French face tough choices to help save the planet
By John Lichfield in Paris
Published: 01 October 2007
In a huge consultation exercise starting this week, the people of France will be asked whether they want to save the planet. The answer is likely to be "oui".
They will, however, also be asked harder questions:
Are French drivers willing to accept lower speed limits on motorways and ordinary roads to reduce carbon emissions?
Are French consumers prepared to pay more for their food, to allow "bio", or organic, farming to take over one fifth of all fields in the next 13 years?
Are French farmers ready to give up their addiction to pesticides?
Are homeowners prepared to pay up to 20,000 (£14,000) - 600bn in total - to insulate their houses? The consultation exercise - including an internet questionnaire and 17 public meetings - is part of a green revolution promised by President Nicolas Sarkozy during his election campaign in the spring. At the end of this month, all interested parties - employers, unions, farmers, consumers, green pressure groups, hunters and conservationists, even bull-fight fans and anti-bull-fight campaigners - will be invited to a conference in Paris.
The results of this conference will influence, but not directly decide, President Sarkozy's environmental policies for the next five years. Working groups have already put forward a series of radical proposals (and discarded even more radical ones).
Over the next three weeks, the public will be asked whether the speed limits on French roads should be reduced from 130kph (80mph) to 120kph on motorways and 90kph to 80kph on rural roads.
Environmental and road safety campaigners say that this would save 1.8 million tonnes of carbon emissions each year. The car and truck lobbies say that France "cannot save the planet" by knocking 10kph off speed limits. According to opinion polls, the public is split 50/50.
Another contentious issue is likely to be the future of GM crops, pesticides and organic farming.
The more radical green campaigners have already dismissed the conference as a political stunt. Others say that President Sarkozy has at least been willing to put the issues of climate change and sustainable development at the centre of national debate.
Paris adopts 'climate plan' to slash emissions in city
Hi, George! (patting on the back).
Continue that way, please, I like to see you develop your sempiternal litany of pet topics...
Whatever the nation is - you always get the curve to hit on the Europeans, George.
This is a French initiative, a public discussion, backed by people and politicans from the right and the left - and it was initialised by Sarkozy, the president, not by Fillon or the government.
Perhaps you will find the courage and energy required to address the central points.
The European fixation against GM plants & seeds does great harm to the economies of the developing nations which are dependent on the meagre agricultural exports they send to Europe. The European fixed preference for the "natural" hybrid plants, developed over centuries of relatively primitive techniques for GM, is hardly meaningful in view of the basic similarity of the process and the results obtained. It is a mask to restrict free trade that is useful for that purpose to inefficient European producers. Perhaps the most interesting feature is the gullibility of European consumers who pay for it all.
I don't think you realistically portray the situation here. I agree that the restrictions on agricultural imports to the EU harm developing nations. Same's true for the harm done to developing nations by the restrictions the United States place on agricultural imports.
None of that has anything to do with GM food. If it was merely the restrictions on imports of genetically engineered food that put the developing nations at a disadvantage, those countries could switch to non-GM products and happily export as much as they wanted to the European Union. That's not the case, because the EU actually wants to protect its agricultural industry. Same goes for the US. (Though there are cases where a switch back to non-GM food explicitly for the export to the EU has happened.)
Realistically, the EU restrictions on GM food primarily harm US corporations. I mean, just name the top three countries where companies actually hold patents, develop GM plants, sell engineered seed and collect royalties...
Regarding the purported advantages of GM crops for developing nations (like the possibility of less intensive farming, higher yields per unit of land, use of less pesticides, etc.) the jury is still out. It's not entirely clear if being able to grow more food on less land and to spray it with a very specific herbicide/pesticide that completely eliminates everything apart from what you actually want to grow is such an advantage, when you're not able to save anything of the crop to plant again next year, and you have to buy both seeds and herbi/pesticides from the company that holds the monopoly on them.
And that's quite apart from the perception of GM food in the Western countries. People in the EU are simply more cautious about this technology, while American consumers either care less about it or even embrace it as a new and promising technology.
However, the notion that providing developing countries with GM food is really motivated by a desire to help those poor people rather than by a desire to rake in enormous profits and shift the power in agriculture towards Biotechnology companies seems to be a bit starry-eyed.