|'Food Should Be Left Off the
Free Trade Table' - José Bové
French activist explains why his organization opposes WTO
and genetically modified food
At the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Bové
attended a workshop with prominent Yale scholars and others
in the university community to discuss the status of the global
peasant movement and the core issues in his work. A full transcript
YaleGlobal, 6 April 2005
José Bové is an internationally renowned leader
of the movement - and here I'm not sure what phrase to use
- the global movement against, I don't think globalization
is the right term, but against neo-liberal globalization,
perhaps. In fact, that's one of the questions I want to ask
you is what name you prefer for this global movement. We'll
get to that.
He is the leader, and founder, really, of the Peasants Confederation
in France (La Confederation Paysanne), which then enlarged
itself to become the peasants' coordinated confederation for
all of Europe. Now it's gone global as the Via Campesina.
I understand that your role is mainly as an activist and leader
of that group, but you are here in the United States, so we
might ask you about that.
He's known around the world, above all, for his activism,
which has included the very notable event - the dismantling
of the McDonald's in Millau - for destroying genetically modified
food in a field in the village of Solomiac. Most recently,
he joined with Greenpeace to intercept the cargo vessel of
the Golden Lion, which was carrying 32 thousand tons of transgenic
soya to the French port of Lorient. He has been jailed for
these contributions to society four times so far, he says.
He is also the author of a recent book which has just come
out in France, and I hope it'll come out here soon. It's called
or Pour La Désobéissance Civique, (In Defense
of Civil Disobedience). So we are very thrilled and honored
to have him here at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization
to tell us about what he's been up to.
First thing I want to say is that I'm very happy to be here.
For more than one year, I knew I would come here to Yale.
I'll try to talk in English, but I have quite poor English
- so if I make too many mistakes, I'll ask for translation.
The first thing I can say is that I'm a farmer in southern
France in a special area which is called Larzac, which has
an altitude of 800 meters. And I work with sheep; I milk sheep.
I've milked sheep for 30 years. This is a special place because
this was my first struggle. One of my first struggles against
the government and the French army wanted to take our land
to make a military base. We had been struggling for ten years,
ending in 1981; we won, and the French army gave us our land.
Since then, we've done a lot of things. It became a laboratory
on how we can share our land and how young farmers can come
and begin farming there. So this is a quite interesting laboratory.
And so, if we want young farmers to go on with farming, it's
not the economic problem that is primary for us. The main
issue is with the social movement here. People begin farming
because they want to live in that area. It's the social issue
which is the most important to them, instead of knowing if
they have enough income to live. It is interesting to see
the dynamics in the rural area.
Now I'm working with Via Campesina, which is our international
movement of farmers all over the world. This movement began
in 1993 during the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations. Of
course, we began fighting in 1986 when the GATT negotiation
began and they decided to include agriculture. This was really,
for us, something completely new. This is not just for us
farmers in Europe or the United States, but for all the farmers
of the world - something was really changing in 1986.
This was the beginning of the worldwide coalition, and we
decided in 1992 to make an international coalition. It is
quite young - only 10 years old - but now, about 190 organizations
from all over the world are inside Via Campesina. We represent
200 million farmers all over the world: in Asia, South America,
North America, Europe, Africa. And we are gathering more and
Of course, the first time people heard about us was in Seattle
in 1999 for the big demonstration. Since then, Via Campesina
has been quite well-known, especially in Rome, where the United
Nations FAO [Food and Agricultural Organization] is based.
So we are working a lot with them.
Via Campesina's main issue is about globalization - about
the fact that we don't believe that free trade is good for
agriculture and food all over the world. And that's why we
decided to invent a new concept, which is "food sovereignty."
It means that each population should be able to eat from its
own agriculture. The main issue for the farmers is to feed
the population where they live: first of all, their own families,
also the local market, and then the national market.
