Return to the news

On the Farmers’ Side: José Bové

He has a handlebar mustache, a pipe and the look of a man who’s seen it all. José Bové is a French farmer, politician and environmental activist, one of the leading figures of the anti-globalization movement, and has been on the frontline in the battle for peasants’ rights for decades.

In 1987 Bové formed the Confédération Paysanne, an agricultural union that fights for more environmentally-friendly farming, and brought them to international attention with the dismantling of a McDonald’s under construction in Millau, southern France. He has also participated in occupations to defend landless workers in Brazil, in protests against industrial agriculture and genetically modified organisms, all of which make him a perfect fit for the conference, “They Are Giants, But We Are Millions”. We caught up with José to ask him his thoughts on the current state of affairs.

TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) could change the way we eat and put European small-scale producers in serious danger. What can we do to fight it?

French anti-globalisation activist Jose Bove smokes the pipe as he arrives to attend on October 20, 2008 in Paris a presentation of the alliance "Europe-Ecology rally". The rally gathers trends of the ecology politics to run for the EU elections on June 7, 2009. AFP PHOTO / FRANCK FIFE

Right now, TTIP is blocked. In the US no candidate for the presidential election is for it. In Europe the citizen opposition gained strength and some governments, like France, are in no hurry to see it finalized. I think that TTIP is not our first priority anymore: we have to focus our attention and our energy on CETA, the bilateral agreement negotiated between the EU and Canada whose negotiations have been concluded and could be adopted by the end of October 2016. CETA and TTIP share the same philosophy: CETA is the twin brother of the TTIP and the Trojan Horse of the global companies.

The European Union is ready, once again, to offer big concessions on food and agriculture in order to secure some advantages for its services sector and industries. As always, the small-scale family farmers and quality products that define our territories will be most affected. They are not defended in the framework of this agreement: only 10% of the European PGI (excluding wines) will be protected in Canada. This will mean, for example, that famous Italian cheeses like Parmigiano or Gorgonzola will have partial protection at best, perhaps none at all, while less famous cheeses run the risk of being copied in Canada.

More than 100 Nobel laureates have recently written to Greenpeace to stop their anti-GMO campaign. Why do you think they did that?

This is an interesting sign. Nobel prizes concern three scientific disciplines: medicines, chemistry and physics, three domains of knowledge which are not directly related to the complexity of agriculture which include soil dynamics, interspecies communication, biodiversity and ecology. I have never criticized science which for me means the enhancement of human knowledge. I have never disapproved of scientific research efforts and I am convinced that to do so would be a dangerous error. Nevertheless, some of the technologies that are developed from these scientific endeavors are commercialized to make a quick return on investments. This is also dangerous. Some of the arguments of the letter signed by those eminent scientists are unfortunately outdated. Agriculture needs science to progress but a different form of science, a science which is able to build a real and lively dialogue with the farmers: the time is ripe for a new attitude among the scientific community. I will not put into question the integrity of those scientists but it’s common knowledge now that the financial links between corporate R&D departments and university laboratories are very important: in order to defend the independence of science we have to invest more public money into research.

Can we really make a change in the world food system with our everyday eating choices?

The first political act is choosing what to eat: I am strongly convinced that we can have an impact on the world food system just by changing our way of eating. Organic farming is the only food sector in Europe which is expanding. This is proof that more and more people are really concerned by what they have on their plate. They are conscious that pesticides have a hidden cost, not only for themselves and their families but also for the whole planet. The success of Slow Food is also one indicator that people have changed and consider food an essential product. You can live perfectly well without the latest flat screen TV, it’s much more difficult to make it without pasta, bread, fruits and vegetables.

Nowadays in both Europe and the USA farmers rely on public agricultural subsidies to make a living. This system is not efficient but the alternative would create food insecurity. What can be done?

The current system is not efficient at all, I agree, and we will face a real problem as long as the European Commissioner Phil Hogan and the majority of the Agriculture Ministers of the Members States believe that the future of Europe is to export low added value products to the world market and find new customers in China or Mexico. The first priority of the European policy is to feed 500 million Europeans correctly while preserving agriculture in difficult areas. The subsidies have to be redesigned to help farmers in more remote areas to be able to stay on their farms, not to enhance the competitiveness of the agribusinesses from the Bassin Parisien or the North of Germany. During the last CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) reform, I demonstrated that the European Union could have a more efficient sector with more farmers while saving money! It’s not acceptable to see farmers selling their produce to companies below the cost of production. At the moment, most of the subsidies support industrial farming, organic farming and small-scale farming receives only a few crumbs of the cake.

What do you think of large-scale orga29_08_Bovè2nic farming?

Organic agriculture is now a success story. The first farmers who decided to ignore the advice of the agro-technicians and refused to use biocides were considered strange people at the time, even sectarian. Today, society has a better understanding of what they have done not only for the environment but also for the quality of food production. They were the forerunners and their involvement was also social, they didn’t accept the conditions imposed by the agribusiness: nowadays, a lot of big farmers are converting their land to organic to get a better price for their produce. This is a positive evolution since they stop using chemicals but some of them exploit farm workers – often migrants – and this cannot be acceptable: organic farming cannot be reduced to the chemical products you use, or not, you have also to treat workers with consideration and fairness. 

Which aspect of the modern food system to be changed most urgently?

Forcing the agribusinesses to pay a fair price (i.e. covering the costs of production) to farmers. I cannot accept the fact that dairy farmers have no other option but to sell their milk below cost to a global company like Nestlé: farmers must be remunerated before shareholders!

Do you think that nonviolent protest is an effective method in the fight against multinationals?

Yes, and a lot of examples show how nonviolent protest can be effective. In France, people have not hesitated during almost twenty years ago to destroy, without any violence against individuals, an impressive number of GM crop plantations. Today there are no GM cultures. This is a vibrant illustration of the efficiency of nonviolent protest that should be used whenever it is necessary.

Do you think that the EU agricultural policies are effective on the whole? Is it better than having single national policies? What’s the right balance?

EU agricultural policies are less and less efficient. The last CAP reform has started to renationalize this common policy, leaving the Member States more space to encourage competitiveness instead of promoting solidarity and rural development. We see the results today: big farms are the winners. The losers are small farmers whose only option is to wait patiently for their retirement pension or to leave their land and try to find a job elsewhere, if they are young. And despite everything, a lot of young Europeans want to become farmers. A lot of nice and efficient small-scale projects are emerging. These initiatives create in some regions the real possibility of change, and give me real hope.

They are Giants, but We are Millions

September 23 from 14:00 to 15:30
City Center – Carignano Theater
Piazza Carignano, 6
10123 Torino


Francesca Monticone

An Event by
 Città di Torino
 Slow Food
 Regione Piemonte
In collaboration with
With the contribution of
Official Partners
Supporters of the Terra Madre Foundation and Slow Food
With the support of

Terra Madre Salone del Gusto
Slow Food Promozione P.Iva 02220020040
© Terra Madre Salone del Gusto 2016 - All rights reserved