This is a first-hand account from the front; two French activists explain why food and farming are hot issues in France, as in the UK, and attempt to justify the 1999 campaign against McDonald's that made them famous, especially with anti-capitalists.
Their arguments will surely resonate. Yet, despite food scares, most Westerners, most of the time, and despite the beliefs of Messrs Bové and Dufour, eat food that is safer than ever and far more interesting.
British consumers have seen bigger changes. Being a naturally trading people, the British import recipes and produce from all over the world. Still, the underlying trends are similar. In the mongrel UK and xenophobic France alike, meat and vegetables are coming from bigger units.
The World Is Not For Sale is a good guide to the case made against the new farming, endlessly rehearsed in The Food Programme on Radio 4 and in the thinking of people such as Naomi Klein (the author of this book's introduction): large corporations are employing dangerous technologies and over-mighty political influence to divorce food production from good hygiene and ecological practice and to override importing countries that complain of these practices.
The book tells a vivid tale. The US tries to export beef produced with hormones; France and the EU resist; the US invokes World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and imposes tariffs on Roquefort cheese; Bové helps to dismantle a bit of a partly-built McDonald's and goes to jail for his theatrics, which come to symbolise a wider case against what he calls "malbouffe" ("junk food").
As a hero, Bové has everything: Asterix moustache, 30 years as a leading voice in the small-farm movement, and a farm on which he produces ewe's milk (Lord knows how, given how busy he has been politically). He has nous and authenticity, both gold dust in a movement dominated by "intellectuals" and grunge dissidents. He thrives in the acronym-laden scene of French micropolitics and the world stage of the right-ons. It is almost a relief to find that he is more anti-establishment than anti-American.
One problem with these "small is better" campaigners is that they don't provide a real prospect of producing much food. The French government will do its best to keep the EU's common agricultural policy safe from Anglo-Saxon reforms and may even shove some of Germany and Britain's money towards the small-scale French farmers Bové admires.
With or without subsidy regimes, there will certainly be niche farming, organic and specialist, and it will appeal to affluent and aspirational consumers. But it will be a minority who will pay so much for so little real gain. In any case, it is unlikely that many talented people will come forward to do the dreary work of peasant-scale farming, and these interviews do, too briefly, recognise that fact.
In the Seventies, while Bové was cutting his teeth as a small producer, I was working for an autumnal month or so every year as a labourer on a vineyard near Bordeaux. Subsidy had helped make the system pretty agreeable. But ours was the only farm in the valley still recognisably peasant.
Moreover, as the Third World makes a better case for its own right to produce and trade and big producers green themselves (because they are made to or paid to by consumers), taxpayers will be less and less inclined to support Western production whether capitalist or romantic.
Meanwhile, the core issue about the reviled WTO remains. If hormone-fed beef is good enough for the US consumer (who has suffered few food scares), why should any country have the right to ban it? Let people know where their food comes from, then they are free to buy or not.
If Bové and Dufour help intensive agriculture and world trade work better, good luck to them. If Bové can make a living selling sheep's milk, so be it. But too much of this book conveys an ideological passion that won't trouble itself with reality. In that, it is in tune with the movement for which it will become a core text.Reuse content