Agricultural engineering graduates from the elite AgroParisTech university have called on their peers to join them in leaving the agritech industry. They want to use their skills to build a different agriculture, more collaborative, more respectful of the environment and society.
France, the largest agricultural producer in the EU, has developed its huge agri-food industry thanks to intensive farming, pesticides and innovative technology.
The figures of the agri-food industry show that in 2020 some 15,479 companies generated 198,000 million euros and employed more than 433,000 people.
As former agriculture minister Edgard Pisani put it: “If consumers wanted red milk and square tomatoes, French agriculture would know how to provide them.”
The industry relies on great brains to tackle the 21St. century challenges of balancing productivity with sustainability under the heavy cloud of climate change.
Many of these brilliant minds graduate from AgroParisTech, an exclusive university dedicated to life, food and environmental sciences.
But at this year’s graduation ceremony, eight of the roughly 400 newly qualified engineers turned their backs on the industry they were destined to join.
“We do not want to pretend to be proud and deserving of a diploma for studies that have pushed us to be part of the social and ecological devastation,” said Lola Keraron during a seven-minute speech in which she and her colleagues explained why they were deviating from the world of agribusiness.
“We don’t see ourselves as ‘talents’ working for a sustainable planet… We see agribusiness waging war against the living world and against farmers around the world.”
The students rejected the idea of ”green growth” and that climate change could be solved through technology.
The university, they said, was educating hundreds of students each year to work in “destructive” and “harmful” jobs that involved “manipulating plants in laboratories for multinationals that increasingly enslave farmers.”
A video of his speech posted on YouTube has been viewed more than 900,000 times.
It was retweeted by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left France Unbowed party. “Listen this. The greatest hope. May the new generation ‘abandon’ the absurd and cruel world we live in,” he wrote.
François Gemmene, a contributor to the latest IPCC report on climate change, described the speech as “uniquely inspiring” and a sign of growing unease in top universities.
“Many students came to thank us, grateful that someone had finally said it,” says Gwenn, one of the “dropouts”, adding that even the principal congratulated them.
In a cleverly worded statement, the university said it had “fulfilled its mission” of helping students “choose the direction they would like to take their studies and careers.”
reject the system
Dropouts are less kind to their school and decry their deepening ties to industry.
“Many of the lessons were aimed at making us believe that agribusiness can have solutions to the current crisis [but] it’s actually doing more harm than good,” Gwenn tells RFI.
“He is following the logic of profit for shareholders, for powerful people in society, and he is not acting in the interest of society and the environment.”
Industry interests are well represented at the university itself, he adds, with staff conducting research for large companies.
“Some things in the school are funded by these big companies and private groups, so it must seem normal to them that they can come to the school to do their propaganda.”
Hear a conversation with Gwenn on the Spotlight on France podcast
selfish and irresponsible
The defectors, however, have their detractors. They have been mocked on social media as Amish types, turning their backs on modernity and science.
Shredding their diplomas and training is considered irresponsible, even selfish.
In an interview with the echoesIn a business journal, the director of AgroParisTech seemed to change course and criticized what he saw as the fatalism of the students and their desire to withdraw from society.
“He was warning us that we have a responsibility as engineers to do something about world hunger, that deserting and going to the mountains to grow carrots is not a solution,” says Gwenn. “But that’s not what we’re saying at all.”
In fact, his call to defect is accompanied by a call to participate.
The defectors are using their skills and knowledge to promote other forms of agriculture and more collaborative ways of living: beekeeping, collective farming projects, anti-nuclear activism, and fighting construction on farmland.
Gwenn is developing her activities in a ZAD (area to defend) near Nantes, in Brittany, where she moved a couple of years ago.
Green activists first occupied the Notre-Dame-des-Landes area in the early 2010s to prevent the biodiversity-rich farmland from being used to build an airport.
The project was abandoned but it is still a resistance zone where people have developed an anti-capitalist lifestyle.
Some say that is too radical.
But Gwenn says the kinds of projects they oppose — cement factories, pesticides, factory farms, nuclear plants — are even more so.
In France, every nine years soil the size of a small region is removed and replaced with concrete, she says. “To me this is extremely radical.”
Change from within?
Agribusiness advocates say that given the magnitude of global warming and its impact on food production, France needs agricultural engineers more than ever. Change from within the industry makes more sense, they say.
“We’ve talked about this a lot and we believe that when you try to change the system from the inside, the system changes you,” says Gwenn.
“We’re not telling people to just disappear somewhere in the mountains in isolation, we’re actually calling to fight the system.
“We can put our knowledge and intelligence to fight against the…big projects that are destroying the earth or destroying the people.”
An especially critical article in Point he suggested that the deserters were part of a “nihilist fever” sweeping through France.
“We are not nihilists. It energizes us to believe that we can emancipate ourselves and encourage others to emancipate themselves from the techno-industrial system to build something new.”