Of course, that doesn't mean that we are against trade; trade
is only a small part of agriculture - not the main part. We
think that all the negotiations about the WTO since 1995 have
lessened the possibility for the farmers to feed their own
population. We are fighting very strongly. Since Seattle in
1999, we have said that we must take WTO out of agriculture
and food. It makes no sense that agriculture and food are
inside these negotiations. That doesn't mean that we are against
the fact that we should organize the prices of the world,
that we have to see how these markets are going. We believe
that the most important thing is to protect local agriculture
from dumping imports. So this is really the main issue for
In the past 15 years of the movement on globalization and
agriculture with the WTO, only 10 percent of world agricultural
production is in the open market. We understand that all the
big transnational corporations want it now to be 20 or 30
percent, but of course, farmers all over the world are resisting
this because it makes no sense for their own population. Over
90 percent of food is produced where people live. So we don't
understand - and nobody can explain to us - why we need to
have free trade for food; that is going exactly in the wrong
direction. So this is roughly our principal fight.
After that, we talk within Via Campesina about agrarian reform,
landless people, about what we call peasant agriculture.
We also talk about the problems of seeds - the possibility
for farmers to use their own seeds - and also the WTO rules
on patents. We are fighting also to have seeds free of patents;
that's why we are fighting specially against GMOs. Even if
GMO had no ecological problems or health problems, we would
also be against GMOs on this specific issue: the fact that
farmers can't use their own seeds. So these are some of the
examples of the troubles of Via Campesina. This is getting
bigger and bigger.
Last week with Jean Marc, we were in Sumatra, Indonesia.
We had a meeting with all the farmers and fisher unions of
all the countries that had been destroyed by the tsunami.
The victims, many of them farmers and fishers, decided what
they wanted to do and how they wanted to rebuild their houses,
where they live and farm. This is very important because for
the first time, Via Campesina showed that people are able
to define their own issues in this type of situation. And
the first thing they said, very clearly: "We don't don't
want food importation; we have enough in our countries to
feed our population. We don't want fishermen to come in from
other countries to fish; we have to fish our own fish in our
small boats. We don't need tourism." The Thai people
were saying this very clearly: "Tourism is killing us."
We have very clear examples of fisherman whose houses had
been destroyed by the tsunami. Their houses were destroyed
and they were not allowed to come back, but new hotels were
built in place of their village. So they were very angry about
this. It was very interesting to see that when people get
together they were able to find new solutions regarding their
Perfect summary of what you're up to. Let me begin. Using
agriculture as an example. You know, if you're opposed to
the neo-liberal system, how big a bite do you think you have
to take out of it to make it right? How large of a reform?
Does it have to be a whole new system? Does it have to be
a fundamental reform, a superficial reform? What do you think?
Well, you asked me before about the term "globalization."
The problem is that in French and in English, we don't have
the same words. I remember in Seattle, we were talking about
corporate globalization. That's very clear to everyone. Who
wants that? In France it is more complicated, because we're
not just talking about corporate globalization, we're talking
about "mondialisation." And this is a positive word.
Because we don't know about what kind of globalization we're
talking about. Mondialisation could be anything: It could
be culture; it could be all kinds of things - positive and
In France, we had to find a new word, and it should be a
positive word. And the first time in the newspaper they called
it "anti- mondialisation," against mondialisation.
So we found a new word, and the Belgian people who came up
the word "alter-mondialisation," which means another
type of globalization. And when we talk about globalization
now in France, it's very clear that it's corporate globalization.
But when we talk about alter-mondialisation, it refers to
different kind of issues. That's why the symbol of this is
what we said at Porto Alegre at the World Social Forum: "Another
world is possible."
I don't say another world is possible. I'm like Marcos, the
Mexican writer, who says, "Other worlds are possible."
I think it is very important not to say that only one other
kind of globalization is possible, but that for a lot different
reasons, we have to make a world with more than one solution.
For different populations we have different ways of life,
and it's very dangerous to consider everybody in the same
way - either good or bad. So I think it is important, first,
that there is not only one good way and one bad way. We need
to find different kinds of solutions for different kinds of
Second, it is dangerous for us to say that globalization
is only economic globalization. And that all the international
rules now are made only about this issue. It makes no sense
that the international economic institutions - the Bretton
Woods institutions - are more important now than the United
Nations. This is getting to be a very big problem. The only
international institution that can enforce justice is the
WTO. Of course, it is not really democracy when you have an
institution like the WTO, which is the executive, the legislative,
and the judicial. We've learned a lot from Montesquieu in
France about the separation of the powers in democracy. The
WTO is the exact opposite of that.
