Romania Harvests Trouble With Its GM Crops

By Christine Lescu

BUCHAREST, Romania, October 30, 2006 (ENS) - Romania may find itself excluded from the European Union markets and even have difficulties selling its genetically modified products locally, because of delays in complying with European food traceability and labeling regulations.

Experts say its increasing use of genetically modified crops also hinders organic agriculture, an area in which Romania has the potential to be competitive in the EU market.

After farmers this year cultivated almost 130,000 hectares (321,236 acres) of GM soybeans, Romania became the single biggest producer of this product in Europe, according to the environmental campaign group Greenpeace.

The environmental organization in 2004 ranked Romania 11th in a table of the world's biggest producers of GM crops.

A large percentage of the GM soybean crop was also planted with non-certified seed, meaning its origins cannot be identified or traced.

The Romanian Ministry of Agriculture has announced a ban on the cultivation of GM soy as of January 1, 2007, but many say Bucharest has done too little, and too late, to address Europe's concerns about the kind of food coming out of Romania.

In 2002, it adopted the first measures to regulate GM products, when it told manufacturers of GM products to declare this information on packages and labels.

But results have been patchy. A poor level of compliance reflects the lack of interest in the subject felt by Romanian consumers - unlike the situation in Western Europe.

Local consumer groups say few Romanians feel eating GM food products is risky. "If we avoided eating everything bad, we'd die of starvation," is shoppers' stock response.

In February this year, meanwhile, the government made further moves. Until then, cultivation of GM soybeans had been totally unregulated.

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Romania is the biggest European producer of GM soybeans. (Photo courtesy Ecological Club of Transilvania)
Now the government is trying to bring food production standards into closer harmony with EU environmental rules. It has ordered cuts in the production of GM herbicide resistant soybeans, of which the EU does not approve, and introduced a monitoring and control system for GM crops.

But so far there is little sign of progress with these initiatives either. This year the production of GM soybean increased - from about 65,000 to 130,000 hectares.

Experts say the authorities are unable to cope with the growth of illegally cultivated genetically modified crops.

The problem is that farmers have strong incentives to grow GM soybeans. Normally, combating weeds and beetles is time consuming and expensive. With the cultivation of resistant varieties, they can combat pests more easily.

The Garda Nationala de Mediu, National Environmental Guard, the body put in charge of monitoring compliance with the new rules, has handed out 23 warnings and imposed 15 fines this year. But it says tracking down all the culprits is hard.

Apart from dealing with known GM crop growers, the body is struggling to halt the activities of those who buy seeds from producers and sell them on.

Florian Udrea, of the Garda Nationala, says checking this activity is an almost hopeless task. "Out of carelessness or ill will, some people don't declare where the seeds from their crops came from," he said.

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Romanian woman sells produce at a roadside farm stand. (Photo credit unknown)
Some farmers keep quiet about their GM crops because they do not even know they have planted GM seeds. Cases of contamination of crops with GM varieties are frequent.

Agricultural consultant Dragos Dima says Romania will pay a price for failing to put in place effective systems to test and control soybean production from cultivation to consumption and monitor the presence of GM seed.

"If Romania does not adopt the traceability and labeling measures required by the EU legislation, I am afraid that starting with 2007, all its products containing soybean will be restricted from entering EU markets," Dima said.

This is a serious threat to farmers, he added, as most food products contain at least traces of soybean. Romania could also find its access to structural funds for agricultural projects restricted.

In a few months, Romania is about to join a club that has strict standards on the GM issue and in which public opinion is on the alert.

Several EU member states, including Germany and Austria, ban the cultivation and import of GM seeds outright.

EU legislation does not ban GM products altogether but it insists on strict rules concerning the release of GM seeds into the environment and the traceability and labelling of genetically modified organisms, GMOs, and GMOs in food and animal feed.

Only seeds approved by the European Food Safety Authority may be traded within the EU.

These tight European mechanisms reflect many scientists' continuing concerns about genetic modification. Some worry that GM organisms may yet have unforseeable and unpredictable consequences on the environment and on health.

Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini, of the University of Caen, voiced some of those concerns, felt especially with regard to Romanian GM products, to Romanian public radio.

"The soybeans grown in Romania are treated with a very powerful pesticide named Roundup Ready, which has toxic effects on human placenta and embryos," he said in a recent interview.

"Roundup Ready is used to destroy weeds and parasites attacking soya crops but also destroys every other plant nearby, damaging the environment," said Seralini. "Roundup Ready genetically engineered soya is not approved for growing in the EU."

Dragos Dima says it may take Romania many years to put its agricultural house in order.

"The country will have to decontaminate itself from unapproved GM varieties and put in place working systems on the release of GM organisms and on food labeling," he said.

"But the decontamination process is likely to take years. Romania may also become a test case to see whether GM crop-plant decontamination is possible at all."

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, IWPR. Christine Lescu is a journalist for Radio Romania International.}