Tuesday, September 18, 2007

ROMANIA: GM Crops Unearthed, But Not Uprooted

BUCHAREST, Sep 18 (IPS) - Greenpeace has launched a major attack against production and marketing of genetically modified cereals in Romania.

The environmental organisation announced earlier this month that it had discovered illegal plantations of genetically modified (GM) soya and corn over 110 hectares in Insula Mare a Brailei, a wide stretch of land in county Braila, 200 km east of capital Bucharest.

"Both soya and corn seeds used in Braila have been produced by U.S. company Monsanto," Gabriel Paun, coordinator for Romania of the Greenpeace anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) campaign told IPS.

Cultivation of GM soya is illegal in the European Union (EU), and starting this year in Romania as well. But cultivation of MON810, the type of genetically modified corn found in Braila, is allowed in some EU states.

Greenpeace argues that the MON810 plantation found in Braila was illegal because the company had failed to obtain proper authorisation for cultivation from Bucharest.

But representatives of Monsanto told IPS that European legislation valid in Romania since Jan. 1, 2007 -- the date when the country joined the union -- allows them to plant MON810 in the country.

Cristina Cionga, spokesperson for Monsanto, argues that European Commission (EC) Regulation 1829/2003, directly applicable in the member states, allows the U.S. company to plant the GM corn seeds in Romania as well as in the EU. However, the text of the regulation invoked refers to the placing of GM products on the European market, not to their initial introduction in an EU country.

Monsanto does have authorisation by the European Commission to commercialise MON810 under the framework of R1829.

Still, the conditions under which a GM crop can be planted in a new ecosystem are legislated by EC Directive 18/2001, not the Regulation. The directive asks GM producer companies to submit a notification to the competent national authorities before releasing the GM in a new ecosystem.

In May, the Romanian ministry of environment had declared that, to date, Monsanto had not submitted any request for authorisation of GM plantations in Romania. Corn is normally planted in April and May.

Apart from the dispute over the legality of the MON810 plantation, Greenpeace and Monsanto also disagree whether the soya plantations in Braila indeed used GM seeds.

"The commissioner for environment in Braila guaranteed that what Greenpeace found was conventional, not GM soya," Cristina Cionga told IPS. She added that representatives of Monsanto had investigated thoroughly the situation in Braila because GM soya had been planted there in the previous years and they expected that this year, with Romania a member of the EU, the area would be monitored closely.

Romanian officials have not yet intervened to clarify the dispute between Greenpeace and Monsanto. One reason is that the authorities do not have the means to run their own tests. Another is the lack of coherence between the ministries of agriculture and the environment, the former being known for its pro-GM stand and the latter having been more supportive of ecologists.

On Sep. 5, Greenpeace activists went to the exit point of Insula Mare a Brailei to check all the cars coming out of the area in order to prevent GM cereals from spreading. But Gabriel Paun said that when Greenpeace got there the plantations of GM soya and corn they had detected earlier had already been picked. "They were gathered during one night," Paun said. "Now we just have to see how far they reached."

A few days later, Greenpeace visited the headquarters of processing plant Expur Urziceni to check whether the GM cereals had already made it to the stage of processing for commercialisation. "The soya at Expur tested positive for GM. Even more, the factory does not have separate lines for GM and conventional cereals," Gabriel Paun told IPS Sep. 11, one day after the Greenpeace visit to the factory.

Whether the information provided by Greenpeace will be confirmed officially or not, the organisation has managed to draw attention to an undisputable fact: for several years, Romanians have been consuming GM cereals against their will and without being notified.

According to a study conducted by the independent group Mercury Research in June 2007, 67 percent of Romanians would not voluntarily consume genetically modified foods. Moreover, according to the Association for Consumer Protection, 98 percent of Romanians demand aliments containing GMOs to be clearly labelled.

European legislation calls for adequate labelling of products containing GMOs. But Greenpeace warns that "at the moment, Romania does not have the necessary infrastructure to ensure the traceability and labelling of GMOs."

The supermarkets operating in the country take advantage of this situation. An inquiry made by Greenpeace in June showed that, from 15 retailers operating in Romania, only four could guarantee their shelves are free of GMOs. Five others have declared that they do not use GMOs in their own branded products, while the rest either did not want to respond to the questionnaire or refused to guarantee the absence of GMOs from their shelves.

Rather than wait for clarification of legislation on GMO use, ecologists argue that such products should be banned completely, given their potential major negative impact on human health and environment.

A sign of hope in this direction was given last week by Gheorghe Albu, secretary of state for agriculture. During a press conference, he declared that his ministry might agree to a complete ban on GMOs in Romania "if the ministry of environment, as the authority in charge, also agrees to such a ban."

Activists are trying to press the Romanian authorities to completely ban production and cultivation of GMOs in the country. A first sign of hope was a recent statement by the ministry of agriculture. Officials of the ministry have expressed an opening towards the complete outlawing of GMOs "if the ministry of environment, as the competent authority in the field, is willing to do the same."

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