New England Center for Investigative Reporting – by Vlad Odobescu
In March of this year, the lower Chamber of the Romanian Parliament hosted a crucial vote that would impact the future of local biotech agriculture in the Eastern European country. A draft law calling for a ban on growing, importing and marketing of products containing genetically modified organisms was soundly rejected – 218 opposed, 72 in favor.
Most of the politicians who proposed the law in 2010 were now against it. Four days before the vote, the Foreign Agricultural Service of the US Embassy in Bucharest expressed its concern about the pending decision in a report to the US Department of Agriculture: “If approved, the new draft law would clearly place at risk biotech seeds producers (…).”
This transnational investigation was reported and written by Vlad Odobescu of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism. Vlad was a Reporter-in-Residence at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting between January and March 2013. The Reporter-in-Residence Program was made possible by a generous grant from the Open Society Foundations.
An overwhelming majority of the same Parliamentary Chamber adopted on June 26th an even more controversial draft law that allows GMOs in certain natural protected areas. These areas represent 17.84% of the country’s total surface and are parts of natural parks and reservations.
In recent years, Romanian politicians have switched their opinion about GMOs.
Almost every time, prior to that opinion change, the US Embassy in Bucharest and American politicians intervened in favor of the biotech industry. They did so by financing programs that allowed Romanian politicians to travel to the US to study American agriculture or visit farms and by arranging for American biotech experts to meet with Romanian officials in Bucharest.
The most important player in this industry, the US mega-corporation Monsanto, also is wielding its influence in an effort to convince Romanian politicians to introduce large scale agricultural biotechnology in their home country and throughout the European Union.
The company has contributed to the political campaigns of dozens of American Congressmen and Senators. Some of these politicians have traveled to Romania to try to convince local officials that biotechnology would be beneficial for the country’s agriculture.
The stakes are high, as Monsanto has invested around $150 million in its Romanian seed production units and is planning to spend another $40 million on its unit in Sinesti (Romania) over the next two years, according to the company’s officials.
An investigation by The Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism (CRJI) and The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) has found that:
• Nine American politicians who received campaign donations from Monsanto and other political action committees (PACs) supporting the use of GMOs traveled to Bucharest in the last eight years to convince Romanian authorities of the benefits of pro-biotech policies or to advise them on the best ways to convince European officials to allow the use of genetically modified seed.
• The US Department of State and US Department of Agriculture have sent American biotech experts who had once worked for Monsanto to “key countries”, including Romania.
• The US State Department and US Department of Agriculture have financed hundreds of trips to the US by Romanian officials and agriculture experts to show them how biotechnology works. The official purpose of such programs was to create or strengthen connections between the US and other countries.
“These findings illustrate the connection between Monsanto and the Romanian authorities. This is how the mechanism works,” says Ramona Duminicioiu, president of The Info Center about Genetically Modified Organisms in Cluj – InfOMG (Romania) which opposes GMOs in Romania.
Over the past eight years, nine Congressmen and Senators who have received – between 2004 and 2012 – a total of $574,850 in campaign donations from Monsanto and various Political Action Committees (PAC) supporting the use of GMOs, came to Bucharest to convince Romanian officials to play a more decisive role in convincing other European officials of the need to allow genetically modified organisms in the Union.
The details of those discussions, in cables sent to the Department of State by the US Embassy in Bucharest, were recently released by Wikileaks. Sometimes, the nature of those discussions were hinted at in press releases issued by Romanian institutions. Other meetings were mentioned in reports sent from the US Embassy in Bucharest to the US Department of Agriculture or to the State Department.
“The effects of this connection are visible: in the European Union, Romania voted each time for decisions which favored GMOs,” says Ramona Duminicioiu.
Senator Richard Lugar, with ties to Monsanto, meets Romanian officials
Donations to political campaigns in the US often reflect which corporate interests are pushing for various policies.