We have to have a lot of reflection about this. What are
the good institutions? How do they work? How is it possible
that only the economic institutions have their own justice
and bring sentences against countries, but at the same time,
the United Nations is unable to enforce sanctions when there
are problems with human rights, environmental problems, labor
problems, and so on. This means that now, we must reflect
about how these institutions work, which are the most important,
how to make new regulations among the international laws,
human rights, trade, environment, work, and so on. We have
to say very clearly that trade has to be under the human rights,
environmental, and so on. It's impossible to simply make rules
to open the market and then see what happens after - and say,
"We don't care about it. What is most important for us
is to open the market. This is going to be the best way for
people to live." At this moment this is not true - and
mostly for the farmers.
We have more and more problems. The UN FAO reported the number
of people dying from hunger as 852 million - it's still a
very big problem. More than 60 percent of these people are
farmers. This means that the more you open the doors of the
countries, the more problems come in. So it's the wrong answer
to the problem of hunger. When we talk about the problem of
hunger, we have to change the rules and protect the people
and the countries - especially the poor countries. I want
to emphasize that at this moment, I think that Europe is worse
than the United States with globalization. People, in general,
think that Europe is not moving in the same direction as the
United States; this is not true. During the last negotiation
in Cancun, the European Trade Commissioner, Pascal Lemy, was,
I think, worse than [US Trade Representative Robert B.] Zoellick
regarding opening the markets. This is because in Europe,
they want very strongly to open the markets for services.
And they want to win this fight for services. And for this,
they are willing to do very bad things. The European Union
at this moment is very dangerous on these issues.
You say you're not against trade. I'm trying to understand
how far you would take your argument. Historically, since
the second World War, I think you're right in that poor people
in poor countries haven't had much choice about who gets hurt.
From my point of view, there's a gradual evolution towards
greater voice in the WTO by countries like India and Brazil,
who are being hurt in the negotiations - previously called
G7 negotiations. What are the decisions that are being made?
It's true that none of the early UN negotiations have been
in keep, the only one is the WTO - they're in keep because
they have money. But the UN doesn't have money. So everything
goes to the WTO because they have money and are powerful -
you say they have all powers, judicial powers as well as legislative
powers and so on.
I'm trying to understand where you would start. We talked
about food and fisheries, but what about textiles? Where do
you draw the line between trade you find acceptable and trade
that you find unacceptable? I don't want to put you in the
same box as Mao. Mao also wanted self-sufficiency in China,
including meat and rice and steel, he wanted to have steel
in the backyard. Most people agree this was a mistake, a very
expensive mistake. China now as a communist country is trying
to take advantage of some parts but not all - it's being very
selective - of global trade. I can understand that agriculture
is especially sensitive because of the security issue - we
want to make sure we have enough to eat. But when you say
that we should all be self-sufficient, that could be another
way of saying that no matter what the efficiency level is,
we should be self-sufficient. Most economists would say that's
a high price to pay for self-sufficiency.
I can see why you are worried about security: In case of
war or crisis of some sort, you can't depend on imports, and
you want to have some nest-egg to ensure that people can feed
themselves. You went beyond that and said everybody should
be self-sufficient with food, which means that if you take
it to the extreme - You don't think Saudi Arabia should be
self-sufficient with food, I'm sure? Or countries which have
no capability of producing food. It's a gradation from Saudi
Arabia to Nigeria, which used to be a very good food producer
and now has spoiled it all and importing food - terrible catastrophe.
I'm just trying to get a sense of where you would draw the
line. I'm sure you don't want everybody to be self-sufficient
at the expense of efficiency completely. And what about other
things in agriculture?
