Anca Padararu in Bucharest -
A muddle over Romania's genetically modified (GM) soy crops and its January accession to the EU will leave everyone, except perhaps the environmental lobby, a little poorer.
Failure by the Romanian government during its EU membership talks to get approval to cultivate GM soy means that Romanian farmers who invested heavily in this crop stand to lose everything, Romania will give up the head-start it had in Europe in growing the crop, and Europe will be forced to continue importing the 1.6bn worth of GM soy for human and animal feed it needs each year from growers outside the EU, such as the US, Argentina and Brazil.
"We had one good crop, and they took it away from us," complains Mihai Petrosu, owner of a 500-hectare farm in Braila county, eastern Romania.
Petrosu has since converted to growing vegetables on his farm, but sighs when he thinks of the lost income and lost opportunity. While conventional and GM soy seeds cost about the same, the output from a hectare on GM soy was on average 1,000 kilograms higher, with the cost for maintaining it at between 30-45 lower.
"This was indeed the one crop that allowed Romanian farmers not only to survive, but also to gain," says Elena Badea, president of Romania's National Commission for Bio-security, the same body which approved in 2000 the cultivation of the GM soy developed by the US firm Monsanto.
By 2006, Romania had seven years experience in growing GM soy for commercial use, with 136,900 hectares under cultivation out of some 200,000 hectares in total that is given over to soy, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
The Monsanto engineered soy is not resistant to any bug or disease, but to the "Round-Up" herbicide that the US firm also makes. This means that the Round-Up Ready soy is the only plant left alive after the land has been treated with the herbicide.
Environmental groups like Greenpeace Romania claim this approach is "a crime against the environment," arguing that the herbicide ruins the biodiversity of the land and has ripple effects on organisms which feed on harmless plants living alongside the intended crop.
Petrosu says this is nonsense. "Whatever is not the intended crop is a weed for the purpose of a farmer, and in fields under conventional seeds we root out the other plants anyway, using other herbicides," he says. "What Round-Up does is to wipe clean the land, letting us plant the next year whatever we want to."
Yet the EU doesnt let its farmers plant whatever they want to. The problem with GM soy is not with its consumption, approved by the EU since 1996, nor with its importation. "The EU is the largest soybean and soy meal importer, which largely consist of Monsanto Round-Up Ready soybean cultivated in all the main soybean global producers, i.e. the US, Brazil and Argentina," the EU said in a 2006 statement.
Rather the problem lies with the EU rules governing GM crop cultivation, under which only the developer of the GM seed can file an application for its cultivation with one of the EU member states, which is then approved by the Commission and other member states. Monsanto filed in 2005 an application with the Netherlands for the cultivation of the Round-Up Ready soy, but this is still pending approval.
While the strict EU rules are good for many reasons, they make it so much harder for developers other than powerful multinationals to file such applications, Badea explains.
"To document a filing in support of a new GM seed one should expect costs of anywhere between 3m-6m. This is not easy to come by for a university," says Badea, who is also a professor with the University for Agriculture Studies in Timisoara, western Romania.
She developed in the university laboratories a potato resistant to the Colorado bug, but since 2005 she hasn't been able to get her field tests approved.
Unlike many Romanian farmers, the powerful developers of GM seeds continue to do strong business in the country. Swiss group Syngenta Agro is in its sixth year in Romania, and conducting field trials of a herbicide-tolerant GM maize; Pioneer operates a seed plant at Ganeasa, delivering 20,000 tonnes of conventional seeds to Romania and the region; while Monsanto located in Romania its leading seed production hub for Europe and Africa.
Passing the buck
Lone Mikkelsen, a spokesman for the European Commission, says Romania couldn't have done anything during its EU negotiations to get permission to grow a GM crop that isn't authorized by the EU.
However, Leonard Orban, currently EU Commissioner for Multilingualism and Romania's chief negotiator in the later stages of the accession talks, says it was up to the Ministry of the Environment to have raised the issue of GM soy cultivation and instruct him to fight for a derogation of the EU rules. While the press office for the Ministry of the Environment says it was up to the Agriculture Ministry to state what plants on the national roster it wanted approved on the EU roster of plants.
Unsurprisingly, Tatiana Preda, in charge now of GM crops at the Ministry of Agriculture, says she isn't aware of the issue, since she didn't work in that department at the time the accession file on agriculture was closed, which was in the summer of 2004.
Yet this lack of institutional memory points to another flaw in Romania's dealings with the EU, which is that politicians are in the habit of changing the make-up of public institutions from top to bottom each time there is a regime change,
This is the main criticism that Badea has against Romania's administrative system, which discourages any thorough knowledge of any topic, let alone a scientifically complex one such as GM technology.
Indeed, she proves to be one of the few people who can actually vouch that the environment and agriculture ministries were represented at meetings on the GM issue, and that each time the farmers begged the Romanian officials to do something, anything, for their GM soy crops to be accepted by the EU.
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