Scientists and farmers, North and South, joined hands in a day of action defending democracy and independent science. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports on her visit to Montpellier November 22, 2001.
It was one-thirty in the afternoon, and hundreds had gathered outside the Montpellier magistrate's court, carrying placards and banners, their faces glowing with expectation in the chilly November sunshine. José Bové and co-defendant Dominique Soulier arrived to loud cheers and a thicket of cameras. They were accompanied by Prof. Mahata Devaru Narijundaswamy, president of the association of farmers in Karnataka (KRRS), part of the People's Caravan movement highlighting the plight of Third World farmers, and Dr. Arpad Pusztai, senior UK scientist who lost his job for scientific findings against genetically modified potatoes. The four spoke briefly and emotionally to the crowd before entering the court, joined by other scientists who would take part in defending the farmers. This beautiful historic town is about to witness another historic event - independent science and farmers joining hands against the corporate takeover of science.
Bové, Soulier and a third farmer, René Riesel, had appealed against an earlier judgement that sentenced them to two years imprisonment for destroying GM rice grown in the Montpellier CIRAD (international agronomic research centre for development), a publicly funded nation-wide research institute. The plants were destroyed on 5th June, 1999, in broad daylight and in front of the TV camera. Prof. Narijundaswamy and 50 Indian farmers took part in the action, which he characterised as "non-violent and in the tradition of Ghandi".
But why target a research institute, and GM rice that was growing in the green house? The significance of the act did not dawn on me until after our appearance in court at the end of a gruelling 5 to 6 hour confinement in the witnesses' cubicle, as is the tradition in French court. It was after nine in the evening when the ordeal was over, and we could settle down to dinner in a restaurant.
Bové, chief instigator, is ready to go to jail if necessary. He told me he has been jailed twice before, each time for a month. The first was in resisting the French military taking over local farms, and the second time, he shot to fame for dismantling a McDonald kiosk as an act against corporate capitalism. "We did it perfectly, and are very proud of it," he said, between puffs on his pipe, "We took it apart with precision, by undoing nuts and bolts, and without damaging it."
Bové cultivates his peasant-farmer image very effectively. The forty-eight year old is chestnut-haired, of medium build, and has a dark moustache just short of bushy. What catches one off-guard is his complete command of every situation as it arises. He can switch instantly between a TV interview and an intimate conversation. His English is adequate, but he communicates far more than the words convey.
Is he a closet intellectual? I wondered, sitting across the table from the man, flanked by his wife for the past two years on one side and his lawyer on the other. His supporters from the Confederation Paysanne were scattered around the restaurant, guzzling the local Bordeaux, and occasionally shouting affectionate remarks in Bové's direction. Out in the streets, even the gendarmes greeted him and shook his hand. Inside the court, the guards, like everyone else, clung onto his every word, and every word that the witnesses said in his defence.
"They think I don't know anything about science. They are so stupid! I know all about science!" he exclaimed, in the manner of someone who knows far too much. "My parents are scientists. My mother worked in the CIRAD for 42 years. She was in court today. She supports what I am doing, and knows what they are up to in CIRAD." What about his father? "He works on plant viruses, and he has been evaluating CIRAD's programme around the country." "Does he support you too?" I asked. "Yes, though not as much as my mother." Neither parent has gone public with their dissatisfaction with what is happening within the scientific establishment. But there is clearly a deep unease about science and scientific research both within the scientific community and in society at large.
Bové said they destroyed the GM rice to protest against the way publicly funded research is acting to the detriment of the people it was supposed to help. The CIRAD is supposed to do research that helps Third World development, but GM rice is overwhelmingly rejected by the poor farmers all over the world. Not the least among their objections being that GM crops are subject to corporate patents. By destroying the GM rice together with Indian farmers, they were also demonstrating North-South solidarity among the farmers and demanding scientific research to benefit them both.
Syngenta had announced the sequence of the rice genome earlier this year, and the company is busy patenting genes, adding to the hundreds already patented. The 'golden rice' engineered to produce pro-Vitamin A is widely recognised to be a fraud designed to salvage a morally and scientifically bankrupt industry . GM rice is now forced onto Indian farmers, according to Narijundaswamy, after suspected GM cotton and other GM seeds were sold to them, resulting in massive crop failures and suicides. It is estimated that some 10 000 farmers had committed suicide within the past three years . He had demanded to be arrested with the French farmers, but was ignored, and so he came to state his case again. He was here to fight the "bad science" that destroyed lives and livelihood, he said.