In March, MapLight , a non-profit organization that studies the influence of money on U.S. politics, released an analysis of campaign contributions showing that current members of the U.S. Congress—since January 1, 2009—have received $7,450,434 from the PACs of the organizations supporting the use of GMOs . The American politicians who visited Romania in the last few years and were still in office during this period received some of these contributions.
In 2008, when the Romanian authorities were considering banning GMOs, then US Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) came to Bucharest to meet PM Calin Popescu Tariceanu and the former Minister of Environment, Attila Korodi.
The press release about the meeting, issued by Tariceanu’s office, doesn’t say anything about agriculture but a State Department cable released by Wikileaks does: “Highlighting his experience as a farmer, visiting Senator Richard Lugar on August 28 encouraged Minister of Environment Attila Korodi to permit the use of more advanced agricultural methods in Romania, including biotechnology,” the cable says.
The same cable goes on to say: “Lugar raised the importance of reducing trade barriers and intensely utilizing technology, such as GMO seeds, in order to combat hunger, especially in African countries experiencing food shortages.”
Lugar, at that time a member of the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, had received $15,000 in campaign donations from Monsanto between 2000 and 2012. ($7000 – in 2000, $1000 – 2004, $4000 – 2006, $3000 – 2012), according to Opensecrets.org, another group that tracks the influence of money on U.S. politics.
Starting from 2004 until 2012, he also received a total of $26,500 from CropLife America, Cargill, Inc. and Archers Daniels Midland, organizations and companies promoting GMOs.
In 2009, Lugar became the co-author, with U.S. Senator Robert Casey (D-Pennsylvania), of legislation called The Global Food Security Act, which proposed to amend a section of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, in order to include the research on biotechnology adapted to “local ecological conditions” under this Act .
Lugar was a firm supporter of the Global Harvest Initiative, an organization promoting the interests of the biotech industry. Its membership includes biotech giants such as Monsanto and Pioneer. According to its website, Global Harvest Initiative is “a private-sector voice for productivity growth throughout the agricultural value chain to sustainably meet the demands of a growing world”. Lugar participated at various symposiums organized by Global Harvest Initiative in 2009 and 2010.
Former Minister Attila Korodi says that the meeting with Senator Lugar was “surprising”. “It seemed curious that there were so many diplomats: the US Ambassador with a whole team… They were very well prepared for this meeting. […] They were expecting from me a more flexible position, but I wasn’t flexible,” remembers Korodi .
We tried to contact Richard Lugar through his press office, but we didn’t get a response.
Better Times for Monsanto
Monsanto has known better times in Romania. Just before the ex-communist country joined the European Union, Romania had become one of the largest growers of GMO soybeans in Europe. In 2006, the number of hectares seeded with GMO soybeans was around 137,300 (72% of the total soybeans crop), almost double compared to the year before, according to the numbers provided by the Romanian Ministry of Agriculture (MADR) .
In Washington, Romania’s biotech past is considered a success.
“Romania is interesting, because it’s an agricultural country. And it has, in some ways, more similarities to the United States than some other parts of Europe: it’s more accepting of new technologies and it’s unique because it has real experience with the success of biotechnology. And it’s something that few other European countries have. I think there’s an opportunity for Romania to actually be a leader within Europe, to explain that there are indeed benefits to farmers”, says a US State Department official who agreed to talk under the condition of anonymity.
During the boom of genetically modified plants in Romania, American officials were already expressing concern about Romania preparing to become a member of EU and adapting the Union’s anti-biotechnology policies.
“Romania’s role as a biotech promoter is clearly in jeopardy”, wrote Cristina Cionga, at that time senior agricultural specialist for USDA/Foreign Agricultural Service at the US Embassy in Bucharest in 2005, in an annual report of the Service.
Cionga, a Romanian employee of the Embassy, previously was the secretary general of the Romanian Ministry of Agriculture for more than a year.
