Food, Farms, and Solidarity: French Farmers Challenge Industrial Agriculture and Genetically Modified Crops

Food, Farms, and Solidarity: French Farmers Challenge Industrial Agriculture and Genetically Modified Crops

by Chaia Heller


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822351276
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/28/2013
Series: New Ecologies for the Twenty-First Century Series
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Chaia Heller is Visiting Assistant Professor of Gender Studies at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of The Ecology of Everyday Life: Rethinking the Desire for Nature.

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French Farmers Challenge Industrial Agriculture and Genetically Modified Crops


Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5118-4

Chapter One


Creating a New Rationality of Agriculture in a Postindustrial World

And so it all began with overproduced, spilled milk. In the early 1990s, small dairy farmers in France were dumping milk and protesting price drops linked to overproduction. At the same time, talk about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) skittered through the international dairy world. A new GMO was destined for the dairy industry. A genetically modified hormone would be injected into cows worldwide, increasing production and benefiting large-scale farmers operating industrial dairies. News of the new milk poured through the union of self-identified paysans (peasants) from the Confédération Paysanne, France's second-largest agricultural union, composed mainly of smallholders. Many had read about GMOs from agricultural newsletters that reported on farmers in Vermont and ecology groups trying to comprehend a new form of agricultural science, agricultural biotechnology. The paysans had even received a few e-mail messages via the union's newly installed Internet connection at its national headquarters just outside Paris.

In 1993 three members of the Confédération Paysanne left their villages (most never having left the country) to fly to central Vermont to do their homework. In return, local Vermont dairy farmers cheerily received the union members. The farmers offered information and warning about the economic pitfalls of the newly approved genetically modified milk. This milk, they explained, is produced by cows injected with recombinant bovine growth hormone, called r-BGH. The idea of gm milk presented a dismaying prospect to dairy farmers already struggling to survive in an era of overproduction. Fortified with facts and figures, the small contingency of the Confédération Paysanne returned to France. Months after their return, they fought for and won an EU-wide ban on genetically modified milk that remains in place today. Not long after, they won the fight to label all GMO products in Europe.

Like the Confédération Paysanne, Vermont dairy farmers and activists led a campaign against GMOs. While their ultimate goal was to ban genetically modified milk, their initial, more modest objective was to request that the product be labeled. After a two-year struggle during 1994 and 1995, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in favor of the high-powered dairy lobby. According to the courts, labeling requirements represented an infringement on corporations' freedom of speech (Tokar 1999). While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the milk in 1993, the Vermont Supreme Court set the stage for a de facto no-labeling policy for all GMO products, and it remains in place to this day—uniquely in the United States.

A Producer-Led, Anti-GMO Movement: Rediscovering the Confédération Paysanne

I traveled to France to study the movement against GMOs in early 1997. My original goal was to understand why France (unlike other European countries such as Austria, Germany, or the United Kingdom) lacked an ecology movement strong enough to drive a successful mobilization. I was aware that Greenpeace France did organize a small direct action in which activists blocked cargo ships carrying genetically modified foodstuffs before they arrived in Normandy. However, this action garnered little publicity or popular support. I had yet to imagine that French small-scale farmers, or smallholders, might share much in common (on a strategic and cultural level) with those in the Global South. Outside the Global North, producers such as peasant farmers (rather than consumers and ecologists) primarily spearhead movements against GMOs. As I would soon learn, the same would be true in France. I had failed to remember the French farmers who traveled to Vermont just a few years before—and who, within months, had enjoyed such success in the European policymaking world.

I was unaware that France, like the Global South, was home to a movement of peasant-identified farmers. Peasants, I thought, no longer existed in Europe. I knew that peasants in Britain were driven to near extinction as early as the fifteenth century because of the enclosures of the commons (Neesen 1993). I assumed incorrectly that French peasants had shared the same fate. While bucolic ideas of French peasants still abound in French marketing, film, and tourism, I thought that for centuries they primarily occupied the world of the French imaginary. Upon my first chance encounter with the Confédération Paysanne, I soon learned that the notion of the French peasant—although changed dramatically over time—was still very much alive. Beginning in the 1970s, a set of new paysan movements emerged in France, resisting the industrialization of agriculture that had gotten under way following World War II.

Members of the Confédération Paysanne who traveled to Vermont in 1993 were at that time already plugged into an international network of farmers and indigenous peoples in nongovernmental organizations (ngos), many located in the Global South. These southern organizations, associated with biologist-activists such as Vandana Shiva and Devaru Nanjundaswamy of the Karnataka State Farmer's union in India, had been discussing the GMO question since the 1980s. They voiced concerns regarding the impending dominance of GMOs in the international agricultural market. Word had it that companies planned to create patented GMOs in the form of seeds for a variety of commodity foodstuffs, beginning with milk. After targeting global staple crops, such as cotton, corn, canola, and soy, biotechnology companies would move on to create genetically modified versions of wheat and rice, perhaps the most crucial staple crops of all. The predictions of southern organizations proved true. In the 1980s, U.S. multinationals (e.g., Monsanto and Novartis) bought small start-up companies developing genetically modified varieties of staple crops and prepared to commercialize these products within the next decade (Rabinow 1996). If all went well, by 1996 several staple crops would appear globally in the form of genetically modified seed and GMOs processed into foodstuffs (Shiva 1993a).

