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What Genetically-Modified Means To A Small Farmer In Southwest France

Debate rages over genetically-modified organisms (GMO) used in the agriculture industry, as health experts and environmentalists try to keep a ban in place. In the Gironde region of France, a single corn and vegetable farmer staunchly defends his right to

Feeding the nation (OliBac)
Feeding the nation (OliBac)
Claudia Courtois

CARCANS-MAUBUISSON -- On each side of a long, straight road between Lacanau and Carcans-Maubuisson -- two coastal towns in France's southwest Gironde region -- the cawing of crows echoes along the horizon of cornfields and woodlands.

We have entered Coutin, an agricultural farm of 800 contiguous hectares, where two-thirds of the crops are reserved for sweet corn and corn seed and one third for vegetables destined to be canned. Genetically-modified organism (GMO) techniques have been used here before, and will be used again if the law allows, explains Coutin's owner, Jérôme Hue.

This farm is not the biggest in Gironde, but its owner can boast five full-time and two part-time employees, and an average of 6,000 tons of corn produced each year.

In his heavy black coat, walking slowly despite the cold, the debonair 57-year-old farmer freely expresses his support for GMOs. "I'm in favour of using them," he says. "It's the way of the future."

Hue was among the pioneers in developing GMOs in the mid-1990s when he took part of several experiments involving transgenic crops. "An intellectually interesting approach," he says, adding that he sees "only advantages' and no drawbacks to this type of farming.

"Production is 100% guaranteed, there's no loss and no degradation of the environment. We do not use insecticide, and fewer pesticides," Hue explains. "We avoid excessive turning of the soil in order to preserve a maximum of organic matter inside it." Forage crops are not a problem either, he adds, as animals do not ingest microtoxins that are found in conventional corn.

The only people who knew that Jérôme Hue was testing GMO corn were the mayor and Jérôme's farmer neighbors. Some of the neighbors were rather critical of the approach of this son of farmers near Versailles, who moved to Gironde in 1975. "They say I'm in cahoots with Monsanto, and that the profession has a bad enough reputation already." Yet he says that other farmers in the area could be tempted to grow GMO crops if the law allowed it, "but they are afraid of attacks on their fields by anti-GMO activists."

Moratorium struck down

In 2007, Hue farmed 135 hectares of DK 5784, a variety of the American Monsanto's MON 810 seed. He was one of 12 farmers in Gironde listed in the national register of GMO cultures --a register established in September 2007 by the French Ministry of Agriculture. In February 2008, the French government decided on a safeguard clause prohibiting all MON 810 seeds, marking a return to conventional corn for Hue and the others.

French farmers are following as closely as anyone the recent developments on this complex topic. In September 2011, the European Union's Court of Justice struck down the French moratorium on the seeds, followed two months later by the France's Council of State, the administrative court of last resort, which canceled the safeguard clause of 2008 on the grounds that neither the emergency aspect nor the potential harm for human beings were sufficiently documented.

Hue is keeping a close eye on how things evolve. Sowing begins in early April and he can order his seeds up to 15 days before planting. Still, he is not particularly confident that the situation will turn out in favor of GMOs. And in any case, no genetically modified seeds are available in France because no GMOs are produced here.

In a statement late last month, Monsanto, the largest GMO seed company in the world, reiterated that "as long as France does not have a favorable political context and a regulatory approach based on scientific facts, Monsanto will continue to provide only non-GMO quality seeds." It is technically and legally possible to import seeds, but no one would dare do it – especially if a moratorium is back on the table.

"No farmer wants to get involved in a clash," says an official from the French Union of Seed-planters.

Jérôme Hue will do what's best for his farm, without falling on his sword. The debate on GMOs is "too ideological...not pragmatic or objective enough," he says. "I can't change the world." That doesn't mean the world isn't about to change again.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - OliBac

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