In 2007, she became the corporate affairs manager of Monsanto Romania and in 2012 she became government and public affairs manager for Eastern Europe for DuPont Pioneer, another biotechnology company.
Romanian authorities in 2005-2007 wanted to avoid negotiations with EU on biotechnology and tried to ask for an exemption from the EU policy on this particular issue so Romanian farmers would be allowed to use biotech soybeans even after the accession.
“The Romanian government didn’t negotiate on genetically engineered soybeans and planned to become an EU member with an exemption on that”, says Gabriel Paun, leader of a pro-environmental agency called Agent Green.
The Romanian Minister of Agriculture was determined to keep GMOs on the fields and was even willing to risk Romania’s future inside the European Union.
“In 2005, there were chances that Romania would be left outside the Union because of its strong position in favor of biotechnology: they wanted to keep GMOs with almost any cost,” said one source.
In those key moments for Monsanto’s future in Romania, US politicians came to Bucharest to talk with local decision-makers about the future of biotech agriculture in the region.
In February 2005, a delegation of nine Congressmen met the Romanian minister of Agriculture at that time, Gheorghe Flutur, his advisers and the Romanian Ambassador to the US, Sorin Ducaru. The American delegation included eight Congressmen who received a total of $536,350 in campaign donations from PACs promoting GMOs, between 2004 and 2012.
Among them were Bob Goodlatte (R – Virginia), Robin Hayes (R – North Carolina), Rick Boucher (D – Virginia), Bob Etheridge (D – North Carolina), Mike McIntyre (D – North Carolina), Gil Gutknechts (R – Minnesota), Lamar Smith (R – Texas) and Stephanie Herseth (D – South Dakota).
The official purpose of their visit is not clearly stated in a Romanian government press release. It only says that the Congressmen were expressing the interest of American authorities for the role that Romania can play as promoter of “topics such as free commerce” and that “Romania is an interesting country for American investments”.
The Romanian minister Flutur informed his American guests about the EU accession and about the measures his agency was about to take, a Romanian Government press release said. But a Romanian newspaper reported that Rep. Goodlatte, on the other hand, expressed his hope that Romania will continue to convince European authorities to grow GMOs after 2007.
Goodlatte’s connection to Monsanto is spelled out in a Wikileaks cable made public in 2011. The cable says Goodlatte led a delegation to Argentina in December 2006, to talk with local authorities about a commercial dispute with Monsanto .
“Goodlatte raised the Monsanto biotech soybean royalties collection issue, noting that U.S. economic strength was tied to the capacity of companies like Monsanto to innovate, and that, by helping increase soy production in Argentina, Monsanto had contributed significantly to Argentina’s economic growth and prosperity”, says a document sent to Washington by the US Embassy in Argentina.
A few days later, Goodlatte and his delegation went to Brazil, to meet with Monsanto officials and Brazilian authorities.
We called and e-mailed Goodlatte’s press office but we didn’t get a response to requests for an interview.
A State Department official “advocated” for the benefits of agricultural biotechnology
Seven months after Lugar’s visit, the Department of State Senior Advisor for Biotechnology Jack Bobo came to Bucharest.
According to a cable sent to the U.S. State Department by the American Embassy in Bucharest in March 2009 and released by Wikileaks, the purpose of Mr. Bobo’s visit was “to meet with new Romanian government officials to advocate for the benefits of agricultural biotechnology.” The visit, the cable says, “was supported by biotech outreach funds from the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.”
Bobo also met representatives of Monsanto and Syngenta, a major agricultural business active in the Romanian seed market for over ten years and active in biotechnology in countries where GMOs are allowed.
Bobo urged pro-GMO member states to organize into a group, to “defend” themselves from French pressures. At that time, biotech supporters were worried about the impact of a safeguard clause initiated by the French government, freezing the cultivation of MON810, a type of maize accepted at the EU level.
