. German/Euro habits are perhaps best described as marked by a “historic collectivism”, and I do think American eating habits lack this specific form of collectivism, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re not interested in collective food endeavors overall (as I’ll get into below, I think structurally Pollan’s food program is quite collectivist, as are locavore movements). But this lack of historic ties does mean that we tend to be more open to new food fads and guides like Pollans’ “Food Rules” (or as Pollan points out in Omnivore’s Dilemma–the Atkins Diet), which when put into operation function quite individualistically (your personal eating habits, etc.) The question is why we lack this historic collectivism. I don’t think it’s primarily that we have an overt individualistic disdain for a ‘nanny state’ (or even a nanny great-grandmother) tsk-tsking what’s on your plate. To suggest a couple of other factors: first, I think our food culture is highly structured by our multicultural population: not only can I get a Bahn mi on the LES whenever I want, but restaurants are open to mixing different food cultures in really interesting (and delicious) ways in the US, and not just in our culinary centers. This is of course an overall positive in my opinion, but the fact that we are willing to constantly incorporate/develop previously unknown food mixtures and things we’ve never seen put together on our plate before also means that we may be more accommodating toward new “foods” that comes out of the factory. A second factor, though this may be changing, is that Americans tend to link “health” with what is visually apparent. Hence, we think the foods that will make us healthy are the ones that will make our waist thinner (or our muscles bigger)…which results in such travesties as 80-calorie “yogurts” and non-fat “sour creams”. But to get on to collective/individualistic activism itself…

    DRDR: I realize I glossed over this too quickly above. I didn’t mean to suggest that Pollan has absolutely no concern for collective/political efforts or for the position of the poor in all this. In fact his recent NYRB article goes even further than the NYT Mag article in developing a government plan where the poor would also be able to afford fresh food, and of course he has argued for a while that any extra money spent on food would save in the long term on medical bills associated with obesity/diabetes. In fact I think the structure of Pollan’s program is overwhelmingly collectivist (he’s trying to move an entire nation into new eating habits) but the substance of it has fallen into a traditional US “self-help” mantra which works primarily for those who have the inclination and resources to follow it. I don’t totally blame him for this–it’s his schtick–I just find it a problem that these self-help/personal eating plans seem to be the only game in town–which may be more the fault of the American reading public, who eats this stuff up, than the authors. And while Pollan is obviously aware of the challenges faced by those who rely on cheap food, the substance of his advocacy in this regard seems inadequate to actually addressing the issue. First is the time/habit issue–even if one could buy all the fresh produce in the world, there are many working families who don’t have the time to spend preparing it (at one point, I think in the NYRB article, Pollan gets dangerously close to nostalgia for an era when wives toiled in the kitchen making sure their family ate wholesome dinners every night…which, never mind any other problem I might have here, ignores the fact that a great segment of the working poor never had this “luxury”). I also just find that while Pollan obviously has done incredibly significant work in directing the American gaze toward the farm bill, his style of story-telling is so overwhelmingly personal that it doesn’t result in much by way of an action plan. We know we should be concerned about the way farms are subsidized, he tells us directly that we shouldn’t just vote with our forks but with our votes, but there is little guidance beyond these vague pronouncements. I also find that Pollan assumes a certain amount of technological determinism (for instance, once some scientific discovery is made it’s inevitable that it will be used on American fields) without paying sufficient attention to corporate machinations behind getting that chemical to that American field. So, in the end, voting with my fork still seems to be the most concrete thing I can do in the Pollan world. But again I’m no food scholar, so perhaps I’m just missing the good stuff.


    August 31, 2010 at 12:09

  4. Luce, thanks for your thoughtful reply.

    I like the idea that the diversity of American food culture contributes to the dominance of corporate interests in American policy, though I don’t know how much of that corporate dominance is specific to American food vs. specific to America, where corporate interest groups are of course stronger across a wide range of industries.

    I’d be interested to know what Pollan thinks of your critiques. Of course a lot of people with policy ideas don’t have the slightest clue how to get them implemented. I’m not sure if Pollan has a larger action plan. But I suspect Pollan recognizes that his ideas are up against strong interests here and social change won’t happen overnight. Writing a book that seeks to influence individual behavior is simply a much less ambitious goal than writing a feasible action plan, and maybe he also sold more books and reached more readers that way. Maybe his book has helped to lay a groundwork for a better action plan to come.


    September 1, 2010 at 19:48

  5. there are lots of cheap foods on the market that taste like crap but there are good quality ones too ‘

    Heart Necklace :

    October 31, 2010 at 08:51

  6. […] written before about the evolving discourse in the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries surrounding […]

  7. you can always buy cheap foods on any supermarket these days because food production is mechanized already *:-

    Buck Teeth

    November 24, 2010 at 18:05

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