The potatoes of Wetteren

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On March 4, 2011, Federal Ministers Paul Magnette (Energy and Environment) and Laurette Onkelinx (Health) approved the field trial of genetically modified potatoes in Wetteren conducted jointly by Ghent University, the Flemish Institute of Biotechnology (VIB), the Ghent University College, the Institute for Research in Agriculture and Fisheries (ILVO) and BASF « You can’t stop progress » say the socialists. « No risk » say the pro-GMOs. And so it goes, for the earth and our health. Case folded? With the brontosaurs of the boulevard de l’Empereur and the velociraptors of agrobio-chemistry, one could have believed it. This was without taking into account that which can never be extinguished, nor suffocated, nor die: the life of the human conscience.

A look back at this still unresolved case.

The Field Liberation Movement (FLM), a « group of concerned farmers, environmentalists and citizens », issued a press release in March 2011 calling May 29, 2011 « National day of civil disobedience against GMO potatoes in Wetteren ». The LWF explains, « The majority of Belgians do not want GMOs on their plates or in their fields. Brussels and Wallonia have declared themselves « GMO-free regions », but in Flanders it seems that the Ministry of Agriculture, universities and agro-industry are collaborating to conduct unnecessary and risky field trials ». The LWF invites everyone « to free a field of genetically modified potatoes on Sunday afternoon, May 29, 2011 in Wetteren. (…) May 29, 2011 is a great day of civil disobedience, non-violent and fun, with a nod to the French tradition of the Faucheurs Volontaires. »

VIB responds to this public appeal with two separate messages: a disparaging statement in the press about the LWF, and an invitation to participate in a roundtable discussion. René Custers, Regulatory & communications manager, VIB, explains in his invitation email that  » The GMO potato project is a matter of discussion. That’s for sure. It triggers a whole range of emotions and arguments. And that’s what makes this project so interesting. Is there room for nuance in this case, yes or no? ».

The LWF is once again inviting the VIB « to a public discussion about the GMO potato trials », and urging Mr. Custers to join the citizen inspection (a « GeneSpotting ») organized by the LWF on May 7, 2011. Jokes, a member of the LWF, develops arguments(1) questioning the practices of the « transgenic potato consortium », and opens an argumentative exchange, noting for example that: « You propose to discuss decisions that have already been made. You have already decided to impose the test on us without taking our opinions into account. When you plant your potatoes, you are not in reflection but in action, you stop debating, you act! ».

VIB will not be following up on this letter and will not be responding to the questions raised.

On May 29, 2011, about 300 farmers, activists and citizens meet to protect our fields by preventing the GMO experiment. The chosen rescue technique is to replace the GMO potatoes with good old organic potatoes in the field. This « big potato exchange » is taking place despite an impressive security detail: fences have been erected all around the field, several dozen police officers in full gear are surrounding the plot of land, vans are waiting in the vicinity.

This action of civil disobedience produces an important media effect and, therefore, fully achieves its initial goal: to prevent agribusiness from imposing GMOs in the fields and on the plates as if nothing had happened, by provoking a public debate on the opportunity to choose these technologies.

The success is all the more complete because the reaction of the public authorities confirms in an obvious way the undemocratic and brutal character of the processes of the GMO industry: the police device to begin with, abundantly shown on television. With all the police in armor, we really realized that these potatoes are dangerous.

Then, two days after the action, the Minister-President of the Flemish Region, Kris Peeters, declared on the radio that the reapers should be prosecuted for « criminal association ». A mind-boggling malpractice, where the (executive) minister says his right to justice (in theory, independent) by even indicating the charge! Wetteren started to look like a banana republic capital.

It was an excellent way to discredit both the pro-GMO consortium and its faithful servants in the public authorities, by accusing citizens concerned about the common good, public health, the quality of agriculture and food in particular, of being « criminal associations ». The images of the reapers, often young, acting with open faces, in broad daylight, with clear and public claims, have made the rounds of TVs and newspapers. And it is an understatement to say that between the dark term of « criminal association » and the festive citizens, there was an abyss, an obviousness of « we are the 99% » which left the remaining 1% quite alone in their pro-GMO costumes.