The industry representatives also intended “to educate Romanian authorities about crop co-existence isolation distances [the term refers to the area separating GM and non-GM fields, to assure that the biotech pollen won’t affect the organic crops], since each state can establish its own isolation distances for biotech crops,” states the same cable sent by the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest in April 2009.
Biotech industry: major contributions to U.S. campaigns
According to opensecrets.org, the website of The Center for Responsive Politics that tracks the influence of money on U.S. politics, Monsanto’s political action committee (PAC), Monsanto Co., contributed a total of $385,000 to the campaigns of 88 Congressmen and Senators in 2012. PACs interested in promoting GMOs contributed a total $4,374,922 in the same electoral cycle, according to MapLight.org. Of that almost $4.8 million, US Representative for North Carolina Mike McIntyre received $37,000, Bob Goodlatte – $25,500, and Richard Lugar – $14,500.
CropLife America – an organization that represents “companies that develop, manufacture, formulate and distribute crop protection chemicals and plant science solutions for agriculture and pest management in the US” , including Monsanto – donated a total $16,000 to Bob Etheridge’s (D – North Carolina) campaigns between 2002 and 2010 . In 2012, CropLife America had total contributions of $179,500 to federal candidates.
There’s nothing immoral about that, says Michael Phillips, a well-known adviser to governments, industry, and non-governmental organizations on biotechnology issues.
“That goes on in all political campaigns in the United States. And companies usually donate to both major political parties – the Republican Party and the Democrat Party. It’s no different than the auto industry, the manufacturing industry, the telecommunication industry. That’s the way our political campaigns operate”
Agricultural companies spend large amounts of money lobbying for or against legislation and regulation in Washington. In 2012, Monsanto was the company that spent the largest amounts of money on lobbying federal institutions and agencies – including the US Congress, the Senate, the Department of State and USDA – on behalf of agricultural services and products: $5,970,000, according to opensecrets.org. Biotechnology Industry Organization spent $7,540,000 on lobbying in 2012 alone.
For the same year, CropLife spent another $2,480,506. Monsanto representatives in Romania say that the company “participates in the U.S. political process similar to many businesses, labor unions, trade groups, or issue organizations, in part through a political action committee (PAC).”
“Monsanto’s PAC, the Monsanto Citizenship Fund (MCF), is legally authorized to participate in the political process at the federal and state levels. The MCF’s participation in the political process includes contributions to political candidates, regardless of party, in a manner that is compliant with all applicable laws and reporting requirements. The MCF’s contributions are completely funded through voluntary contributions made by eligible Monsanto employees,” said Mihaela Vasile, Public Affairs Specialist for Monsanto Romania, in an email interview.
But Bill Lambrecht, journalist and author of the book “Dinner at the New Gene Café: How Genetic Engineering Is Changing What We Eat, How We Live, and the Global Politics of Food“, argues that the system is wrong and favors immoral links between politicians and corporations.
“Our system of campaign contributions has a lot to say about Congressional policies. In my view, one of the biggest problems we have in this country is the way we finance campaigns, and that has only gotten worse. Two years ago, the Supreme Court allowed practically unlimited corporate donations and what we call «dark money», for which we don’t even know the source. If you give this money in campaigns, you’ll receive something in return,” Lambrecht said.
“Monsanto’s influence on American politicians is huge and has to do with more than campaign donations,” says Will Allen, a pro-organic farmer in Vermont. “Several USDA and FDA (Food and Drug Administration) employees are former Monsanto employees. (…) They’re switching around in these positions and they’re always taking a strong position for the company,” said Allen .
Three such officials are:
• Michael Taylor who first worked for the US FDA between 1976 and 1981 as a staff lawyer, and again in 1991-1994 as a Deputy Commissioner for Policy. He left for the position of administrator of the Food Safety & Inspection Service (1994-1996) (a federal agency) and then became a Vice President for Public Policy of Monsanto (1996-2000). After a few years in academia, he returned to the FDA, where he’s now Deputy Commissioner for Foods.
