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