As if that wasn’t enough, we then learn in the media that a researcher from the KUL, Barbara Van Dyck, was expelled from the university for having displayed her support for this action, in which she participated in a private capacity. Active non-violence has a staggering capacity to bring to light the abuses of institutions of power.

« I was one of the spokespersons for the LWF, » says Barbara Van Dyck, « not the only one, but one of those who spoke to the press. I was participating on my own behalf, as a citizen. The top of the KUL learned that a researcher from their university was defending what was perceived by the institution as an action of « violence against science. » After that I had a meeting with the rectorate of my university during which they asked me to disassociate myself from the action and to apologize to my colleagues. According to them, there had been a breach of trust, in the sense that one cannot be a researcher and defend « violent actions against science ». I underlined that it was not a question of violence against science, but of a political action of civil disobedience by which one wants to put the light on something that does not go in the society, and in this case it is the impossibility of the debate on the GMOs and the structural violence of the agro-industry that produces them. This non-debate is confirmed by my expulsion from the university. Mr. Séralini is attacked from all sides because he proposes scientific results that are not suitable for the agribusiness. They try to discredit him and his work scientifically. Here, it is quite different because I participated in the action as a citizen, not as a scientist. But the employer still had the idea that he could control what his employees do on their own time. I worked in the field of land use planning and urbanism. I am an agricultural engineer by training and the themes of agriculture and food are something to which I have a strong personal connection, but my work at the university was not related to GMOs. »

Then the indictments came and the « 11 of Wetteren », as if handpicked from the dozens of activists who had carried out the « great potato exchange », accused of criminal association, were summoned to the court of Dendermonde for January 15, 2013.

Prior to this, the ever-active LWF is launching a « voluntary appearance » action, based on a legal provision that allows a citizen to request to be tried for the same acts as other defendants if he or she feels it is fair and accepts responsibility.

Once again this non-violent technique gives surprising results: the media echo this new mobilization, whose public character and in favor of the common good is once again made evident. More than ninety people volunteered to be witnesses, including farmers, politicians, academics, representatives of various associations, environmental activists, concerned citizens and French volunteer reapers.

In the early hours of January 15, 200 people gathered in front of the steps of the courthouse in Dendermonde. It’s cold, but the defendants, the voluntary comparators and their supporters have come with music, organic potatoes, and French fries. Again, the media reported on this trial, indicating that the defendants had left the hearing. What was it specifically? What is the strategy of the accused?

« Opposition to judgment is not yet an appeal of a judgment, which is a subsequent step in the appeal process, » explains Barbara Van Dyck, who was also charged at the trial. We left the hearing to point out how the trial reproduces the way GMOs are introduced into society. Through actions, they try to prevent the real questions from being the object of public debate.

Like the act of introducing GMOs into the food industry knowing that they threaten the existence of peasant agriculture, knowing that the risks for the environment and public health are important and the effects irreversible. The real debate is to imagine another agricultural model that does not allow a monopoly on life, a model that is fairer and more respectful of the environment and public health.

The Great Potato Exchange of 2011 was a way to express oneself since other ways of expressing opposition to GMOs are not taken seriously. On January 15, during the trial at the court of Dendermonde, the judge refused to hear the witnesses and to view the video testimonies, which allow us to explain the motivations of the action of May 29. In our opinion, this action responded to a necessity, in particular in application of the precautionary principle, which was not respected. Preventing us from deploying the elements we feel we need to explain the context of the « Great Potato Exchange » is a violence to the right of defense. This violation demonstrates once again how to ignore any non-technocratic opinion in the GMO debate and thus to omit the real issues. That’s what we wanted to highlight. »

