French farmers, activists battle over GM corn

Updated: 2006-10-12 14:33

MARMANDE, France -- In a country with strong and often romantic ties to food and the land, and amid this bucolic landscape of neat vineyards and village butchers, U.S. biotech companies have found an unlikely ally in their battle to bring genetically modified crops to Europe -- French farmers.

More French farmers are sowing the one genetically modified seed permitted in the European Union, called transgenic corn, saying they want cheaper, better protection from pests. But that's produced another kind of annoyance, a minor ground war with environmental activists and fire from politicians in Paris.

French farmers will grow 12,350 acres of genetically modified corn this year, more than 10 times as much as in 2005, according to the French corn-growers association. That's still chicken feed in the $30 billion a year global seed industry, but the stakes for U.S. companies such as Monsanto Co. and DuPont Co. are high. The EU spends $6 billion a year on seeds, or 15% of the global total. Yet it produces less than one percent of all genetically modified crops, meaning there is huge potential for growth.

Claude Menara, an ebullient 52-year-old farmer, says that for years he watched American farmers ship billions of euros worth of genetically modified foods to Europe, while he grew traditional corn on his farm near Bordeaux. While EU rules allow farmers here to grow only transgenic corn, the union has been steadily adding to the list of genetically modified foods that can be imported.

Last year, Mr. Menara decided he'd had enough: He planted 17 acres of transgenic corn and much more this year. "It's a business," says Mr. Menara, whose bottom line approach to genetically modified seeds is not shared by many of his neighbors, who don't use them. The Monsanto-patented corn saved him about $38 an acre in pesticide bills last year, he says.

Use of the corn is spreading elsewhere in Europe, too. The Czech Republic, Spain, Portugal and Germany are all growing more than before. Spain leads the pack with 148,200 acres. Farmers in the United Kingdom, Ireland and several other EU countries are also considering genetically modified corn.

But it's in France, Europe's biggest corn exporter, where the growth is sharpest. That's drawing a political backlash, as well as a search-and-destroy campaign by environmental activists. Even though corn is almost exclusively used as animal feed across the continent, critics worry about the effect on people over time if these crops are introduced into the food chain and believe they will contaminate neighboring fields of unaltered plants.

Scientists say the main risk posed by altering the gene structure of food is the consequences for human health. "The way that we learn the long-term effects of GMOs is through introduction into the population," says J. Lynne Brown, an associate professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University. Activists see warning signs in a 1999 study in the U.K. scientific journal Lancet that concluded that genetically modified potatoes had caused cell damage in rats. Some studies published since have found similar results in animals.

"These studies haven't been conducted in a rigorous way that would identify genetic modification as a cause," says Simon Barber, director of the plant biotechnology unit of Europabio, a Brussels-based lobby group for seed companies. "If we had evidence that these products cause harm, it would be preposterous to keep them on the market."

This summer, activists -- including Jose Bov¨¦, who once served 44 days in prison for destroying a McDonald's -- have vandalized dozens of farms, fought farmers in court and warned of irreversible environmental catastrophe if genetically modified crops are allowed to take root in Europe. In a recent speech, S¨¦gol¨¨ne Royal, the favorite to win the Socialist Party nomination to run for election as French president next year, called for a ban on planting the crops in France.

Greenpeace, the environmental lobby, says it is sending 1,500 volunteer "detectives" around France to "out" farmers who use genetically modified seeds. The activists then publish maps marking where those fields are located and rally the concerned.

On a recent day, 30-year-old social worker Marina Maruejouls, one of the "detectives," steered her 2000 Renault Clio next to fields near her home near Toulouse in southern France. "GM crops are invading and we have to stop them from spreading," she said.

To do her job, she clips leaves off corn stalks and grinds them up. Then, she mixes the leaves with water and dips a tab made by Delaware-based Strategic Diagnostic Inc. into the liquid. Two bars showing on the tab means GM corn; one bar, normal corn.

Since their introduction in 1995, GM crops have swept across the U.S. because they cut costs on everything from irrigation to pesticides, says Cori Wittman, a biotech specialist for the Farm Bureau. In the U.S., 89% of soybeans, 83% of cotton and 61% of corn are genetically modified.

Europe initially embraced the technology, approving the planting of transgenic corn in 1998, but backed off in the wake of an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in the late 1990s, a fatal illness better known as mad cow disease that eventually kills humans who eat infected meat. Mad cow is believed to have spread through cattle herds, mainly in the U.K., due to industrial feed practices. While genetically altered feed wasn't involved, protecting food purity became politically popular, leading the EU in 1998 to impose a moratorium on approving new types of GM crops for import.

The EU lifted the ban in 2004, in part due to protests from the U.S. that the ban was a form of trade barrier. But the EU is moving slowly to approve genetically modified products for import, and not at all on endorsing anything for cultivation on European soil. A new EU law requiring any food product containing over 0.9% of GM ingredients to be labeled as genetically modified has further damped the market in Europe, as big supermarket chains shy away from stocking products consumers may reject.

Mr. Menara was more worried about borer worms, which destroyed half his harvest in 1988. On a recent morning, he shows off an ear of genetically modified corn, full and yellow, alongside a unaltered ear that was withered and ruined. Transgenic corn has added genes, which produce a protein that makes the borer's stomach explode. Cracking open the stalk of the non-GM ear revealed a squad of pink worms.

The Monsanto-patented transgenic corn Mr. Menara bought also saved him money. The Monsanto seed cost about $48 an acre, instead of about $38 for regular seed. But the Monsanto seed works out cheaper, the farmer says, because spraying pesticides to kill corn borers costs between $24 and $48 an acre.

Mr. Menara was so happy with the 17 acres of modified corn he grew in 2005, that this year he planted 250 acres, shipping the corn by truck over the Pyrenees mountains to Spanish cattle-raisers.

Mr. Menara says the savings will help him stay profitable after 2013, when the EU will start cutting into the approximately $225,000 it gives him every year in subsidies. He won't say how much he earns, but says the gross profit margin on his 1,000-acre farm is around $250 an acre.

The seed companies and their lobbyists have provided information and support, but no financial aid and no free seeds, Mr. Menara says. What Mr. Menara did get from planting engineered food was trouble.

In July, Greenpeace published a map that included Mr. Menara's name, address and the GPS coordinates of his farm. Backed by the corn-growers association, Mr. Menara sued Greenpeace to get them to take the map off the Web site. He won.

A few days later, Greenpeace activists traced a cross in his field by knocking down corn stalks. Mr. Bov¨¦ -- whom Mr. Menara calls "the ayatollah" -- visited on Sept. 2. Wielding a bullhorn, he directed fellow activists to trash almost 30 acres of Mr. Menara's corn. "GM crops are a sign of totalitarianism," says Mr. Bov¨¦, adding that he is following in the footsteps of the American essayist and poet Henry David Thoreau, who first promoted civil disobedience as a tool for political change.

Mr. Menara sees no such lofty motivations. "They are thugs," says Mr. Menara, of Mr. Bov¨¦'s group, three of whom were arrested and face up to three months in jail for vandalism. A Toulouse court will deliver a verdict later this month. Mr. Menara says the activists only make him even more determined to grow GM crops. "This year I grew 250 acres, next year I'll grow 500," he says.