So maybe first thing, which I think is important to know
- generally people don't know this - is the fact that 55 percent
of the people working now on the earth are farmers. That means
that the main issue in the world is agriculture - more than
55 percent. Most of these people are working only with their
hands. You can see that at this moment there are 1.6 billion
farmers in the world. And with all these, there are only 28
million tractors in the whole world. And of course this means
that we have different kinds of issues with different kinds
Very special countries can destroy all this. This is dangerous
because it's not only political problems between the countries;
it's also a very big social problem inside the countries.
For example, this is the main problem with China - we know
very clearly, and Chinese economists say this - between 300
and 400 million farmers are going to be put out of their farms
in China. The second problem is we don't know what they are
going to do. There is not going to be enough work in the factories
because the factories are not as they were 50 years ago, so
there is going to be a lot of unemployment. What are these
people going to do and where are they going to go? And so
on. This is really a very important problem.
When we say that we need food sovereignty, it of course does
not mean that all the countries have to be able to grow all
they need for their own people. But we are talking about groups
of countries; for example, in Europe we are not going to talk
about France, Italy, and Spain; rather we are going to talk
about food sovereignty in Europe. United States is a country,
of course. Very small countries may sometimes be difficult,
so several countries can work together. The problem is to
be able to feed their population or to decide at what level
they want to protect their own agriculture. Maybe it could
be 100 percent; it could also be 70 percent. Some countries
have to import because it's impossible for them to grow their
agriculture. So the countries should be able to decide themselves
at what level they want to protect their agriculture.
And right now, it's not possible. We saw it in Asia and Africa,
with the WTO rules, which impose importing at least 4 percent
of their production. Even if they have enough, they have to
open their doors to productions from outside - and we know
that caused a lot of problems in a lot of countries, in Asia,
for rice, for example. And this is still going on there. That's
why they are having big fights in South Korea right now. That's
why Indonesia is fighting after the Tsunami, saying, "We
don't want to open our doors to food coming from outside.
We because we have enough rice, and if we open our doors,
all the prices will go down." So it's very important
that countries or groups of countries be able to protect themselves
Often when we talk about trade, it looks like trade is very
good and rules are good. But we know clearly that, for example,
for food and for agriculture, the world price makes no sense.
It's only, in general, the surplus of the production of the
big countries - Europe and US for example. So it's impossible
for farmers from a country to live if they sell these products
at a world price. This price makes no sense. So we need to
have clear rules to make trade. If we had clear rules and
a way to define the price of this production, it could be
fair. But we have to do this before we open the doors of the
countries. And afterward, the countries could decide what
the level of importation would be - this is not a problem
The second part of my question is where you draw the line?
Do you want the same thing for textiles, for example, or for
steel - where do you draw the line?
When I say agriculture, the main issue is that most of the
people on earth are working with agriculture. The second problem
about textile or other industries: Something quite new is
happening - competition. A lot of factories in Europe and
United States delocalize their production in southern countries
only to have lower costs of production for labor. This doesn't
change a lot about what comes back to the southern countries,
because most of this money goes back to the big transnational
If we look at all the money which is going all over the earth
with globalization, we see that more than two-thirds of this
money goes only to the transnational corporations - or it's
money from one transnational to another one. Only one-third
is really going to the people or to the countries. This is
a really big problem.
For the first time, we see this also with agriculture: delocalization,
for example, of chicken production from France to Brazil -
with the same company. It's a better situation for them because
soya is cheaper; the workers are cheaper. And when they send
the chicken back to Europe, Brazil doesn't have the same WTO
conditions as France. So it's better for them. With this kind
of delocalization, the company is growing more and more.
I don't think that we have to fight against delocalization.
But what kind of rules should we have to give the profit to
the people? For the moment, there is no benefit for the workers.
I have a slightly esoteric question. When I was younger,
I read a book written back in the 40s or 50s by two American
sociologists. It described the transformation of village life
in the interwar years - between the first and second world
wars. It was a study of the economic and social changes that
were occurring in the mostly agricultural community.