• Margaret Miller, currently Designated Federal Officer at the National Center for Toxicological Research (FDA) and former Deputy Director for Human Food Safety and Consultative Services in the Office of New Animal Drug Evaluation at the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the FDA, worked as a researcher for Monsanto between 1985 and 1989.
• Dr. Luther Val Giddings is a former Vice President for Food and Agriculture of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), which includes major players such as Monsanto and DuPont. Before that, Giddings worked for eight years for the Biotechnology Products Regulatory Division of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Luther Val Giddings is now president of the biotechnology consulting firm Prometheus AB.
In October 1994, the General Accounting Office (GAO) examined a possible conflict of interest regarding Michael Taylor, Margaret Miller and Suzanne Sechen (another FDA employee, author of a research project for Monsanto), in the approval of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a genetically engineered drug produced by the Monsanto, in 1993. “(…) We conclude that there were no conflicting financial interests”, concluded the report.
US State Department helps to spread biotechnology
Another way American authorities –over the last decade—have helped the biotech industry in Romania and especially Monsanto, its most important local player, is through financing scientific conferences attended by high-ranking local politicians.
According to Wikileaks cables, these events were financed from Biotech Outreach funds, which aim to promote acceptance of GMOs in some countries. The funds were administered by the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs within the US State Department. In late 2008, then Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice informed US embassies in 22 “key countries,” including Romania, that they could use this fund to invite specialists to speak about the benefits of biotechnology to local politicians and scientists.
The US government also has promoted biotechnology by inviting Romanian politicians and specialists in various fields to the US, through the International Visitors Leadership Program. According to the program’s website, participants are nominated and selected annually by the staff at U.S. Embassies around the world.
The names of the Romanian participants in this program are kept secret by the Office of International Visitors within the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (Department of State).
“We cannot release the names of IVLP participants to the public without the participants’ consent, so we cannot provide a list of participants,” said the representative of the Office, in answer to our request.
According to the Office of International Visitors, between 20 and 30 Romanians participate in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) each year.
“The cost per participant varies based on cities visited and the season, but a typical IVLP costs around $9,000 per participant coming from Romania and other countries in the region. The price includes airfare, hotel, transportation, meals and minor incidentals during a program, which is typically three weeks,” said Nathan Arnold, communication officer at the Office.
Similar programs are coordinated by The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a USDA agency. Asked to provide the number of Romanian participants in their programs, its representatives said that they’re “unable to disclose this type of information” and suggested we “contact the Romanian government.”
Sources in the Romanian agricultural business indicate that most of the Romanian politicians and agricultural experts with decision-making power participated in what’s called the Cochran Fellowship. It’s a USDA program that “provides participants from middle-income countries, emerging markets and emerging democracies with high-quality training to improve their local agricultural systems and strengthen and enhance trade links with the United States.”
The program is frequently mentioned in Wikileaks cables as a way of promoting biotechnology (Mozambique, Ukraine , Honduras ). The Cochran Program trained 145 Fellows from 1995-2007 in Romania, says Lev Kuchevski, International Training Specialist – Cochran Fellowship Program for Eastern Europe & Eurasia Region (USDA/Foreign Agricultural Service).
In 2004, through a program funded by the USDA, a team of Romanian officials from the Ministry of Waters and Environment (the biotech local authority in this field), the Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Rural Development, the National Authority for Consumer Protection and the Biosafety Commission, all with roles in regulating biotech products, traveled to Spain “to first-hand witness how biotech crops are regulated and monitored”.
In 2011, the US Embassy in Bucharest organized a three-day program, meant to “increase the knowledge about agricultural biotechnology” and teach the audience “about the benefits brought by agricultural biotechnology to farmers – net economic benefits – and environment (…).”
The visit was mentioned in a Global Agricultural Information Network report sent in June 2012 by the Agricultural Specialist of the US Embassy in Bucharest to USDA / Foreign Agricultural Service.
