COL Most European cultures are rooted in distinctive foods

After speeches with farmers and ranchers around the United States, inevitably someone will rise to ask why Europeans are so tough on American food and American farmers. "We grow the safest, cheapest food in the world," is the line they often use to answer their own question.

My answer comes as a series of questions.

With a show of hands, I ask first, how many here have traveled to Europe? Usually about one-half the audience raises its hands. (Most are surprised to see that so many of their fellow food producers have traveled so broadly.)

Now, I query, what are the two best memories you have of Europe?

After a bit a clucking, invariably someone will say "the many beautiful farming villages in ...." -- pick a country. All nod in accord.


And the second most poignant memory?

"Oh, the food (the wine, the beer ...) No matter where we went, the food was incredible." Again, a unified nod.

Gee, I say, the two best memories you have of Europe are its lovely farming villages and the wonderful food.

Golly, do you think both are just happy accidents or do you think they are the direct result of Europe's farm and food policies?

As the rhetorical question breaks over the crowd, the room seems to become 50,000 watts brighter. Finally, someone will mumble, "Well, you got a point."

No, I say, that is the point.

Unlike America, Europe's past, current and future farm and food policies are based on a more exact meaning of the word "agriculture:" agri, meaning food, and culture, meaning, well, culture.

Indeed, most European cultures are rooted in food and each is proudly and -- as the crowd has already proven to itself -- deliciously distinctive. There's ooh la la French, muy bueno Spanish, magnifico Italian, sehr gut German and (burp) Irish.


What's the American counterpart? I ask. Chicken-fried steak? McDonald's?

In a hurry?

McDonald's, I continue, is the universal symbol of American food to many Europeans. Fast, fried and in a bag. That's not food, they point out; that's fuel. You order it from your car, pick it up in your car, and then eat it in your car. Where are you going so fast that you can't enjoy your food?

Most Europeans are rarely in such a hurry when it comes to buying, preparing and consuming food. To be sure, you can find a McDonald's in Paris or a KFC in Edinburgh. But you will not find an American-sized refrigerator -- big enough to hold a small Greek island -- in any European home, let alone a freezer.

"What is this 'deep' freeze?" a Belgium friend once asked me. "Is it something deep in the ground?"

No, I explained, many Americans "stock up" on food when they go to the supermarket. They then freeze some of it to use later.

"Oh," came the reply, "I have a butcher in my village where I buy my meat each day. You do not have a butcher in your village in Illinois?"

No. Nor a baker, cheesemaker, fishmonger or vegetable seller.


It's tradition

But nearly every city, village or crossroads in Europe does. And, like the food, it's been that way for centuries. German beer makers still follow the Purity Laws of 1516. The recipe for Parma ham hasn't changed since Marco Polo left Venice for China in 1271. French wine predates Charlemagne.

So, I conclude, when the European Union says it will label all food and animal feed that contains 0.9 percent genetically modified organisms -- as the European Parliament ordered July 2 -- believe it because food is the single issue that cuts across all of Europe's cultures. It unites all of Europe's citizens and most of its farmers.

And, today I would add, the brashest John Wayne gun-slinging about sound science, non-tariff trade barriers and "commercial infeasibilty" of mandatory GM food labeling will do nothing to turn Europeans away from protecting the food they love or the farmers and villages that underpin it. Which, incidentally, we revere, also.

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