Like Father, Unlike Son

For Jose Bove, the real action this week is taking place not on the snowy slopes of Davos but on the barren plains of southern Brazil, where he is attending an alternative summit in support of the world's small farmers. The French activist has made a career out of thwarting governments and multinational corporations that use genetically modified (GM) crops. In 1998, Bove helped destroy five tons of GM corn produced in the south of France by Novartis, the world's leading GM seed producer. Even after he was given an eight-month suspended sentence, Bove remained defiant. "The only regret I have is that I wasn't able to destroy more of it," he said during the trial.

In 1999, Bove famously trashed a half-built McDonald's in southern France in protest of America's fast-food imperialism. Later that year he stood on the front lines of street protests at the World Trade Organization's meeting in Seattle. Over the past two years the mustached sheep farmer has steadily gained public attention and support, morphing from founder of the French Peasant Confederation into a revolutionary leader renowned for his willingness to go to any lengths to save the world from genetic engineering.

While Bove generally targets the faceless giants of corporate America, his attacks have also struck a little closer to home: at his own father, also named Jose Bove. An acclaimed microbiologist and former director of the National Institute for Agronomic Research (INRA) in Bordeaux, one of France's leading research facilities, Bove Sr. heatedly defends much of the work that his son opposes. "Consider bananas," he says, over a lunch of lamb shank and Bordeaux in the INRA cafeteria. French scientists are working on a genetically modified banana capable of fighting tooth decay. "In some African countries, where they may not have the money to pay for toothpaste, why not eat a transgenic banana that will prevent cavities instead?" he asks.

The elder Bove believes his son is blind to the potential good that genetic modification can bring. "All his talk has vilified transgenic plants," he says. "In the Middle Ages, people burned witches. Today they burn transgenic plants." Bove Sr. has plenty of fans: in 1997, he helped discover the cause of a disease that was ravaging Brazil's 300 million orange trees. Last year he went to China to examine a severe case of yellow dragon disease, a plant infection transmitted by insects that destroyed more than a million trees. Insecticides didn't help. "It was clear that if we could come up with a transgenic orange tree that was resistant to the disease, it would be a much better solution," he says. In the past six months, Bove Sr., 71, has traveled from Japan to Florida to treat ailing crops. "There could be transgenic solutions," he says, "but convincing people of that is the hard part."

Few are less receptive than his son. "There is no such thing as a good GM crop," says Bove Jr., 47. "No intelligent person can say that GM foods are a sign of progress." At times his efforts have come into direct conflict with his father's: last year he helped destroy a field of experimental rapeseed grown by a company called Cetiom--which based its work on research done by INRA. "It's essential that we be able to cultivate these plants outside the lab," says the elder Bove. "But as soon as there's a genetically modified plant out in the fields, people like my son come along and tear it up. It's inadmissible."

Their relationship wasn't always so fraught. When Bove Jr. was small, the family lived for a few years in Berkeley, California, while Bove Sr. and his wife, Colette, also a biologist, conducted research at the University of California. The father took the son camping in the national parks. Young Jose quickly mastered English, and when they returned to France he enrolled in a bilingual school. In fact, it may have been Bove's English that allowed him to fully appreciate Henry David Thoreau, his favorite civil disobedient. Though he wasn't particularly rebellious, says his father, he was strong-willed and "always preoccupied with the idea of justice." Family meals were lively affairs, where everyone spoke out. And loyalty was paramount: when the police came looking for Bove Jr. in the 1970s for refusing to do his compulsory military service, his parents kept his hiding place secret. Though his father may not approve of his actions, he seems to respect them. "We don't always agree," says Bove pere. "But who does?"

Father and son still get together whenever scheduling allows. Occasionally they even find common ground: when the French government recently started pouring money that previously went to INRA into private biotech firms, Bove Sr. found himself on his son's side of the crusade. For his part, Bove Jr. dismisses the whole premise behind his father's work as "industrial tinkering." Clearly he has no intention of stopping his activities, which have spread to India, Reunion, Brazil, Poland and even the United States. "My job," he said last fall, "is to explain to the world how we can resist." That tone makes even some of his staunchest supporters shudder. "I think there's a risk that he's becoming a demagogue," says Danielle LeRoy, a European deputy with the Green Party. "He likes to play the Christ figure."

Bove Sr. says his son's zeal is just misdirected. "If you insist on using organic farming all over the world, millions will die of hunger," he says. Despite their vast differences, he remains a proud papa. "Jose Bove is actually quite smart," he says affectionately. In that respect at least, the son clearly takes after his old man.