“In October 2011, AgBucharest in cooperation with the Economic Section of the Embassy organized a series of events meant to increase the knowledge about agricultural biotechnology and facilitate the information exchange. The guest-speaker was the biotech expert Michael Phillips.
“The round-tables […] were a great opportunity for the audience to learn about the benefits brought by agricultural biotechnology to farmers – net economic benefits – and environment – greenhouse gas emissions and pesticide application,” said the document.
Members of the Romanian Parliament (including future Minister Stelian Fuia) and members of the Agriculture Academy participated in the event. The guest-speaker, Michael Phillips, is the former Vice-President for Food and Agriculture, Science and Regulatory Policy of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a group representing large biotech companies, including Monsanto.
Remembering his visit in Romania, Phillips said in a phone interview that the country’s pre-EU experience served as “a great example” of using biotechnology.
“There is not one documented case of any health or environmental concern through the use of biotechnology. So for government officials to state that concern over the health and safety of biotechnology is the reason for not allowing farmers to use the technology, is just not being honest with the consumers in Romania,” Phillips said.
The recent announcement that Monsanto intends to invest $50 million in the production units of corn and canola seeds until 2014 shows that Romania remains important for Monsanto and other players in the industry. The company is waiting for the next move in Brussels.
It’s important for Monsanto to move fast, as protests against biotechnology are spreading all over Europe. On May 25, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, a few hundred people gathered in Bucharest and Cluj to ask Romanian authorities to impose a total ban of GMO products. The protest was part of a global movement called “Occupy Monsanto”.
The protesters carried banners painted with biohazard signs, skulls or messages like “Monsanto is poisoning our food” and claimed complicity between the American company and the local authorities. Monsanto’s future in Romania depends not only on the local and European authorities, but also on how many people will listen to such messages.
Why the U.S. officials are embracing, and the EU officials are reluctant when it comes to biotechnology
At this moment, the US has a very different approach towards GMOs than European countries.
“In the US, we have a risk-benefit analysis, that is mainly economic. Using these analyses, we say: «Well, if it kills one person in a million, then it’s tolerable, because the economic benefits are greater than the loss of a life». (…) Europeans have a precautionary system: they take a precaution because they’re not sure it is dangerous,” says Will Allen, a pro-organic farmer who is opposed to the use of genetically modified seeds.
The large percentage of American farmers that embrace biotechnology seems to be a strong argument for The US State Department’s position on this issue: “It’s pretty clear that farmers love the technology. And the adoption rate in US, Brazil and China showed that pretty much every time you have access to the technology, you end up with a 60-70-80-90% adoption rate. And that’s pretty amazing, compared to other technologies,” a US State Department official said in an interview.
Based on its experience using biotechnology, Romania represented a functional model that could convince the EU authorities to change their attitude on GMOs. In 2005, Thomas Delare, at that time charges d’affairs at the US Embassy in Bucharest, wrote in a cable to the Department of State: “By increasing efforts in Romania now, the US will have a strong European ally with common interests and shared beliefs to combat the EU’s anti-GMO position in the years ahead.”
Currently, EU legislation prohibits the growth of GMOs in its 27 member countries, with two exceptions approved by the Union’s control institution, European Food Safety Authority (EFSA): one type of corn and one type of potato. But EU member states have to rely on massive GMO soybean imports for animal feed because they don’t have the capacity to produce competitive organic crops. According to the European Commission, the member states imported 11.9 million tons of soybean and 21.2 million tons of soymeal in 2011 and 2012.
In July 2010, the European Commission proposed a new set of rules that would give Member States full responsibility for cultivation in their territories. For Monsanto, such a decision would be crucial and highly lucrative. The decision is pending, as member states have very different views on biotechnology.
Phillips believes European consumers should be allowed to decide what they want to eat.
