The following is an excerpt from Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power by Mark Schapiro. It has been adapted for the Web.
Summers in the central mountain range of France, the Massif Centrale, are rich with the colors of wildflowers, the sound of tumbling waters, and the aromas of fruits and vegetables that have been cultivated here for hundreds of years. Country roads curl around idyllic small towns and the farms that surround them. Apples, plums, and pears hang heavy on the trees, and the yellow tassels of corn sway in the breezes for miles in every direction. It is beautiful and calm and long considered the bounteous soul—as the Midwest is to America—of France.
But the pastoral rhythms of this region, in the province of Auvergne, have been shaken by a conflict that strikes at the heart of the differences between America and Europe concerning one of those most primal of resources: food. One late night in August, 2005, those tensions came into high relief as forty-nine farmers assembled around a cornfield outside the town of Le Broc. The corn in Le Broc was close to four feet tall, about a month before it would be ready for harvest. It looked just like any other corn in the area, except that inside of each plant were genetically engineered genes created by the Monsanto Corporation. They had traveled a long way from Monsanto’s laboratories in St. Louis, Missouri, where genes extracted from a bacterium were inserted into the corn’s DNA to make a poison to kill one of the crop’s most noxious pests, the corn borer.
The farmers marched onto the field and set to work. By three in the morning, they had torn more than two hundred plants from the earth. Cobs were scattered like trash along the side of the road, putting an ignoble end to one more season’s experiment. Monsanto had hired a local farmer to grow the Le Broc test plot in hopes of gaining approval for commercial cultivation in France, the first step toward gaining the big-ticket goal of approval for all of Europe. For Monsanto, it has been a tumultuous road.
Three years earlier, in meetings across the French countryside, a grassroots farmers’ movement had taken form, expressing alarm at what farmers felt was the potential for genetically modified crops, to alter the landscape that they and their predecessors had nurtured over centuries. Their manifesto expressed a willingness to take extreme measures to remove genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from the land. All participants agreed to the principles of nonviolence, and to the risks that could ensue. In the spirit of France’s long history of “direct action,” the farmers named themselves the Collectif des Faucheurs Volontaires (CFV), or Collective of Voluntary Reapers.
The most celebrated expression of this discontent had been the antiglobalization campaigner José Bové’s attack on a McDonald’s in 1999 in Millau, 120 miles to the southwest of Le Broc. The fast-food chain served as a convenient and irritating symbol of how globalization was changing the treasured values of French cuisine. Now one of the farmers’ major concerns was how new genetically engineered plants, incorporating genes from other species, might breed with their own crops and undermine the biological purity of their corn and the quality and nutrition of their food. The farmers’ movement was going beyond assaults on la cuisine americaine into defending the soil of la terre française.
By that night in Auvergne on August 1, more than five thousand farmers across the country had signed on as members of the collective, each one committed to engaging in what they call “preventive harvests”—stopping genetically engineered crops from coming to their natural fruition before they could be studied. Half of the GMO fields in France were destroyed by similar actions in 2005. Hundreds had been arrested and sentenced to prison terms and fines.
Two days later, the forty-nine preventive harvesters were arrested by local police. The arrests were not unanticipated; members of the group did little to hide their identity. All were charged at a regional court in the city of Orléans with criminal trespassing and the destruction of private property. State prosecutors asked for three-month jail terms for each of the participants in the Le Broc action, and Monsanto asked for damages of € 398,000—about $450,000—to compensate the company for damages. For prosecutors, it was a simple case; the farmers didn’t deny that they’d uprooted the corn.
The verdict, however, surprised the nation and sent a wake-up call across the Atlantic. All of the defendants were acquitted on grounds of self-defense. On behalf of the judicial tribunal in the city of Orléans, Judge Philippe Ouval-Molinos declared that “The defendants have shown proof that they committed an infraction of voluntary vandalism in . . . response to a situation of necessity.” That “situation,” the judge wrote, “resulted from the unbridled distribution of modified genes that constitutes a clear and present danger for the well-being of others, in the sense that it could be the source of contamination and unwanted pollution.”1
The court agreed with the defendants’ assertion that their action was one of civil disobedience in defense of an agricultural system they argued was under siege by the spread of genetically engineered crops into France.
That verdict was later overturned on appeal (in France, plaintiffs as well as defendants are entitled to an appeal). The farmers were required to pay a € 1,000 fine—approximately $1350.00—and one of them was sentenced to two months in jail. But the appeal did not slow the rising French resistance to GMOs, expressed with virulence in the fields, or through the cold shoulder of the market. Shortly afterward, another troop of voluntary harvesters broke into a Monsanto factory in southwest France, where they sought out GMO samples to “render them unusable.” Dozens of attacks on GMO test plots marked the harvest season of 2006.2
And though the French and European public generally is divided on those aggressive tactics, they are not divided on the targets of the farmers’ ire: two-thirds to threequarters of European consumers have consistently shown in public opinion polls an unwillingness to purchase any food products made with genetically engineered ingredients. The French farmers are afraid not only that their seed lines might be “contaminated” by new genetic material, but that if it happens their markets will collapse.
I contacted Monsanto’s public relations officer, Christopher Horner, to ask about the company’s response to the events in France, and he told me that there was no one in the company’s St. Louis headquarters who “is familiar enough with what happened.” He said he would inquire with his European colleagues, but over the course of ten months of inquiries did not provide any company official to be interviewed on this or any other genetic-engineering-related topic.3
What the French farmers fear, however, is precisely what has already happened in America’s Corn Belt: the intrusion of genetically engineered genes into their corn. America’s own corn farmers have discovered that their fate, their ability to continue with a profession that for many has been in the family for generations, could ride as much on the actions of their French counterparts and concerns of European consumers as the muscle and care they put into growing their own crops.3
- Tribunal de Grande Instance d’Orleans, Jugement Correctionnel du 9 Decembre, 2005, no. de jugement 2345/S3/2005. The case was between Monsanto (La Societe Monsanto) and Francois DuFour, a local farmer, and 47 others. Translation of decision by author. Also see, Activists Destruction of GM Crops Was Justified: French Court, Agence France Presse, December 9, 2005.
- USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Global Agriculture Information Network (GAIN), December 14, 2005 and July 28, 2006. (The USDA tracks the threats to biotechnology around the world, as well as other agriculture-related news.)
- Telephone interview with Christopher Horner, in St. Louis, MO, March 22, 2006.