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Militant 'Farmer' and French Government Make Common Cause in GM Crop Ban

Friday, Jan. 18, 2008

PARIS -- It was one of the most surprising and revealing images of the New Year in French politics: José Bové, the famously mustachioed "anti-globalization" activist and self-appointed scourge of genetically-modified crops, being greeted by France's prim and proper Deputy Minister of Ecology Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet . . . with a kiss. The highly publicized encounter took place with cameras rolling on Jan. 3 in front of the French Ministry of Ecology in Paris. Technically, Bové was supposed to be in prison, serving a four-month jail sentence as a consequence of his role in vandalizing a field of genetically-modified (GM) corn in the French department of Haute-Garrone in 2004. But in mid-December, a judge "converted" his jail sentence into a fine of €4,800.

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet and José Bové (Source: France 3; video available here)

For several years now, Bové has been the leading figure in a movement of so-called "Volunteer Reapers" (Faucheurs Volontaires) whose members express their opposition to the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in France by tearing up fields of GM crops. The friendly kiss in front of the Ministry of Ecology provides perhaps the most striking illustration to date of the remarkable complicity that exists between French authorities -- ostensibly sworn to uphold the law -- and the small band of radical anti-GMO militants who make a regular practice of breaking it. (For earlier examples, see my December 2005 report.)

Bové had come to Paris to demand that the French government invoke a "safeguard clause" that will permit it to prohibit the cultivation in France of a genetically modified strain of corn that has long been authorized by the European Union. The MON 810 strain, developed by the American biotech firm Monsanto, is the only genetically-modified crop that is commercially cultivated at present in France. Bové and fifteen other "Volunteer Reapers" who accompanied him on his visit to Paris were reported to have embarked on a hunger strike to underscore their demands.

Last Friday, the French government announced that it would indeed be invoking the "safeguard clause" with Brussels in order to have the cultivation of MON 810 banned. It did so after receiving the advisory opinion of a so-called "Provisional High Authority" on GMOs, which was said to have expressed "serious doubts," based on "new scientific evidence," concerning the potential safety risks presented by MON 810. The recently-formed committee, as the French daily Le Monde noted approvingly, contains "not only specialists in genetics and toxicologists," but also "law professors, economists and sociologists and representatives of civil society," including "ecologists." The ostensibly "new" evidence cited, moreover, amounted to the repetition of long-standing "fears" concerning the possibility of cross-pollination of GM crops with conventional crops: a possibility that the anti-GMO militants tendentiously describe as "contamination." Such a possibility was judged "remote" in the 1998 scientific evaluation of MON 810 by the EU, which notes that, in any case, "no plant species closely related" to the corn grows in the wild in Europe.

According again to Le Monde, the report of the "Provisional High Authority" also cites the "possibility" that MON 810 could have "toxic effects on earth worms" and "possible impact" on insects other than those it has been designed to deter. "On the other hand," as Le Monde puts it -- and in contrast to the merely "possible" risks -- it has been positively established that MON 810 contains fewer mycotoxins than conventional corns. The paper fails to specify that such toxins are known to be harmful to higher organisms than worms and insects: humans, for instance.

The day after the submission of their report to Minister of Ecology Jean-Louis Borloo, 14 members of the "Provisional High Authority" -- including 12 of the 15 actual scientists sitting on the committee -- issued a communiqué noting that the report did not in fact make any mention of "serious doubts" and did not judge the "new evidence" surveyed on MON 810 to be "negative." The 14 committee members expressed dismay at what they called "a disconnect between the opinion as they wrote it and its transcription."

Given the publicity enjoyed by Bové -- "France's most famously militant farmer," as a recent AP report put it -- English-language readers might be forgiven for supposing that the French government has caved into pressure from French public opinion and, in particular, from the French countryside. As so happens, despite his carefully cultivated image of rusticity, Bové is the son of two university professors and his views are not representative of those of working French farmers. In fact, the principal organization representing French agricultural interests, the National Federation of Agricultural Workers' Unions (FNSEA), strongly favors the cultivation of GM crops: a position that is hardly surprising, given the increased productivity that GM crops permit. Pascal Ferey of the FNSEA warned that farmers might themselves resort to "civil disobedience" -- namely, by purchasing their MON 810 seed in Spain -- if the government banned the strain. "After all," the daily Ouest-France wrote, summarizing Ferey's reasoning, "if José Bové can tear up GM crops with impunity, then the farmers can very well plant them, even if illegally."

There is reason to doubt, moreover, that Bové's views are any more popular among the French public in general. Thus, as a candidate in the first round of the French presidential elections last April, Bové received barely over one percent of the vote: finishing 10th out of a field of 12 candidates.

At the same time as he announced France's use of the "safeguard clause" on Friday night, French Prime Minister François Fillon also announced that the government was launching an "unprecedented" program of investment in plant biotechnologies, amounting to some €45 million. "We need to restart research into GMOs," Minister of Research Valérie Pécresse was quoted as saying in the daily Le Figaro, "It's a matter of national independence." The simultaneity of the two announcements will encourage suspicions that the French decision to ban MON 810 was not motivated by the high-sounding and notoriously elastic "precautionary principle," as the prime minister claimed, but rather by baser protectionist impulses vis-à-vis a new technology in which France and Europe as a whole are known to be lagging behind.

John Rosenthal is World Politics Review's translations editor. He writes on European politics and transatlantic relations.

Top Photo: French Deputy Minister of Ecology Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet in 2006.