AUCH, FRANCE — Marie-Helène Tarrieux was preparing for a clandestine operation that by the end of the afternoon would make her guilty of trespassing, property destruction, and theft.
But she was treating it more like a picnic.
Literally. She and her children needed strength to chop down an experimental plot of genetically modified corn, she said. So she sought shade from the broiling sun and laid out a small feast of foie gras cooked in Armagnac, potted duck, brown bread, a bottle of red wine, and small succulent peaches. "All from my farm," she said proudly. "I feed my ducks on corn, so I don't want any GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in my food supply. I want it natural."
Ms. Tarrieux is at the forefront of a swell of European feeling against GMOs that appears to be catching on among American consumers, too.
And as the European Union prepares new and stricter regulations governing genetically engineered food, a major trade battle is looming between Europe and big US biotech firms.
The biggest of those companies, Monsanto, was the victim of Tarrieux's attack Tuesday, not far from this small town in southwestern France, a region famed for its fruit and rich cuisine. The American biotech giant was also the target of two attacks Sunday, which it condemned as contrary to the "democratic spirit" and a roadblock to "calm and scientific debate ... for the benefit of consumers and citizens."
Monsanto had rented from a local farmer a small plot of land near Auch on which to grow an experimental field trial of genetically modified corn. French law requires that such trials - though not their exact location - be declared to the local village council, so its existence was public knowledge. Neighbors had spotted the experiment because the plot was too small to be of commercial value, and it was also tucked into a field of sorghum, far from other corn fields.
Last week, a radical small farmers,' group, the Peasant Confederation led by José Bové, launched their campaign to stop open field testing of GMOs, by launching symbolic attacks on such tests. Like GMO opponents who destroyed experimental crops last year in Great Britain, the French protesters fear that cross-pollination could contaminate nearby crops and insects, irreversibly spreading bio-engineered genes into conventional plants and animals.
"The agro-chemical companies want to impose GMOs on Europe by force like this," complained Jean-Claude Chatillon, a local cattle farmer and Bové loyalist.
"The point of actions like this is to start a wide public debate about the merits and risks of GMOs," said Jean-Emile Sanchez, national secretary of the Peasant Confederation, who had come to join Tuesday's operation.
Since 71 percent of the French are opposed to GMOs in their food, according to a recent poll, it is a debate Mr. Sanchez thinks he can win, even though the government is anxious not to close off what it sees as promising avenues of agricultural research.
Half a mile from the target plantation, more than 150 good-natured green guerrillas gathered in the mid-afternoon sun to prepare their assault. They made a mixed group - small farmers, students, environmentalists, antiglobalization activists, grannies, and children.
Their motives were mixed, too, to judge by their explanations of why they were risking prison to protest against biotech agriculture. The farmers were mostly concerned to safeguard their independence from multinational seed companies; many said they were worried that the food on their plates was getting worse and less safe; others were simply mistrustful of big business - especially American big business.
Most had brought along the tools they needed for their work - scythes, machetes, gardening scissors, knives, and pruning hooks.
One of their leaders, Jean Lantaron, called for quiet as he laid out ground rules. "On no account will anyone use force," he said. "If we run up against physical opposition, we will not confront it. We will negotiate and discuss, and that is all."
As it happened, there was no risk of violence. The farmer whose crop was being cut down did not show up, and the handful of gendarmes who were waiting by the cornfield made no attempt to intervene, beyond taking photographs and noting the license plate numbers of some of the cars that had brought the protesters.
"We are just here to take note of the damage," one of the policemen explained. (The next day, some car owners were called to their local police stations to make statements, but they were not charged. Neither Monsanto nor the farmer had lodged a complaint.)
As the police watched, the protesters went to work. Within five minutes, the 80-square-yard plot of corn was felled, leaving nothing but rows of stalks.
The demonstrators piled the offending crop neatly by the side of the field.
Marie-Agnès Delmas, a small-scale goat-cheese producer, was pleased with her work. "The big cartels want to get control over farmers," she said, by selling them patented, genetically modified seeds that they cannot save and replant the next season without paying the patent holder, such as Monsanto. "We've got nothing to gain from GMOs, and our independence to lose," added Tarrieux. "We would end up being dependent on the seed salesmen every planting season."
Tarrieux is also worried about the unknown effects of GMOs on plant and human health, although none of the tests done so far in the United States or Europe have found dangers to human health in the GMOs approved for human consumption.
"We don't know enough yet," she argued. "And when you look at the way mad cow disease happened because farmers fed their cows on animal meal, it's obvious that there are a fair number of things that we were told was progress at the time but which we shouldn't have done."
Nor did any of the protesters seem convinced by arguments that GMOs are the key to ending hunger in developing countries, which could benefit from the promised higher yields.
"The problem is not GMOs; it's the way food and wealth are distributed," snorted Jacqueline Schetober, a middle-age woman wearing a badge proclaiming her membership of ATTAC, an anti-globalization movement calling for a tax on international financial flows to fund third world development. "It's a question of whether we want the market or democracy to decide things."
Mixed in with many of the protesters' motivations, suggested Ashley Serre, an American who runs a raspberry farm with her French husband in the Pyrenees, is "a general suspicion of American business."
But at the heart of the protest, said Ms. Delmas, was a simple desire to maintain the traditional quality that small-scale farmers using conventional methods say they alone can ensure. "In this country we still have a system of small farmers doing sustainable agriculture, and it works," she said. "We want to keep it."