Yellow Vest Protest at Ag Robotics Conference Raises Ghosts of GMOs’ Past

Yellow Vest Protest at Ag Robotics Conference Raises Ghosts of GMOs’ Past

Yellow Vest protesters interrupt a presentation by Thomas Engel of John Deere during the third annual International Forum of International Robotics (FIRA) in Toulouse, France.

The unexpected presence of Yellow Vest (gilets jaunes) protestors at the recent International Forum of Agricultural Robotics (FIRA) in Toulouse, France, brings disquieting echoes of an earlier chapter in agricultural technology history: opposition to the introduction of genetically modified crops in the 1990s.


I was then an ag journalist then covering biotechnology for what are now CropLife and AgriBusiness Global magazines, and I regularly reported the certainty that companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont had about consumers’ eventual embrace of GMOs. After all, the public doesn’t want farmers to use pesticides, the reasoning went. Wouldn’t transgenic crops such as Bt corn reduce widespread use of synthetic crop protection chemicals?

Many countries did in fact approve the use of GMOs — most prominently the U.S., Canada, Australia, Brazil, and India.

But not most of Europe. Though much of biotechnology’s beginnings came in European universities, institutes, and R&D companies, consumer opposition to GMOs across the European Union has permanently blunted the planting of biotech crops there. Today only Spain registers as a blip among countries with hectares planted to genetically modified crops.

Will the same happen in Europe to ag robotics? Maybe not. But one can see early parallels to public reaction to GMOs. Much like their predecessors in biotechnology, robotics developers today brim with confidence their technology will bring an unalloyed good. After all, the workforce of the 21st century doesn’t want jobs that are dirty, dangerous, and demeaning, the thinking goes. Won’t robotics solve farmers’ widespread labor problems? In fact, discussions at the FIRA conference, in only its third year, have progressed to topical areas assuming wider adoption, such as grower financing and insuring of robotic units.