S/R 16: Report from French Farmers

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Synthesis/Regeneration 16   (Summer 1998)

Report from French Farmers

by Jose Bove, Confédération Paysanne

[The text that follows is an address to the judge regarding why French farmers from Confédération Paysanne destroyed GE maize. Jose Bove is one of the farmers who stood trial for this "crime." A description of the action # appears below.


Today, I am present in this court together with Rene Riesel and Francis Roux, accused of committing a serious crime according to the law. The alleged crime is: the destruction of sacks of genetically modified maize.

The strength of our union movement rests on this determination to mobilize free individuals who accept all the consequences of their acts...

Yes, this is serious, and that's why I assume full responsibility. I am not going to hide behind collective, anonymous responsibility. As a trade unionist in the Confédération Paysanne, I believe in the ability of everyone to act as an individual. There is no place in our trade union for a hierarchy of responsibility. Each member of the union plays a main part in her or his own future, and is fully engaged in this. The strength of our union movement rests on this determination to mobilize free individuals who accept all the consequences of their acts knowing fully the motive for them.

Yes, on January 8, I participated in the destruction of genetically modified maize, which was stored in Novartis' grain silos in Nerac. And the only regret I have now is that I wasn't able to destroy more of it.

I knew that by acting in this way I was doing something illegal. But it was necessary, and we had no other choice. The way in which genetically modified agricultural products have been imposed on European countries didn't leave us with any alternative.

When was there a public debate on genetically modified organisms? When were farmers and consumers asked what they think about this? Never.

The decisions have been taken at the level of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and state machinery complies with the law of market forces. The WTO dictates its own law on the opening of trade barriers. The obligation to import bovine somatotropin meat from the USA is a good example of this. The Panel of the WTO, the true policeman of world trade, decides what's "good" for both countries and their people, without consultation or a right of appeal.

The countries or groups of countries which refuse the importation of bovine somatotropin meat or genetically modified products have to prove that these are dangerous, and not the inverse! The Codex Alimentarius, the norm dictated by the multinationals, is there to fix the rules of the game!

Why refuse something which is presented as "progress?" It's not because of old fashionedness, or regret for the "good old days." It's because of concern for the future, and because of a will to have a say in future development. I am not opposed to fundamental research. I think that it would be illusory and detrimental to want to curb it. On the other hand, I don't think that every application of research is necessarily desirable, at the human, social or environmental level.

And the only regret I have now is that I wasn't able to destroy more of it.

The current discussion on cloning is like the one on genetic modifications. Is everything that is possible actually desired by and gainful for people?

Today, no intelligent person can say that genetically modified maize is an example of progress, neither for agriculture, nor for the economy. On the other hand, the greatest concerns surrounding genetically modified maize are equally important for human health as for nature.

Novartis' Bt maize is associated with multiple long-term risks because of the presence of the three introduced genes. Even the director of Novartis recognizes that a "zero risk" simply doesn't exist. Is this an admission of powerlessness, or a way in which to cast aside his future responsibility in case there are problems? The problems arising today with certain agricultural practices (such as animal-based feeds, the effects on bee populations etc.) only serve to reinforce our caution when dealing with the sorcerer's apprentices.

The biggest danger which genetically modified maize represents, as well as all the other GMOs, is the impossibility of evaluating the long-term consequences of their use, and following their effects on the environment, animals and humans.

No separation of genetically modified and non-manipulated products is carried out. For example, non-manipulated and genetically modified soya are actually mixed together when they arrive in France. As a result, there is no way of tracing the genetically modified soya. There is no choice left, neither for the producer, of which I am one, nor for the consumer, amongst whom we all number.

This type of culture also poses a threat to the future of farmers. For some decades productionism has served to enslave farmers. From being a producer, the farmer has now become someone who is exploited, who can no longer decide on her or his way of managing the land, nor freely choose her or his techniques for this. However, a real revolution has been taking place for the last 15 years amongst members of the Confédération Paysanne, who have put this other type of agriculture back into action.

Either we accept intensive production and the huge reduction in the number of farmers in the sole interests of the World Market, or we create a farmer's agriculture for the benefit of everyone. Genetically modified maize is also the symbol of a system of agriculture and a type of society which I refuse to accept. Genetically modified maize is purely the product of technology, where the means become the end. Political choices are swept aside by the power of money.

Agriculture is a perfect illustration of this type of logic, which pervades every facet of food production. Agricultural production has now become the agro-industry. From the farmers who formed their small cooperatives, we have seen a conversion to the firms who have rationalized their systems of production in order to maximize profits on their investments. Since the 1920s, maize in the USA has been hybridized in order to oblige all farmers to buy seeds through a trust.

Either we accept intensive production and the huge reduction in the number of farmers in the sole interests of the World Market, or we create a farmer's agriculture for the benefit of everyone.