One of the most important lessons from the book for me was
that when you look at the impact of the social and economic
forces on a community that was going through a lot of change,
on the one hand, there was the imposition of external forces,
which caused change that was not necessarily beneficial or
desired at all. On the other hand, there was a real willingness
- especially from young people in the village - to take advantage
of these changes.
One of the ways they took advantage of these changes was
by moving to cities - and away from the village. That's a
process that seems against this process of delocalization
that you describe. I'm curious: If we're so focused on preserving
a certain way of life, a traditional agricultural way of life
- particularly in developed countries - aren't we in some
ways just helping a minority of these people living in these
communities? A good number of people actually accept these
economic changes and many of them take advantage of these
economic forces by getting better educations or getting higher-paying
jobs - taking advantage of opportunities in the cities which
don't exist in rural communities.
Well, I think the situation that you are describing in France
- that moment in at the beginning of the 50s after the second
world war - was a special moment because we had a lot of people
in very small farms. At the same time was the beginning of
a new kind of industry for building cars and so on. The French
industry needed a lot of arms to work. And there was very
clearly a plan to move the people out of the farms to go to
the cities. So of course, it was quite rare.
And at the same time, industry needed a lot of arms, so people
went out, and people thought it would be better for them,
and of course, it was a new kind of life. The social oppression
of the villages was not so strong in the cities, so for a
lot of people going to the city was a kind of liberation from
the social oppression, oppression of the church, and so on.
In the little villages, it was not possible to live...everybody
looks at you, of course.
So if you want to know to do. Of course, people are seeing
TV and cinema, and they wanted to live differently. So this
But in the same moment, now it's 20 or 30 years after. A
lot of people want to come back. In a lot of villages, people
want to build their houses and want to come back to live there.
It's very difficult to live in the cities; there's not a
lot of employment in the cities, so people want to come back
to the villages. People think it's better, if they don't have
any income, to live in the villages rather than in the city.
This is quite a new thing that is happening.
We have a new kind of farmers coming in, young farmers who
never went to agricultural schools. Now, some French departments
At the same time, we have more and more problem with the
villages; the trains don't stop anymore, the post offices
are closing, the schools are also. The situation is getting
worse and worse. The problem is that with all these people
coming back when services are closed, it is very difficult
to organize life in the villages. That's why in this moment,
we have a lot of fights against the closing of public services:
schools, post offices, and small hospitals. There is a movement
saying to the people saying that these hospitals make no sense,
they are too small, there's not enough people coming in every
day, so we have to build bigger hospitals - maybe about 40
or 50 kilometers away. This is crazy, because when you close
a hospital, when you close a maternity ward, we know that
people leave. We have a lot of fights about this now because
the people understand that if things keep thinning out it
may become impossible to stay in the villages.
I guess I wanted to - and this will end in a question - support
your line of argument in two ways. One, it seems to me that,
with respect to efficiency, for any economic activity, one
can also ask what kind of people is this economic activity
producing? If you think of the product as people, then it
seems to me that - and we link this to democracy. Then, the
fact that a person or a household manages their own enterprise
- whether they're an artisan or a small farmer or a small
fisherman - who in a sense are independent operators who use
their own skills, who have small property, who manage that
property, who make these decisions. These are people who live
relatively autonomous and independent lives. This is the Jeffersonian
citizen who is capable of being a successful citizen in a
democracy because they have to manage their farm, their property.
They're independent, they're able to stand up against officials
because they have the self-confidence that comes from managing
their small property.
If we contrast that with the fact that most people spend
their working lives, most of their waking day, in hierarchical
institutions in which they take orders, in which they have
relatively little say, and we ask what kinds of people those
institutions are producing, then it seems to me we would want
to maximize the number of people who are working in independent,
small property ways - as long as they are reasonably efficient
- because we would be encouraging the production of democratic
citizens. And, that's another important reason to try to make
more efficient and try to save the peasantry that exists in
the third world.
We also know that if we think about the environment and the
land, the fact is, we simply know as a matter of statistical
fact, that farmers who can expect to pass their land on to
their descendants take better care of that land than large
corporations who are speculating in land and who have a bottom
line to worry about. So if we're interested in environmental
values over the long run, then we would also want to encourage
small household farms - or maybe large-household farms - that
we're at least passing on this land often within the family,
not speculating on land.