The pressure mounts, the consortium of the GMO potato makes tons and the prosecutor prosecutes double turn.The sentences requested ranged from 8 months in prison to 6 months suspended, « continues Barbara Van Dyck, these are extremely heavy sentences. The civil parties are also asking for the payment of a sum of approximately 200,000 euros. This amount, claimed by the Flemish Institute of Biotechnology, Ghent University, Ghent University College and ILVO — BASF did not take part in the lawsuit — includes the costs of more than four months of protection by private companies of the potato field, the costs of the pro-GMO « save our science » demonstration that took place on the day of the potato change, contacts of the biotech sector with the press, and hours spent by professors promoting GMOs by e‑mail or facebook.

According to our calculations, this amounts to about 10.000 euros per potato damaged during the action, since there were 108 GMO potatoes in the field and it was estimated that 20 of them were affected during the action!

The ridiculous nature of the charge of « criminal association » and the heavy sentences indicate the political nature of this trial.

From her observations of the action in Wetteren, Barbara Van Dyck draws hope: « We have seen a growing mobilization around this action and its aftermath, that is a success. More and more people are interested in this, discussing it, writing about it. And the trial helps people to become informed and indignant. It also brings together people who are organizing themselves to think and act for another kind of agriculture. This is all very positive. ».

Marc Fichers, secretary general of Nature & Progrès Belgium, is not far from sharing this enthusiasm: « The seed and agrochemical companies are trying to introduce GMOs into our environment at all costs. What’s interesting is that they’ve gone to great lengths to do this by generating scientific research, by setting up test fields, but they haven’t succeeded. And finally, it is the citizens’ mobilization, not particularly big, without important financial means, but with a strong conviction, which succeeded in cleaning the territory of GMOs. »

So are there no more GMOs in Belgium?« Apart from a few small trials of poplars or potatoes last year in the region of Ghent, which is the spearhead of GMO research in Europe, there are none. There were some in the 2000’s, but citizen mobilization drove them out.

Moreover, there have never been any GMO crops in Wallonia. We have regulations on crop coexistence that make people who want to grow GMOs very responsible, which is normal. So it would be quite expensive if a farmer wanted to go into this, just because of the spread to other crops, which he would have to pay for.

Now what the companies are trying to do is to drown out the debate by making announcements suggesting that there are GMOs in Belgium. But this is not true.

When you modify a plant by subjecting cell cultures to radiation, it is a bad technique, but it does not create a GMO, as the companies are trying to make you believe. Moreover, these types of modified plants are not patented and there is therefore no appropriation of living organisms, which is one of the serious problems posed by GMOs. But we should not worry too much about these announcements, rather rejoice that the citizens have succeeded in putting GMOs out of business, even though their financial means were very modest compared to the seed and chemical companies. »

On the day of the hearing, the company BASF, partner in the Wetteren experiment, announced that it was throwing in the towel. It indicated that the continuation of its European investments in these technologies « cannot be justified due to uncertainties in the regulatory framework and threats of field destruction ». New victory for the GMO reapers(2), and those of Wetteren in particular. Strategic withdrawal of BASF to the USA, where legislation is more permissive and GMO contamination is already seriously advanced.

Then on February 12, 2013, the judge in Dendermonde gave her verdict: eight months in prison for two militants, six months in prison for three others, six months suspended for the last six. They will have to collectively pay 25,000 euros to the civil parties. The LWF defendants were not surprised by this judgment and will oppose it. The case continues. It highlights the political character of the choice of GMO technology and the repressive and liberticidal system that is essential to it.

J.-B.G.

To support the defendants in Wetteren: http:// fieldliberation.wordpress.com
The Nature & Progrès Belgium website: www.natpro.be

Notes et références
  1. A lire sur: http://fieldliberation.wordpress. com/2011/04/29/invitationvib/
  2. Le Monde, 29 janvier 2013, Le Figaro, 16 janvier 2013.
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