The trusts merged in order to invest in new techniques, which were capable of releasing new profits. Novartis, the world's leading pharmaceutical group, invests billions in order to remain number one: they sell seeds, herbicides, pesticides and medicines. But competition is strong, and as a result of the merger which took place between two of their main competitors last week, they have announced a plan to lay off 2000 employees in order to assure their shareholders of the profitability of the company.

Is it this kind of logic we want? No. I reject this lurch forwards where the aim of the economy isn't to satisfy needs, but is merely production for production's sake, without any link to the interests of the individual or the whole.

Do we need genetically modified maize in Europe?

No. In 1997 maize production increased yet again. It's overflowing the silos. The European Union has to stock the excess. And who's got to pay for this? Citizens. Who needs these new seeds? No one. It's only Novartis which wants to get the returns on its investment and remain the number one pharmaceutical group in the world!

By destroying the genetically modified maize seeds on January 8 at the Novartis factory in Nerac, we wanted to put this short-sighted logic into the spotlight.

Yes, this action was illegal, but I lay claim to it because it was legitimate.

A democratic debate simply doesn't exist. The conspiracy of silence organized by the companies and the sovereign states is the sole logic which prevails. As with blood contaminated with the HIV virus, or mad cow disease, the public mustn't be alarmed. Everything has to be allowed to continue in silence.

By appearing before you today, I'm aware of being in breach of the law which wants every citizen to be content with expressing her or his views by simply putting their vote in the urn every six years.

But it's not in this way that social and economic problems are resolved -- on the contrary. Through the action which we undertook and for which we are being judged, we kicked off a vast citizen's movement which refuses the use of GMOs in foodstuffs for animals and for humans. These actions will stop when this mad logic comes to a halt.

Yes, this action was illegal, but I lay claim to it because it was legitimate. I don't demand clemency, but justice. Either we have acted in everyone's interest and you will acquit us, or we have shaken the establishment and in that case you will punish us.

There is no other issue.

February 3, 1998, Agen, France

Thanks to the genetic engineering news group (genetics@gn.apc.org) for posting this report electronically.

Action at Novartis

On January 8, 1998, 120 members of the Confédération Paysanne, the second largest French Farmers Union, entered a Novartis conditioning and storage plant/stocking factory in Nérac (France) and destroyed transgenic (GE) maize seeds. This was in order to protest against the decision of the French government November, 1997 to clear the production of gene-altered maize, thus reversing a ban on cultivation imposed by the previous conservative government. After "looking around" they finally found five tons of transgenic maize which they mixed up with non-modified maize before humidifying it -- rendering it useless. The modified maize has been at the center of European debate over the use of genetic technologies in agriculture for over a year, with Austria and Luxembourg maintaining national import bans despite EU marketing approval given in December 1996.

Genetically modified to resist attack by the European corn borer through the addition of the "Bt" bacterial toxin gene, the Novartis maize is also herbicide resistant and contains an antibiotic resistance gene introduced as a marker.

Novartis has estimated the damages to 30 tons (more or less 2 to 5,000,000 FF) and claimed $1 million US in damages. Three of the people involved were arrested and put on trial on February 3. Coinciding with the start of the trial, a coalition of consumers, farmers and environment groups launched a campaign to reverse the French government decision allowing the cultivation of the genetically altered maize. The weekend before the trial opponents of GE staged protests at two Novartis sites in northern and central France.

During the trial the court was packed and about 1000 people gathered outside. About 11 varied and distinguished witnesses addressed the court on the follies of GM maize.

Sentence was passed on February 18. Rene Reisel and Jose Bove face an eight month suspended prison sentences and Francis Roux 5 months. Novartis, which owned the maize, was awarded FF500,000 in compensation. It is not clear whether the three farmers will appeal the decision or whether they will agree to pay Novartis. René Riesel, one of the farmers involved, is national secretary of Confédération Paysanne, which represents smaller farmers. The association has strongly supported the three defendants during the trial. Though a "guilty" verdict was never in doubt, the case has sparked broader discussions in France over the risks and benefits of using genetically modified crops in agriculture. In questions to agriculture minister Louis Le Pensec tabled on the day of the hearing, several MPs demanded more details of the government's plans to hold Danish-style "consensus conferences" on the issue of transgenic plants. The minister responded by announcing a debate for June.

Preparations have already begun, with the French parliamentary office for scientific and technological evaluation holding hearings for industry, union and public interest groups. An initial report will be published in mid-May, and will be used as the basis for the larger public consensus conference.

Contacts: Parliamentary office of scientific and technological evaluation, tel: +33 1 40 63 88 19

Confédération Paysanne, tel: +33 1 43 62 04 04 (http://www.mygale.org/00/confpays/qsn.htm)

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