On the other hand, I'm sympathetic to Gus's point about different
kinds of commodities and trade. So it seems to me that because
there was cheap land, all of the (what we call) "white
settler colonies" - America, Argentina, to some extent
Brazil, Australia, and so on - because they had land that
they could throw the native peoples off and take over at no
cost really, they specialized historically in the major grains:
maize, wheat, and so on. They now control world trade in soybeans,
maize, grain. I think it's possible to restore this world;
one has to live with this fact.
However, for things that need to be produced closer to the
point where they're consumed - lettuce, raspberries, all kinds
of perishable goods that are a large part of people's diet
- those are the best subjects, those are the best commodities
in which local food sovereignty seem to me to make the most
Maybe I doubt that you say the specialization of some countries
on some kind of condition. I'm not sure if this can be changed.
For example, what we see in Argentina with the soya bean.
This is killing all agriculture in Argentina. And at the same
time, in Europe, they are saying, "Why do we need to
import all of these soybeans? This is a crazy thing."
At this time in Europe, we import more than 80 percent of
our vegetable proteins to feed the animals. This makes no
sense. Why did this happen?
Because when Europe decided to make the CAP [Common Agricultural
Policy] policy in 1958, the United States said ok, we'll let
you do this, but all the soybeans have to come to Europe with
zero percent tax. Soy is always going to be tax-free so we
can sell our soya. This is still going on. That's a crazy
thing. That's why we've made such industrial production of
pigs and chicken all around the ports.
We can change this in Europe. We can make more vegetable
proteins because we make too much corn, too much wheat. We
have 5 million hectares of excess with cereals. With these
5 million hectares, we could make vegetable proteins. This
could be a political decision in Europe.
Same thing in Brazil: Instead of making so much soya, we
could use agriculture to feed the population. More than 60
million people now don't eat correctly in Brazil. So this
is a change of the policy. Of course, with Australia or New
Zealand, the population is so little, so they export most
of their agriculture. Each time I come here, what is incredible
in the United States is to see that there are more people
in prison than in the farms. What kind of society is this?
Maybe in one century, people say "Look at this. What
was that moment? It was incredible!"
You spoke about sufficiency in terms of the farmer, I'm interested
in what your organization thinks about the migrant laborer,
the workers - who are not farmers - who work on the farms.
What do you think about their situation as you go forth in
Of course, our organization works also with the workers that
work on the big enterprises, especially for sugar and fruit.
They work with us; we have the same problem also in Europe,
because we see that most times in this kind of enterprise
there are more and more migrants involved - and illegal migrants.
And of course, their situation is getting worse and worse.
And they have a lot of problems in the south of Europe, in
Spain, for example, which is one the main places for production
of vegetables in greenhouses (which are not green houses,
they are plastic houses). Thousands and thousands of hectares
This is really one of the biggest problems now. We have this,
of course, in South America, Asia - so it's a difficult situation
for them. That's why we are trying to work with the United
Nations human rights commission to write the rights of the
farmers and workers. And we want to impose the rights at the
international level to be able to say "These rights exist,
so now you have to go along with this." It's very long
work. The people in Indonesia were the first to begin to do
The second step is agrarian reform: giving land to landless
people. Because very often people who are in these work conditions
are former farmers or small farmers who have put out of their
land by big enterprise.
In Indonesia last week, we saw a very old occupation which
was begun in the 60s, and during the military dictatorship.
Now this place for 30 years has been liberated. There were
500 families on 500 hectares, and most of the production is
organic production and rice production. It was very interesting
to see how they put out the industrial way of agriculture
because most of the place was for rubber production. We saw
thousands and thousands of hectares of this kind of industrial
production. But when enterprises are finished taking the oil
palm, they don't plant new trees. In these kind of countries,
hundreds of thousands of hectares can't be used anymore for
I want to thank you for a wonderful discussion. I know I
learned 100 percent more than I knew before about this subject.
It's been a great pleasure to have you.
© 2005 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization