PARIS ¿ After allowing environmental campaigners to destroy fields of genetically modified crops at a number of sites around France with complete impunity in August, the French police changed tactics at the beginning of September and used force to prevent anti-GMO commandos from digging up crops at another two sites over the weekend.

The anti-GMO campaign in France is being led by a small farmers¿ lobby, the Confidiration Paysanne, supported by, among others, the Green Party and an anti-globalization pressure group, Attac. The fact that the police initially were instructed not to stand in the way of their raids against GM crop trials reflected government concerns to minimize media coverage and avoid turning the crop-busters into martyrs through televised pictures of pitched battles between police and activists.

For the seed producers conducting these trials, however, the sight of the police looking on in mild amusement while their crops were wantonly destroyed only added to their anger. Three industry associations met with senior officials at the Ministry of Agriculture in late August and were told that the government deplored these ¿illegal¿ actions and had given instructions to local officials to take steps to prevent them. They also were assured that legal proceedings would be ¿systematically taken¿ against the culprits.

But the leader of the Confidiration Paysanne, Josi Bovi, has vowed to continue the campaign. ¿Whatever methods the government uses, and even though it may displease [Prime Minister] Lionel Jospin and the minister of agriculture, we will continue destroying fields sown with genetically modified crops until the end of September,¿ he told a French newspaper.

One of the companies concerned, Monsanto, had a crop of transgenic corn destroyed on Aug. 28, but claimed to have itself plowed up two other fields of its GM corn earlier in the month. While the environmentalists accused the U.S. company of caving in to pressure, Monsanto insisted that the crops had reached maturity and had provided all the exploitable data they could.

Meanwhile, the long-heralded acquisition by the German chemical and pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG of Aventis CropScience, the agro-chemical division of the Strasbourg-based Franco-German pharmaceutical company Aventis, is expected to be consummated in mid-September. Bayer is believed to be paying around EUR7.25 billion (US$6.6 billion) for the business.