José Bové Is Still Fighting

Times have changed for José Bové. Only a few years ago the French sheep farmer and anti-globalization activist was a folk hero among Europe's 13 million farmers for his taking on McDonald's and other foreign food imports to France and fighting EU market reforms. But now many farmers see rising profits in the new "global market freedom," and they are singing a different tune. Bové, 55, hasn't lost his disdain for the market, but he has recently turned his attention elsewhere—mainly to opposing the planting of genetically modified crops in France. He ran in the first round of presidential elections in 2007, garnering 483,008 votes. With French President Nicolas Sarkozy encouraging farmers to produce for the market, Bové is steadfastly against it. He spoke by phone with NEWSWEEK's Antonio Oliveira e Silva. Excerpts:

President Sarkozy has talked about encouraging a market-oriented agriculture in France, but he has also talked about protecting French farmers. Do you believe him?
I don't really know what to expect anymore. Traditionally, French presidents have always maintained a rather demagogical speech regarding French farmers. They want to protect them locally, and at the same time they wish to export more. What I believe, independent of Sarkozy's will, is that the talks about agricultural reform are connected to the European service sector reforms. If the European Union doesn't reach an agreement with the World Trade Organization in the agricultural domain, they will turn their concerns toward the services [such as banking, health care, communications and transportation]. And that changes everything.

What is your position on market-oriented agriculture?
We have to have a real debate about the agricultural policies, knowing that agricultural activities are supposed to satisfy local and human needs first and foremost. That is true for all countries, including Europe. We should remember that when we sit at a round table with members of the WTO.

As you know, the prices of grains and other products have been rising, and that has been beneficial to farmers all over the world, including France. Does this mean that globalization is not so bad after all?
It's not so simple. A big part of growing soy consumption is due to the increase of the American use of biofuels, which has no connection with feeding people. That leads to an artificial rise in prices, but it doesn't mean that the quality of life of farmers will be changing in the near future. You can see it in countries like Senegal or some Asian countries, were the price of palm oil is rising to levels that the local populations cannot pay. The same thing is happening in Mexico, where the price of corn is so high that people eat fewer tortillas. So I deeply distrust all this joy over the rise in the price of grain in the world. Besides, only a small minority of big industrial and grain producers really profit from this.

Aren't farmers making money with exports? Is there not a change of resources and an empowerment of people in this business?
One thing we have to keep in mind: agriculture and economic liberalism are not compatible. That is a critical concept and one that we must understand urgently. Agricultural policies must be enforced toward one main goal: nourish people and nourish the locals. People from one country or territory should be granted the right to be fed from the resources of their country.

Would you agree that, given the profit some of these farmers have been making, it would be logical to reduce agricultural subsidies?
I was always very clear in that area: we must urgently put an end to funds that help produce goods for export. This is something I have been saying for the last 10 years. On the other hand, some of the national funds, like the ones we get in France, should not work as export funding in disguise. I know for a fact that it happens a lot, and it is not acceptable, because you are damaging other producers from smaller countries. I say let's cut the funds and stop exporting grains. We will never have real CAP reform if we intend to make Europe a major export territory. We will continue accepting WTO logic and allowing a few industrial producers to get richer while small producers disappear and local populations may starve.

Does it make you sad to see so many French farmers exporting their products to different countries, like the United States or Japan?
Not at all. What I do not agree with is the export of raw materials to countries that have their own resources, because the EU, now a big grain exporter, is damaging local markets and ruining the lives of both producers and people in poor countries. On the other hand, I don't see any inconvenience when small providers, who specialize in high-quality products such as cheese or wine, wish to export to rich countries. It's not the same thing, because they are not destroying local production or forcing prices up, making them unaffordable to the poor. Those who pay high prices for Camembert, pâté or French wine in Japan and the U.S.A. can certainly do it with no major budget concerns.

Nonagricultural French goods are sold all around the world. Isn't that globalization as well?
The fact is that local networks like the [the Association for the Preservation of Local Farming] allow local producers to establish their own networks of clients, and I find that positive. It is only natural that they use merchandising techniques. But they are not producing mainly to export. Boats filled with tons of products are not being sent to countries that have their own resources and can develop the same methods as the AMAP in France and in Europe. They might export some traditional cheese and wine or even some sort of meat, but that is an exception.

An increasing number of French families are trying their luck and investing in farms. These people think in a rather different way about markets, competence, skills and communication. Isn't that globalization as well?
Absolutely not. They practice what I call "resistance farming." Their practices are totally opposed to those of big markets and big producers and suppliers. Without them there would be fewer farmers and more land in the hands of the industrial farmers. I believe that in some regions that [family farmers represent] as much as 50 percent of new farms, especially in the south. I am not so sure that they are "market-oriented," as you say. I believe they want to invest in products that provide local consumers and help develop local economies. What is wrong with that? They don't destroy local systems; they help their development.