Peoples' movements and protests




A permissive popular culture beats the best strategies





by Jan Wiklund



Sometimes, pure coincidence can outperform the best thought-out strategies. Like when the debate over genetically modified crops became a public symbol of industrialised big agriculture under the global control of food companies.

The French small farmers' organisation Confédération Paysanne (or Conf as the French call it) had been campaigning against GM crops since around 1990, because they favour the capital-rich input producers (and capital-rich agribusinesses) at the expense of farmers. To appeal to the non-agricultural majority, they had been forced to focus on health and environmental impacts, thereby subordinating themselves to chemists and medics, while their own core issue - economic survival - was completely sidelined.

At the same time, as a separate activity, they were sabotaging genetically modified experimental crops, uprooting plants and placing them on the doorsteps of courts. The legality of this activity was highly questionable in France, thanks to fluid and sometimes contradictory legislation.

They did this for almost ten years.

What brought the public discourse to industrial agriculture in general was Bill Clinton's decision to ban Roquefort cheese in retaliation for France's ban on meat with growth hormone. He didn't realise that Conf's "porte-parole"*) was a sheep farmer in Larzac and a supplier of milk to Roquefort cheese. So it was easy to mobilise an action, a fairly simple one at that. Farmers in Larzac decided to have a picnic in the nearest town, Millau, and sabotage the construction of a MacDonalds, in 1999.

The judge in Millau was heartily sick of having genetically modified crops on his doorstep and decided to set an example. Conf's porte-parole José Bové was jailed for three months and became a national hero. While in prison, he wrote a book on Malbouffe, junk food, and bundled the entire food industry's cheating activities with global tentacles into one binder. It became a bestseller, of course. So suddenly genetic engineering was placed in the context Conf wanted it to be.

At least that's the story told by Chaia Heller in her book on the Confédération Paysanne.
For a political organisation, it is vital not to put all its eggs in one basket and tie its activities to a "right line" that slavishly follows congressional decisions on what is most important.

Diverse activism that builds a culture must be allowed to flourish and be favoured. Not least to make it possible to seize the moment in flight. You rarely have to worry about something going wrong. If it does, it falls flat. Whereas what happens to be right can change the whole political situation.


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