September 19, 2005

French Maize Farmer Sees More GMO Converts

PARIS -- When Pierre, a 50-year-old French maize farmer, was offered the chance to grow his first genetically-modified (GMO) crops, he jumped at the chance and predicts many others will soon follow suit.

Such is the sensitivity surrounding GMOs in a country where test fields of GMO maize and rapeseed are regularly ripped up, Pierre told only his family and the local mayor of his plans.

"Before I decided to grow GMO maize there was a lot of debate in my family," the farmer in southwest France told Reuters by telephone, declining to give his full name.

With around 50 hectares sown to conventional maize, Pierre decided to take part in a program organized by France's maize growers association (AGPM) to study the effects of growing traditional and GMO varieties side-by-side.

"When I heard that the AGPM was looking for volunteers to carry out the experiments, I jumped straight for it," he said.

He agreed to grow one hectare of GMO maize, which although part of an experiment, will be sold commercially to the animal feed industry in Spain, where GMOs are widely grown and used by feed compounders.

He said he expected more French farmers to start taking on new maize types soon. "Each time farmers try out GM crops, they really see the benefits," he said.


Pierre is one of around 40 to 50 maize growers in the region, who declared commercial GMO plantings of some 500 hectares. The maize was one of the varieties approved by the European Commission before its unofficial moratorium on new authorizations came into effect in 1998.

Although the moratorium was lifted last year, no new strains have yet been approved for commercial growing. In or before 1998, approval was given for 18 biotech plants, including maize, rapeseed, chicory and soybeans.

Some, like Pierre, are part of the AGPM program, others are just growing it commercially.

But the precise number of farmers who have opted for gene-spliced crops is difficult to pin down because of a legal vacuum in France, which means farmers are not yet legally obliged to declare the new strains.

The government is planning legislation soon that will force farmers to declare such sowings in the future.

Pierre admits he did not divulge his plant to his neighbor, who grows conventional maize 100 meters from his GMO plants.

News that France had begun growing small amounts of GMO maize commercially came as a shock to many in the country and made front-page news in national newspapers. Most people thought plantings were restricted to government-sponsored test fields.


Pierre said that one of his main motivations was to prove that traditional and GMO varieties of maize could co-exist without cross-pollination or contamination.

"The test results show there is less than 0.9 percent of GMO contamination in the conventional maize plants which are growing 25 meters away from the GMO crops," he said.

Lower costs were also a reason, he added.

"I decided to sow one hectare of GM maize of the bt variety to save money on spraying insecticides," he said, adding that the lower chemical usage also helped protect the environment.

"This time I was given the seeds by the AGPM but if they are not too expensive I am prepared to sow up to 35 hectares of GMO maize on my 50 hectares," he added.

"However, public opinion needs to change before we can really start using genetically modified maize because it's one thing to grow them but it's another to find commercial outlets for it," he added.

He said that while many farmers were eagerly awaiting new strains of maize to be approved by the European Commission, he accepted why authorities and the public had to be cautious.

"I understand the European Commission's slowness and it's completely normal that consumers hold so much power," he said.