“I think [the general attitude on biotechnology] is slowly changing in Europe, but the emphasis is on «slowly». (…) I think that, as time goes by, many of the arguments that European officials have used for not using the technology are proving to be false, particularly with regards to health and safety. That’s because they can’t point to one documented incident anywhere in the world, after almost 20 years of using the technology”.
The only argument that European authorities still have, says Phillips, is that consumers say they don’t want it: “Well, that’s fine, but let’s put it out there in the market place and let consumers decide, give them a choice.”
“After South America was conquered, Europe is one of the last «resistance movements» Monsanto has to defeat”, said Brian Tokar, from the Institute for Social Ecology, a pro-environment organization based in Vermont.
The Romanian Ministry of Agriculture didn’t ask for tests on soybeans
The productivity of soybean farmers in Romania is leading some to question whether Romanian authorities are ignoring the illegal use of genetically modified seeds.
In 2007, the first year after the European ban came into force, the inspections coordinated by the Romanian Ministry of Agriculture discovered 27 illegal growers on 407.93 hectares.
In the years since then, the Romanian authorities have not shown much interest in finding illegal crops. According to Valeria Gagiu, scientific researcher and Head of Microbiology – ELISA Department at The National Institute for Research & Development of Food Bio-resources – IBA Bucharest (Institutul National de Cercetare – Dezvoltare pentru Bioresurse Alimentare), The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MADR) didn’t ask for any new tests for GMO soybeans and maize in 2011 and 2012. The equipment necessary to detect GMOs was acquired between 2004 and 2006, for around $70,000.
Statistics on soybean productivity published by MADR don’t seem consistent with figures projected by scientists.
One of the most touted benefits of GMO soybeans is productivity, higher than that of conventional soybeans. But Romanian statistics look significantly different. In 2006, when local farmers were using GMO soya on a large scale, the productivity was about 1820 kilos per hectare. In 2011, five years after the ban came into force, the productivity level rose to 2135 kilos per hectare.
It would be impossible to obtain better crops with conventional seeds, said Graham Brookes, biotech expert and the author of a study entitled “The farm level impact of using Roundup Ready soybeans in Romania”.
“By 2006, the last year, the yield difference between conventional and biotech soybeans was probably more like 15 percent yield improvement. Monsanto did a survey of growers in 2006 and that was the average yield difference that they found. So there is no way the Ministry of Agriculture can say that soybean yields on conventional are higher than GMO, unless they’re growing a GMO crop to draw the comparison”, said Brookes.
Romanian farmers also confirm the higher level of productivity for biotech soybeans.“ The biological potential of conventional soybeans is lower”, explains Petre Grigore, a soybean farmer in southeastern Romania.
Before the ban came into force, Grigore managed a company that used GM soy on 3000 hectares of land. In a phone interview, Laurentiu Baciu, president of the Romanian League of Agricultural Producers Associations (LAPAR), says that the productivity levels for genetically modified soy is double than for conventional one, in normal climate and soil conditions.
Remembering the higher productivity levels of the past, the main Romanian farmers organizations are insisting on the reintroduction of GMO soy. But they don’t appear to acknowledge problems observed by American farmers and scientists—that some years they will need a larger amount of herbicides for their crops which will add to their costs.
Susana Goggi, associate professor at the Seed Science Center (Iowa State University), wrote several scientific papers about the quality of soybean. In a phone interview, she mentioned that, in recent years, American farmers reported that GMO seeds developed resistance to herbicides and therefore higher quantities are required to kill unwanted plants.
Some Romanian officials had moments of “rebellion” in terms of attitudes towards GMOs. In 2008, after France banned the only corn GMO crop allowed at EU level, MON 810, the Romanian minister of Environment at that time, Attila Korodi, wanted Romania to do the same.
In order to obtain the ban, Korodi decided to change the composition of Romania’s Biosafety Commission (CSB). The new director of CSB, Gheorghe Mencinicopschi, was largely known as a fierce opponent of GMOs.