The greatest surprise was the line-up of scientists from France. Where else in the world would top scientists sitting on government committees on genetic modification act as 'moral witness' for those convicted of destroying GM field trials? One of them is on the very advisory body that gave approval for the GM rice destroyed.
Jacques Testart is the director of research at INSERM, the national institute of health and medical research, and President of the French commission on sustainable development. His main message to the presiding magistrates, all three of them, was that there had been no proven benefit of GM in either medicine or agriculture. He should know, because he started in reproductive biology and got involved in cloning and GM research, but gave that up. "Talk of balancing risk versus benefit is ridiculous when benefit equals zero", he said. Carrying out open field trials when research under contained conditions is incomplete is simply putting cart before the horse. He said that varieties with 3 times the level of vitamin A in 'golden rice' already exist, and were created by traditional breeding. It is clear that GM rice research is profit-oriented, and not for public good.
Gilles Eric Seralini is on the French government's commission of molecular genetics, one of the two expert advisory groups that gave approval for the open field trial intended for the GM rice that was destroyed by Bové and friends. Seralini explained that there were 18 members in the group, only ten of them were present when the approval was given. He had left the group by that time, because the ten decided that as they formed the majority, they could give approval even when the others did not agree. The application for open field trial from CIRAD was heavily criticised. "There were no studies on risks, the stability of the plants intended for open field trials was not documented, and it was the intention to use the open trial itself to select for stable lines." Seralini recalled, "That was why I left." The risks of the Bt-pesticide engineered into the plant were unknown. There were also two antibiotic resistance genes present that could spread to pathogens. "The experiment had commercial interests at heart, and not basic scientific interest. It was perverting the mandate of the institute to carry out independent research for public good."
In the tradition of French melodrama, the two scientists for defence were exactly opposed by two acting for the prosecution. Both prosecuting witnesses were senior agricultural scientists, one sitting on the same government advisory body as Seralini, and the other, on a committee of 'four wise men', responsible for organising GM debate nationally, that includes Testart. This gave rise to hours of lively, at times unbearably loud, but nevertheless good-natured debate in the small witness cubicle before we were led, one after another, to the court. The courtroom scene must have been extremely entertaining, and the small courtroom was filled to capacity.
As if that were not enough, on that very morning, a group of some 20 scientists from the French Academy of Sciences (equivalent to the UK Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences) issued a press release condemning the defendants for 'obstructing the course of science'. And as the courtroom drama unfolded, a parallel public meeting was held outside, on the social responsibility of science and scientists.
So the science war is definitely on in France, and for all to witness.
Pusztai and I were both amazed. Such openness is unheard of in Britain, where no government scientists would dream of criticising GM in public, let alone defend GM 'activists'. In fact, publicly funded scientists are bound by contract not to get involved in politics, though in practice, they will never get reprimanded for singing the praises of GM .
Pusztai simply told his personal story in court."I was a believer in GMî, he said, "I did not do the experiments in order to destroy GM." But when his results told him there were both long term and short-term damages to the rats fed on the GM potatoes, and furthermore, it might be the genetic modification that was the problem, he felt obliged to tell the public. Now, three years later, none of his critics have repeated his research. "There is still only a handful of published studies on assessing safety of GM foods, most of them done by me". "I am not about to give up", he stated emphatically when challenged by the prosecuting lawyers who read out the notorious Royal Society Report cobbled together with unseemly haste in an attempt to discredit him. "I will see to it that further research is done!" Many came to thank Pusztai afterwards. It was gratifying to see time and public appreciation healing this deeply wounded man to whom Prince Charles had said, "The nation owes you an apology." He has found peace in having chosen to obey "a higher law" than the one that makes scientists conform to the corporate culture.
"I am here to defend independent science and scientists, too many of whom are being persecuted and victimised for trying to tell the truth", I told the court . The unpalatable truth that Pusztai's experiments suggested was that GM was inherently hazardous. One of the most serious hazards of GM was highlighted in a report early this year. Australian genetic engineers accidentally transformed a harmless mousepox virus into a pathogen that killed 100% of its victims. Since the anthrax attacks began in the United States, Bush has called for tightening control on both biological weapons and genetic engineering. "The same methods and many of the same materials used in bioweapons are used in making GM crops", I said. "But while bioweapons are made under strictly contained conditions, GM crops and other products are released into the environment as if they were safe. Nature becomes a huge uncontrolled experiment for generating superviruses and superbugs." When scientific evidence is being wilfully ignored and dismissed, we can only thank those who risk arrest and imprisonment to put the message to our governments.
The verdict will not be known for at least another month. But I am told that since the trashing of the GM rice, no other field trials have been approved in France.
Article first published 03/12/01
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