A Monsanto research facility in western France suffered major damage from a suspected arson in late October. The fire started in multiple locations, strongly suggesting a deliberate rather than accidental cause.
Investigators were unable to find any electrical problems or other potential causes for an accidental blaze, but they did report smelling gasoline at multiple locations on the site, reports said.
The small facility employs about 10 people and focuses on genetically modified corn research. It is one of nine Monsanto facilities in France.
“No Monsanto sites in Europe have so far been the victim of fires of criminal origin,” said site manager Jakob Witten. “This is unprecedented violence.”
A hostile country for GMOs
Although this could be the first arson of a French Monsanto facility, the action – if politically motivated – is far from that country’s first radical act of resistance to Monsanto and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
While no evidence has tied the recent fire to any activists – in fact, the fire could have been started by GMO scientists seeking to gain public sympathy while destroying their own failed experiments – public opinion in France is strong against GMOs, and the country has a long history of anti-GMO activism. French activists have regularly uprooted experimental GMO fields invading their country. For example, in 2005 a Green Party lawmaker, a French member of the European parliament and farmer-activist Jose Bove were sentenced to prison time for uprooting a GMO corn field. On two separate occasions in 2010, activists destroyed experimental GMO grapevine plants.
Bove, who rocketed to international fame when he and a group of other farmer activists dismantled a McDonald’s restaurant under construction, is also a prominent member of the French anti-GMO movement. In 2008, he went on a hunger strike to demand that the French government make good on its promise to ban GMO cultivation.
The ban was eventually passed. In September of this year, the French government announced its intention to preserve the ban by using an opt-out mechanism available through the European Commission.
Monsanto is feeling the heat
Aside from the entire question of GMOs, Monsanto itself has also had a rocky history in France. In 2012, a French court became the first in the world to hold a pesticide company legally responsible for poisoning someone who was using its product. The court held that Monsanto’s failure to properly label its weedkiller Lasso (now banned in France) made it responsible for the 2004 poisoning of French farmer Paul Francois, who accidentally inhaled the herbicide while trying to apply it. He suffered headaches, dizziness and other health problems and had to stop working for a year as a direct consequence, the court ruled.
More recently, just this June, France banned Monsanto’s flagship herbicide Roundup – the best-selling herbicide in the world – for garden use. The ruling came in response to the World Health Organization’s recent classification of Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, as a probable carcinogen.
Studies have also linked glyphosate to birth defects, organ failure, and hormonal and reproductive problems. Ironically, though the use of Roundup has exploded in recent decades in response to increased planting of Roundup-resistant GMO crops and the resultant rise of “superweeds,” there is no evidence that use of the herbicide actually leads to improved crop yield.
Monsanto’s recent troubles are not limited to France, either. In the final quarter of 2014, the company lost $156 million, and its earnings this year are projected to even worse. The company recently announced that, in order to cut costs, it will be closing three research facilities – in Middleton, Wisconsin; Mystic, Connecticut; and Research Triangle Park, North Carolina – while cutting 2,600 jobs. The job cuts will affect 12 percent of the company’s workforce.
In the most recent quarter, Monsanto’s stock fell 19 cents per share in the face of plunging profits.