Modern Day Witch-Burning On The Farm
* Few Realize That The French Farmer Who Wrecked A Local McDonald's Is The Son Of A Agricultural Researcher Who Supports Biotech Food
February 21, 2001
by Dennis T. Avery
THE BridgeNews FORUM: Viewpoints on farming, farm policy and related agricultural issues, February 16, 2001
CHURCHVILLE, Va.--"In the Middle Ages, they burned witches; today they burn transgenic plants," sighed the elderly Frenchman.
Meanwhile, his son, Jose Bove, was starring at the World Social Forum, a meeting held a few weeks ago in southern Brazil. The younger Bove is the radical French farmer famed for wrecking his local McDonald's, protesting biotech foods and opposing trade.
While in Brazil, Bove joined the leaders of Brazil's Landless Movement in symbolically destroying 1,000 acres of genetically modified corn and soybeans.
Few people realize Bove is the son of a leading French agricultural researcher, who ardently supports agricultural biotechnology. Jose Bove Sr., now 71, was until recently director of the French National Institute for Agronomic Research near Bordeaux. The elder Bove even helped discover the cause of a disease afflicting 300 million Brazilian orange trees, a disease spread by an insect untouched by current pesticides.
His proposed solution: develop a transgenic tree immune to the disease, thereby protecting Brazil's orange trees and their Vitamin C rich fruits for millions of children.
The young Bove learned about activism in Berkeley, Calif., where his father was a graduate student, during the heyday of the Vietnam anti-war demonstrations there.
The elder Bove says his son and the other opponents of trade and technology should hold their next protest meeting in the Saudi Arabian desert.
It may be awhile. The younger Bove faces up to five years in jail for breaking into a research center in the southern French city of Montpellier and damaging publicly funded biotechnology experiments.
Meanwhile, agricultural biotechnology got an endorsement from an unexpected source: The Center for Science in the Public Interest, founded by anti-tech activist Jeremy Rifkin.
Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the CSPI, recently said in The Wall Street Journal, "My organization has waged many campaigns over the last three decades to improve the nutritional quality and safety of our food.
"From advocating nutrition labeling to attacking Olestra, we know how to publicize problems. But the campaign we have not joined is the one aimed at halting agricultural biotechnology and genetically engineered foods.
"While biotechnology is not a panacea for every nutritional and agricultural problem, it is a powerful tool to increase food production, protect the environment, improve the healthfulness of foods and produce valuable pharmaceuticals. It should not be rejected cavalierly."
Jacobson criticized one environmental group that recently wrote: "If deadly toxins that kill butterflies are being introduced into our food supply, what effect are these toxins having on you and your family? Is it possible that these toxins will build up over time in our systems? If so, what effect will they have? The scary answer is that no one really knows."
Jacobson says, "Actually we do know. The Environmental Protection Agency and others have concluded that the 'toxins' approved for human consumption have no adverse effect on human health."
My friend Chris Klose, a former Peace Corps volunteer who was for many years on the staff of The American Crop Protection Association, makes the biotech debate more personal.
"In India, fresh out of college and eager to save the world, I met my first starving child. She was 9 months old, the daughter of a desperately poor neighbor woman. The baby's grayish, flaccid skin and her vacant brown eyes haunt me to this day. Shortly after my visit, she died and her body burned on an open funeral pyre at the edge of our village. With that fire, I became a lifelong proponent of science in service of mankind through agriculture."
From our discussions, I think my friend Chris's only regret about his ACPA years is that the "chemical lobby" has not been more effective in presenting its humanitarian and conservation achievements to the city folks.
Whose advice do we take? Jose Bove Jr., the angry son who wants us to reject his father's lifetime of achievements on behalf of people and the environment?
Michael Jacobson, the activist who draws the line at carelessly rejecting the biggest advance in human knowledge since the computer chip?
The anti-biotech activists whose only credentials are that they don't work for The Establishment that has helped make us the longest-lived, richest, freest, best-educated population in history?
Chris Klose, whose up-close confrontation with starvation turned his life onto a politically incorrect but urgently important path for the planet?
Or we might listen to the ghost of the little Indian girl who didn't need to die.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.