Biotechnology companies won the right to patent genetically modified seeds in 1981, subsequently preventing farmers from saving or sharing seeds purchased from these corporations (Shiva 1988). Farmers purchasing gm seeds from companies such as Monsanto are obliged to sign one-time use agreements that legally forbid them from saving or trading seed issued from gm plants. One-time use agreements break a centuries-old tradition in which farmers save, select, and share seeds gleaned from plants during harvest time. Seed saving is not just central to improving seeds and plants suitable for particular microclimates; it is also a crucial form of solidarity practiced among farmers who have collaborated, since the beginning of agriculture, to create site-specific crops for local communities in a spirit of mutualism, rather than private ownership.

With the advent of one-time use agreements, many smallholders and ecologists pondered the global implications of multinationals inserting themselves into so many nodes of the agriculture production line—from milk, seeds, and inputs to trees, fish, and animals. Could agricultural biotechnology render all farmers, both big and small, dependent on the decisions, practices, and monopolizing tactics of multinational corporations? Biotechnology companies such as Monsanto and Novartis pledged that GMOs would increase production. Targeting large-scale industrial farmers as their primary market, biotechnology companies also promised that their products would lower farmers' costs for herbicide and pesticide. This news fell on the dejected ears of international organizations of smallholders. They were already struggling to survive in an age of overproduction and price drops as peasant communities disappeared across the globe.

The Confédération Paysanne offers a distinctive response to this postindustrial condition. At this historical juncture, industrial agriculture forced smallholders to devise novel strategies to maintain economic means and the meaning of their rural and agricultural ways of life. Instead of simply promoting alternative agricultural practices, such as organic or sustainable agriculture (associated with movements in other countries), the Confédération Paysanne promotes a distinct rationality of agriculture that it calls Paysan Agriculture (agriculteur paysanne).

Postindustrial Agriculture: A Useful Heuristic?

The term postindustrial agriculture points to that which flows out of, but is distinct from, industrial agriculture. Postindustrial agriculture is both a consequence and an accompanying condition of industrial agriculture. Even though it occupies the same temporal space, postindustrial agriculture is marked by its own distinct features. When most people think about a postindustrial condition, they conjure images of abandoned factory-neighborhoods left behind in cities such as Chicago or Detroit after industry pulled up its roots and moved to the Global South (Raymond 1998; Raymond and Bailey 1997). Or they might envision workers in Malaysia laboring long hours for low pay in electronics factories in free-trade zones with few, if any, services or benefits. Few think "farmer" when they think "postindustrial." But just as postindustrialization drives factory workers into a state of economic and cultural chaos, postindustrial agriculture also represents a set of challenges for farmers. Smallholders live in an era when industrial agriculture attempts to render their services obsolete. The mere existence of smallholders (and their requests for subsidies in the Global North) is considered a nuisance to farm-policy makers fostering the industrial model.

It is useful to offer a brief, working definition of industrial agriculture. While the book cannot present a comprehensive picture of the industrial model, I offer a broad ten-point set of conditions of industrial agriculture. A useful caveat: single components of the ten-point set are not necessarily integral to an industrial system. Rather, it is the grouping of the ten conditions of industrial agriculture—the ways in which they form a systemic gestalt—that endows industrial agriculture with its distinct function and effects.


1 Intensive farming methods: The concentration of many agricultural products (plant or animal) on a given area of land.

2 Extensive farming methods: The production of agricultural products across large plots of land, often up to thousands of acres.

3 Chemicalization of farming methods for increasing production: The use of synthetic and petroleum products for controlling weeds, pests, soil productivity (fertilizer), fungi, and so on. Since the 1960s, this model also promotes hybrid and genetic-breeding approaches to create "high-yield" seed varieties to be paired with chemical inputs. In the Global South hybrid seed and chemical packages are central to Green Revolution technologies which were introduced between 1940 and 1970 by UN and other international agencies to enhance agricultural production.

4 Motorized and electronic technologies to increase the speed, productivity, and circulation of agricultural products: The intensive reliance on motorized and electronic machines in plowing, harvesting, spraying, transporting, and so on.

5 Monocropping: Replacing a previously diverse model of agricultural production with a model that favors the production of fewer cultivars across vast land areas.

6 Subsidies and loans: Granted by government farm policies and private banks, most often to farmers who embrace the industrial features listed above.

