BioWorld International Correspondent

PARIS - Opponents of genetically-modified organisms in France have mounted their usual summer offensive against farmers growing GM crops, carrying out nighttime and daytime raids to cut down fields of GM corn or other crops.

The militants' methods drove one farmer in southwestern France to suicide last week, although a leading anti-GMO organization, the Peasants' Confederation, albeit a collective of small farmers, showed no remorse. José Bové, its president (and failed candidate for president of France last spring), shrugged off all responsibility with the observation that "one farmer commits suicide every day in France."

That said, the suicide had the effect of galvanizing the normally very discreet pro-GMO element in the farming community, which mounted a demonstration to defend their "right to have their profession, their work and their crops respected." Despite a counterdemonstration by the anti-GMO lobby in the same village, the feared face-to-face clash between the two sides did not take place.

The war between the two sides is nevertheless heating up, especially at the public information level. The French seed industry issued a communiqué deploring the "blackmail, threats and destruction of crops by a minority of extremists blinded by ideology" and urged the government to ensure that people abided by the law. On the other hand, the Peasants' Confederation called again for a moratorium on the planting and harvesting of GMO crops, arguing that alone would calm the situation.

There is no doubting the fact that it is perfectly legal to grow and harvest GMO crops under certain conditions in France. Because the French government dragged its feet on the issue for years, GMOs were a legal gray area for a long time, and some courts even refused to convict the destroyers of GMO crops on the grounds that their behavior was a legitimate form of public protest.

The situation has changed. France finally transposed the 2001 European Union directive on GMO field trials and cultivation into national legislation in March this year, after being threatened repeatedly with heavy fines by the European Commission. Having failed in an earlier attempt to legislate on the matter with a bill on GMOs that passed through the National Assembly in early 2006 but subsequently was blocked by the senate, the government enacted the EU directive into French law without a debate in Parliament.

The French Ministry of Agriculture acknowledged that GM crops are legally permitted in France, but stressed that they are subject to "a rigorous evaluation procedure to ensure there is no risk to health or the environment." GMO crops are monitored closely, marketing approval is granted to a GM crop for a maximum period of 10 years, and the public has a right to be informed (and to object) before any crop is planted.

In effect, farmers are required to inform the Agriculture Ministry of their GM planting plans, enabling it to maintain a national register of the size, location and nature of these crops. Not all farmers comply with these disclosure requirements, however (including the one who committed suicide), so the national register is not complete. In addition, GM farmers have to inform their neighbors of their intended plantings and maintain a minimum distance of 50 meters between GM and non-GM crops. Only some 15 full-field GM crop trials have been authorized in France this year.

Meanwhile, irrespective of the law, anti-GMO activists have pledged to continue what they describe as a campaign of "civil disobedience" and carry out commando raids to destroy plots planted with GM crops. At the same time, the French seed industry is being discouraged from pushing ahead with the development of GM crops, and one leading company, Limagrain, has threatened to relocate its activities abroad.