Giorgio Fidenato has made a habit of carrying a raw ear of yellow corn and taking a hearty bite whenever a camera is in sight.
It's a provocation. The Italian farmer's corn is genetically modified, grown surreptitiously in fields in the northeast not far from the Austrian and Slovene borders.
"Our biggest goal is to show consumers that it is safe to eat," said the 49-year-old advocate of what's known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
More activist than farmer, Fidenato's cultivation of nearly 5 hectares, or 12 acres, of genetically modified corn is a rogue act aimed at forcing the legalization of genetically engineered crops in Italy. He waxes on about their benefits: They require fewer chemicals and produce higher yields and greater profits.
Fidenato faces formidable opposition in Italy. His opponents are angry, organized and, in some cases, equally prepared to take the law into their own hands. Unlike Americans, the vast majority of Europeans are staunchly against the marketing of genetically modified foods.
Arrayed against Fidenato are agriculture officials, who put a moratorium on genetically modified seeds in March, the country's main farm lobby, consumer groups, environmentalists and anti-globalization protesters.
"Violating the law to get the debate going is a very dangerous precedent," said Roberto Burdese, president of Slow Food Italy, one of 20 organizations that have banded together to keep genetically modified food out of the country.
The European Commission announced in July a proposal that would allow the 27 member states to have the final word on whether to allow cultivation of genetically altered food within their own borders. That would likely lead to more bans because countries would no longer be required to back up their rulings with new scientific data.
The announcement was bad news for Fidenato, though by then his corn was knee-high.
The genetically modified corn, produced by St. Louis-based Monsanto, was the only genetically modified seed authorized for commercial cultivation in Europe until March, when a potato seed sold by the German company BASF was approved. Besides the moratorium in Italy, the seed has been banned in at least six countries, including France, Germany and Austria.
Tired of legal battles, Fidenato planted the corn on April 25, Italy's national Liberation day. He posted a video on YouTube showing him planting six seeds, but he didn't disclose that he had in fact planted two fields. That only came out when anonymous letters containing pieces of the plants reached prosecutors in July, raising opponents' suspicions that there could still be others. He won't say where he got the seeds.
Word spread about the crop, and on Aug. 9 about 70 anti-GMO activists wearing chemical protection suits trampled nearly an acre of corn to the ground.
"The pity is they should have waited 10 days, and it would have been ready to make polenta," Fidenato said, referring to the corn meal that is a dietary mainstay in northern Italy.
The leader of the corn bandits, astrophysicist Luca Tornatore, argued there is enough uncertainty surrounding the health and environmental risks posed by GMOs to make them undesirable.
Tornatore said his group grew frustrated that prosecutors, who have sequestered the fields, had not destroyed the crops despite a 2001 Italian law that forbids their cultivation.
The protesters also would like to destroy the 4 1/2 hectares Fidenato has planted in another town, but "we don't know where it is," Tornatore acknowledged.
Fidenato responded that genetically modified corn has been legal in Italy since it was added to the European Union's catalog of authorized crops 12 years ago. And he pointed to a decision by an administrative court in Rome, which ruled that the agriculture ministry cannot decline to authorize the seeds out of caution.
The ruling resulted from a three-year court battle waged by Silvano Dalla Libera, a neighboring farmer in the northeastern region of Friuli, where Fidenato's fields are located.
The former agriculture minister, Luca Zaia, along with the health and environment ministers, responded to the administrative decision by putting a moratorium on GMOs in March. There was a risk nearby fields could be contaminated, they said.
"To stop me, one poor farmer, three ministries mobilized," Dalla Libera said with a hint of pride.
Fidenato began farming when he was 12 and now has about 70 acres. He became persuaded of the merits of genetically altered crops during a trip to the United States in the 1990s and helped found Futuragra, a group of farmers fighting for GMOs.
By planting the corn, he risks up to three years in jail and a fine of euro50,000.
Fidenato said he's not bothered by the threat of prosecution. Futuragra has been in touch with farmers in Spain, which has the highest concentration of genetically modified corn in Europe, and France, where it has been banned, to press the battle.
"If they don't understand it is an EU right, that we don't need authorization, then I have farmers in the entire Po River valley, from Piedmont to Veneto, who will plant GMO corn," Fidenato said.
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