But in July, Mencinicopschi did not attend the meeting where the future of MON 810 was discussed.
According to Korodi, the reason for Mencinicopschi’s absence was his “very close connection” with Dan Voiculescu, an influential Romanian politician and businessman. Voiculescu’s company, Grivco SA, used GMO seeds before the ban, according to a report released by Greenpeace in May 2006. Korodi stated that he did not know about Mencinicopschi’s connection to Voiculescu at that time.
We contacted Mencinicopschi, but after he found out the subject we wanted to talk about, he said that he was busy at the moment and asked us to call him latter. He didn’t answer the phone when we called over the next few days.
The new Biosafety Commission, which included Elena Badea, a scientist who said that she worked for Monsanto in the past, decided that MON 810 doesn’t involve a substantial risk for the public health therefore Romania could continue using it.
The Biosafety Commission in Bucharest approves “the maintenance in the environment for growing, of the maize MON 810 in Romania, as the risk for the environment (…) is insignificant”, according to a notification document sent to Minister Korodi in July 2008.
The composition of the Commission is being criticized by one of its former deputy members. Aurel Maxim, professor at the University of Agriculture in Cluj. He says the level of expertise of its members is very limited.
“It has the most favorable composition to promote GMOs. (…) I remember the interview in 2008, when I entered CSB, that the members of the Commission didn’t know too much about this issue. For such questions and their arguments, a student of mine wouldn’t pass the exam,” Maxim said.
“In Romania we haven’t had any studies on the risks of GMOs. The producing company and the researchers paid by the company benefit from a 100 percent level of trust”, explains Maxim.
On the other hand, Elena Marcela Badea, two-time president of the Commission, says that the decision to keep GMO corn was based only on scientific proof. She accuses Korodi of trying to manipulate the Commission, in order to obtain a favorable decision:
“He [Korodi] anticipated a decision against GMOs. That was a blunder: not knowing the rules. He violated the procedure and the result was different from the one he expected”. Badea is a member of Black Sea Biotechnology Association, an organization that promotes Biotech agriculture in the region.
In June 2009, Monsanto representatives Cristina Cionga (at that time director for corporate affairs), Gabriel Băeșu (sales director) and Pioneer representative Mate Jozsef (director Government Affairs) were invited to a meeting of the Commission for agriculture, forestry and food industry of the lower house of Romanian Parliament. Three of the future ministers of agriculture participated at that meeting: Valeriu Tabără (September 2010 – February 2012), Stelian Fuia (February 2012 – May 2012) and Daniel Constantin (May 2012-present). During the meeting, a member of the Commission, Culiță Tărâță, asked for a “serious and responsible analysis regarding genetically modified organisms and revising decisions by which they were banned in Romania”.
In 2010, The European Commission issued a proposal that would allow its 27 state members more freedom in choosing whether or not to use GMOs in their agriculture. To take effect, all governments and the European Parliament would have to approve it.
In November 2010, immediately after the prospects for using genetically modified seeds improved, the number of contacts between the Romanian agriculture officials and industry representatives started to increase again. Remi Bastien, director for Central and Eastern Europe, Monsanto Co., came to Bucharest for a meeting with the Romanian minister of Agriculture at that time, a strong GMO supporter.
According to a press release issued by MADR, the discussion was focused on the stage of a request sent in October 2005 by Monsanto to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), to allow EU countries to grow GMO soybeans tolerant to Roundup Ready.
Last year, the vice-president of the Romanian Academy of Agricultural and Forestry Sciences, Gheorghe Sin, signed a document entitled “The Academic position on genetically modified plants”, where he pleaded for their reintroduction in Romanian agriculture. Shortly after that, the paper was published on www.madr.ro, the website of the Romanian Ministry of Agriculture (MADR).
Bill Frothingham and Sarah Capungan, both interns at NECIR, also contributed to this report.
Political Contribution Graphs