Jose Bove is an eco-saboteur. Harsher critics might even call him a terrorist. But the French sheep farmer, nicknamed “Asterix” after the cartoon character because of his mustache and his determination to repel imperialistic invaders, is becoming increasingly known around the world for his protests against junk food, U.S. trade tariffs, and the social and environmental risks of genetically modified organisms. Much to the outraged dismay of his supporters, before dawn on June 22, 2003, Bove was swept from his home to serve 10 months for his actions against genetically modified crops, for which he had received two suspended sentences.
Bove has been a political activist since the 1970's, opposing the extension of army bases, leading hunger strikes for more government subsidies, and opposing nuclear testing aboard the Rainbow Warrior in 1995, before turning his attention to genetically modified crops in the late 1990's. In 1998, he participated in destroying modified crops owned by Novartis in Nerac in southwestern France. The following year he destroyed biotech rice plants at a Montpellier laboratory. In August 1999, Bove led a group that dismantled a half-built McDonald's in his hometown of Millau in the south of France to protest against lousy food and American tariffs on French delicacies like Roquefort cheese and foie gras. He served three weeks in jail for this attack. In 2001, he was forced to leave Brazil after leading an invasion by 1,300 Brazilian farmers of plantations run by American biotech giant Monsanto. His radicalism has made him the darling of anti-globalization groups around the world.
While his critics denounce him as an opportunist, his growing legions of supporters describe him as one of those rare individuals who can match clarity of opinion with clarity of action. His concerns about modified food production, therefore, make perfect sense. We all eat food, but where it comes from is becoming a critical source of contention. As agribusiness, biotechnology, and the chain mega-market have supplanted the smaller farm and the smaller, local grocery store, more and more small farmers have been put out of business and the quality and the nutritional value of our foods have diminished. This is not a North American or western phenomenon, but a global one, and it is the source of Bove's global protest. It's what brings genetically modified organisms and McDonald's together as his opposition. As Bove has claimed, “Farming was beginning to be the symbol of the resistance against globalization, because farming is the thing we do in each place all over the world.”
The debate over altered food is a complicated one. Biotechnology is on the verge of being able to reduce pesticide use, increase food productivity, and create foods that can grow in inhospitable climates and soils. The potential for eradicating world hunger and malnutrition is there. But here's the rub. No one can yet unequivocally vouch for the complete safety of these new foods. We still don't know their long-term effects on humans, soils, ecosystems, and other crops. Another concern - and the source of Bove's activism - is the devastating potential for 21st century colonialism on the part of corporate biotech giants who are already practicing forms of bio-piracy in the new global marketplace. Globalization and economic imperialism are already threatening the livelihoods of small farmers around the world.
José Bové is often named Asterix, after the famous Gallic comic hero fighting against the Roman occupiers and symbolizing French pride. His popularity also extends outside France, since he was ranked by Business Week among the 50 European leaders at the forefront of change. REUTERS/Jean-Philippe Arles
There is some talk that Bove might receive a presidential pardon on July 14 - Bastille Day. In 1789, the storming of the Bastille became the symbolic event of the French Revolution, when revolutionaries stormed the stronghold in Paris, ultimately precipitating the fall of the French monarchy and instituting the first European republic. So it would be fitting for a contemporary defender of human liberties to be pardoned on that day. In spite of the grassroots organizing around the world on Bove's behalf, though, it's unlikely that a pardon will come, given the current political climate. But in a perfect world, Asterix's pardon on Bastille Day could mark a crucial turning point in the global politics of food production. His release would represent a major victory for social and environmental justice.
The writer teaches in the department of history at Washington State University.
Copyright © 2003 the International Herald Tribune