7 Production of "modern foods" (fast foods, pre-prepared foods, frozen foods, and processed foods): Often seen by many consumers as affordable, convenient, and safe.

8 Modern ideal of bigger farms with fewer farmers in rural areas: Often perceived by state bodies and corporations as cost-effective and efficient, relying on fewer workers to pay.

9 Modern agricultural discourse promotes industrial model as universally beneficial and inherently progressive: Focus on food productivity and food security in a world in which overpopulation is a rationalizing force behind industrial productivism.

10 An instrumental rationality informs practices related to industrial agriculture: In general, a logic of efficiency, profitability, and productivity pervades discourses and practices related to the industrial model.

Industrial agriculture has implications for the kind of agricultural product it yields, the amount of land an individual farmer will use, and the environmental and health effects of farming and food production. It also promotes a reliance on a petroleum-based economy for producing and circulating agricultural goods while reducing the genetic biodiversity of cultivars. State and private bodies promote the industrial model through subsidies and loaning practices. Industrial agriculture subsequently reduces the number of farmers eligible to earn a living wage. The system is normalized by an ongoing appeal to an instrumental rationality that promotes the model as modern, progressive, and inevitable. The industrial model is primarily designed to enhance productivity while lowering production costs. Large-scale farms produce high yields (of fewer crops) by using chemicalized, motorized, and electronic farming methods. Farmers who are able to follow this model receive far more farm subsidies and bank loans than smallholders who either cannot or will not do so.

Postindustrial agriculture is a set of social, cultural, and economic conditions that flows out of industrial agriculture—these conditions are neither preindustrial nor industrial. To speak of a postindustrial agricultural condition highlights the historical and cultural specificity of the experiences of smallholders worldwide in both contesting and accommodating the industrial model. It also highlights the practices of industrial corporations in creating their own postindustrial strategies, which include agricultural biotechnology, while also appropriating and dominating markets of organic and so-called natural foods.


1 Production of agricultural surpluses in staple crops (such as wheat and corn): The result of a subsidized, chemicalized, intensive, and Fordist method of industrial agricultural production. The production of surpluses is facilitated by UN-driven agricultural policies that concentrated the world grain trade in the Global North, leaving peripheral nations in the Global South to engage in low-profit export-oriented cash cropping (Kasaba and Tabak 1995).

2 "Dumping" of surpluses onto the agricultural economies of southern nations: Food materials not destined for the agro-foods industry and retail are sent to the Global South in the form of aid and cheap commodity grains. After just a few dumps, a local agricultural economy in a village in the Global South can be destroyed indefinitely (Wise 2004). This creates a condition of postindustriality for smallholders struggling to survive in southern nations.

3 Deregulation of prewar trade policies for increasing profits: Allows powerful institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization (WTO) to increasingly determine aid, trade, tariff, and import policies worldwide, eroding small-scale agriculture, particularly in the Global South.

4 Agricultural biotechnology: Inserted into the industrial chemicalized, motorized, and monocrop model.

5 A reduction of biodiversity due to monocropping and the replacement of regional cultivars around the world by multinational corporate seed varieties: Local knowledges about the value and preparation of local varieties diminish along with a diverse local food supply.

6 Government farm policies and loaning agencies edge smallholders out of farming markets: Rural zones become home to unemployed or underemployed rural dwellers who often relocate to cities.

7 The industrial model creates foods often perceived by consumers as low quality, unsafe, and departing too far from so-called traditional farm products: Increased appetite for artisanal, organic, and traditional haute cuisine foods—particularly in wealthy nations; co-optation of alternate, organic, or local agriculture food discourses and practices by big industrial producers.


Excerpted from FOOD, FARMS & SOLIDARITY by CHAIA HELLER Copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

About the Series ix

Acknowledgments xi

1. Introduction: Creating a New Rationality of Agriculture in a Postindustrial World 1

Part I. Toward a New Rationality of Agriculture

2. The New Paysan Movements: French Industrialized Agriculture and the Rise of the Postindustrial Paysan 39

3. The Confédération Paysanne: Philosophy, Structure, and Constituency 69

Part II. The Confédération Paysanne's Early Anti-GMO Campaign, from Risk to Globalization

4. Union Activism and Programs: Early Campaigns and Paysan Agriculture 89

5. We Have Always Been Modern: Toward a Progressive Anti-GMO Campaign 112

6. The Trial of the GMOs: Deploying Discourses from Risk to Globalization 137

Part III. How France Grew Its Own Antiglobalization Movement

7. Caravans, GMOs, and McDo: The Campaign Continues 163

8. Operation Roquefort, Part I: Traveling to Washington, DC 198

9. Operation Roquefort, Part II: The Battle of Seattle 221

10. Postindustrial Paysans in a Post-Seattle World: New Movements, New Possibilities 248

11. Conclusion: French Lessons; What's to Be Learned 291

Notes 307

Works Cited 311

Index 323

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