In Box

Food Fights

Some of the world's most bitter conflicts have nothing to do with access to resources, ethnic chauvinism, or the balance of power. Here's a short guide to the planet's fiercest gastronomic controversies.   


The Battleground: India

The Fight: In October, the Indian government gave its first approval to a genetically modified food, "Bt brinjal" -- an eggplant bioengineered by agro-giant Monsanto to resist certain insects. But a widely circulated independent study showed that Bt brinjal has fewer calories than traditional eggplant and gave lab rats diarrhea. Indian environmentalists and farmers took to the streets in protest, dressing in eggplant costumes and burning eggplants in effigy. In February, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh temporarily halted the rollout of the modified veggie pending a government investigation.



The Battleground: Japan and Australia

The Fight: Since 1987, the International Whaling Commission has allowed Japan to send a small fleet of vessels to catch a maximum of 1,035 whales in Antarctic waters each year. And each year, activists attempt to stop the slaughter, doing everything from throwing rancid butter at the whalers to making noises to scare away the marine mammals. This year, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that "diplomacy [has come] to an end" and threatened to sue Japan in the International Criminal Court unless it suspended its hunt. Japan says its whaling is for "scientific purposes," though the whale meat is sold to eat.

Junko Kimura/Getty Images 


The Battleground: Russia and Kazakhstan

The Fight: Elites everywhere love caviar, particularly of the black beluga variety, which can sell for more than $3,500 a pound in New York and London. But overzealous fishing has wiped out the sturgeon that produce the prized roe in the Adriatic and Azov seas. Russia and Kazakhstan claim that Caspian hatcheries will make up the shortfall. But in a comprehensive study of sturgeon released in February, scientists vehemently disagreed. Stony Brook University researchers say the countries need to cut their yearly catch by 80 percent -- or caviar will go from rare to nonexistent.



The Battleground: Israel and Lebanon

The Fight: For three years, Israel and Lebanon have engaged in a culinary-rights war over who really owns hummus, tabbouleh, falafel, and other Middle Eastern staple dishes, suing and countersuing to determine who can use what name and whose citizens invented what dish. The long-simmering conflict boiled over this year when an Israeli restaurateur prepared a 9,000-pound vat of hummus, breaking Lebanon's Guinness world record.

Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images


The Battleground: United States

The Fight: The escolar, a member of the mackerel family, has fatty, sweet, firm, white flesh and healthy stocks. U.S. seafood companies started marketing it to restaurants aggressively in recent years, and it popped up on menus under the aliases "white tuna" and "butterfish." But humans cannot digest the wax esters that make escolar so tasty, giving some eaters serious gastrointestinal problems. Food bloggers and journalists in Hawaii -- where most of the fish is caught and sold -- led a campaign to ban it, and lawmakers introduced a bill to do so this year.

In Box

Stormy Forecast

How climate change affects trade.

For years, scientists have forecast that global warming will have a disproportionate impact on the world's poorest countries. Flooding will worsen in Bangladesh; the deserts in East Africa will expand; bigger, stronger cyclones will hit Indonesia. Now, two economists have divined yet another negative outcome of a hotter world for low-income countries: less trade.

Benjamin Jones of Northwestern and Benjamin Olken of MIT analyzed global import-export data as well as temperature and precipitation readings. They found that for poor countries, in a given year, every 1-degree Celsius increase in average nationwide temperature cut the growth rate of exports 2 to 5.7 percentage points. For rich countries, hotter or cooler temperatures had no measurable effect.

Poor countries are especially at risk because they depend so heavily on farming and light manufacturing -- think cornfields and T-shirt factories. Temperature rises wipe out crops and hurt performance among factory workers. And because such countries tend to have little domestic trade and derive most of their income from exports, small changes can add up fast. If global warming cuts the export growth rate only half a percentage point per year, after 20 years it adds up to 10 points, Jones explains -- a difference that could be even more disastrous for poor countries than the punishing weather that will accompany it.

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