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Profile of the Crop Saboteurs in France

Profile of the Crop Saboteurs in France

The Christian Science Monitor
August 31, 2001

Pate, bonhomie, and a slap at engineered food
BY: Peter Ford
DATELINE: AUCH, FRANCE

Marie-Helene Tarrieux was preparing for a clandestine operation that by the
end of the afternoon would make her guilty of trespassing, property
destruction, and theft.

But she was treating it more like a picnic.

Literally. She and her children needed strength to chop down an experimental
plot of genetically modified corn, she said. So she sought shade from the
broiling sun and laid out a small feast of foie gras cooked in Armagnac,
potted duck, brown bread, a bottle of red wine, and small succulent peaches.
"All from my farm," she said proudly. "I feed my ducks on corn, so I don't
want any GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in my food supply. I want it
natural."

Ms. Tarrieux is at the forefront of a swell of European feeling against GMOs
that appears to be catching on among American consumers, too.

And as the European Union prepares new and stricter regulations governing
genetically engineered food, a major trade battle is looming between Europe
and big US biotech firms.

The biggest of those companies, Monsanto, was the victim of Tarrieux's
attack Tuesday, not far from this small town in southwestern France, a
region famed for its fruit and rich cuisine. The American biotech giant was
also the target of two attacks Sunday, which it condemned as contrary to the
"democratic spirit" and a roadblock to "calm and scientific debate ... for
the benefit of consumers and citizens."

Monsanto had rented from a local farmer a small plot of land near Auch on
which to grow an experimental field trial of genetically modified corn.
French law requires that such trials - though not their exact location - be
declared to the local village council, so its existence was public
knowledge. Neighbors had spotted the experiment because the plot was too
small to be of commercial value, and it was also tucked into a field of
sorghum, far from other corn fields.

Last week, a radical small farmers,' group, the Peasant Confederation led by
Jose Bove, launched their campaign to stop open field testing of GMOs, by
launching symbolic attacks on such tests. Like GMO opponents who destroyed
experimental crops last year in Great Britain, the French protesters fear
that cross-pollination could contaminate nearby crops and insects,
irreversibly spreading bio-engineered genes into conventional plants and
animals.

"The agro-chemical companies want to impose GMOs on Europe by force like
this," complained Jean-Claude Chatillon, a local cattle farmer and Bove
loyalist.

"The point of actions like this is to start a wide public debate about the
merits and risks of GMOs," said Jean-Emile Sanchez, national secretary of
the Peasant Confederation, who had come to join Tuesday's operation.

Since 71 percent of the French are opposed to GMOs in their food, according
to a recent poll, it is a debate Mr. Sanchez thinks he can win, even though
the government is anxious not to close off what it sees as promising avenues
of agricultural research.

Half a mile from the target plantation, more than 150 good-natured green
guerrillas gathered in the mid-afternoon sun to prepare their assault. They
made a mixed group - small farmers, students, environmentalists,
antiglobalization activists, grannies, and children.

Their motives were mixed, too, to judge by their explanations of why they
were risking prison to protest against biotech agriculture. The farmers were
mostly concerned to safeguard their independence from multinational seed
companies; many said they were worried that the food on their plates was
getting worse and less safe; others were simply mistrustful of big business
- especially American big business.

Most had brought along the tools they needed for their work - scythes,
machetes, gardening scissors, knives, and pruning hooks.

One of their leaders, Jean Lantaron, called for quiet as he laid out ground
rules. "On no account will anyone use force," he said. "If we run up against
physical opposition, we will not confront it. We will negotiate and discuss,
and that is all."

As it happened, there was no risk of violence. The farmer whose crop was
being cut down did not show up, and the handful of gendarmes who were
waiting by the cornfield made no attempt to intervene, beyond taking
photographs and noting the license plate numbers of some of the cars that
had brought the protesters.

"We are just here to take note of the damage," one of the policemen
explained. (The next day, some car owners were called to their local police
stations to make statements, but they were not charged. Neither Monsanto nor
the farmer had lodged a complaint.)

As the police watched, the protesters went to work. Within five minutes, the
80-square-yard plot of corn was felled, leaving nothing but rows of stalks.

The demonstrators piled the offending crop neatly by the side of the field.

Marie-Agnes Delmas, a small-scale goat-cheese producer, was pleased with her
work. "The big cartels want to get control over farmers," she said, by
selling them patented, genetically modified seeds that they cannot save and
replant the next season without paying the patent holder, such as Monsanto.
"We've got nothing to gain from GMOs, and our independence to lose," added
Tarrieux. "We would end up being dependent on the seed salesmen every
planting season."

Tarrieux is also worried about the unknown effects of GMOs on plant and
human health, although none of the tests done so far in the United States or
Europe have found dangers to human health in the GMOs approved for human
consumption.

"We don't know enough yet," she argued. "And when you look at the way mad
cow disease happened because farmers fed their cows on animal meal, it's
obvious that there are a fair number of things that we were told was
progress at the time but which we shouldn't have done."

Nor did any of the protesters seem convinced by arguments that GMOs are the
key to ending hunger in developing countries, which could benefit from the
promised higher yields.

"The problem is not GMOs; it's the way food and wealth are distributed,"
snorted Jacqueline Schetober, a middle-age woman wearing a badge proclaiming
her membership of ATTAC, an anti-globalization movement calling for a tax on
international financial flows to fund third world development. "It's a
question of whether we want the market or democracy to decide things."

Mixed in with many of the protesters' motivations, suggested Ashley Serre,
an American who runs a raspberry farm with her French husband in the
Pyrenees, is "a general suspicion of American business."

But at the heart of the protest, said Ms. Delmas, was a simple desire to
maintain the traditional quality that small-scale farmers using conventional
methods say they alone can ensure. "In this country we still have a system
of small farmers doing sustainable agriculture, and it works," she said. "We
want to keep it."


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