Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Romania considers banning biotech corn from Monsanto

International Herald Tribune

Romania, which has been one of the most receptive markets on a skeptical Continent for genetically modified crops, is moving toward a reversal of its stance, in what would be another setback for the beleaguered biotechnology industry in Europe.

Attila Korodi, Romania's environment minister, said he would ask a committee of experts Thursday to revaluate a gene-altered version of corn, MON810, the only modified crop that has been approved for commercial planting in the European Union.

During an interview, Korodi said not enough studies had been done to gauge the effects of the corn on ecological systems in Romania, including in the Black Sea area.

In addition, he said, banning biotech crops could increase rural prosperity by allowing farmers to take advantage of a growing global demand for organic feed and foodstuffs, which, in addition to being unaltered, are grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers.

Such products can command higher prices - although experts question whether farming practices in much of Eastern Europe are developed enough for such a specialized market.

"I think becoming an organic country is a good thing," Korodi said. "We have to analyze the true costs of growing GMOs," he added, since the technology was potentially harmful to the environment and had become widely unpopular in Romania.

An actual ban would still be some ways off and could require parliamentary support, he said.

But its consideration, coming a month after France imposed a similar ban on the corn variety, would be another obstacle for the industry in Europe, where there is widespread skepticism about biotech foods. Specifically, it would hurt the U.S. seed company Monsanto, which produces MON810.

Romania, the biggest corn grower in the 27-member EU by hectares under cultivation, represents a vast potential market for Monsanto and other biotechnology companies. MON810 is designed to combat pests and enhance yields.

"We would be very disappointed to see Romania following France even in attempting to ban such a product, which has proved its benefits to farmers in Romania," said Cristina Cionga, the manager for public and government affairs for Monsanto Romania. "Our products are completely safe for planting and consumption."

EU authorities approved MON810 for cultivation a decade ago, but since then four EU countries - Austria, Greece, Hungary and, most recently, France - have imposed bans. Poland operates restrictions on the sale and import of gene-altered seeds, and very little cultivation takes place there.

Most of these countries, including France and Hungary, which are the second- and third-biggest corn growers in Europe, justified the bans on the grounds that the crops potentially could harm soils and reduce biodiversity.

Even in countries that do not operate formal bans, there are impediments.

Italy, which grows roughly the same amount of corn as Hungary, has delegated decisions on biotech crops to its regions, many of which operate de facto bans. In Tuscany, for example, the supply of gene-altered produce is prohibited in catering for schools, hospitals, convalescent homes and in local and regional government offices.

Romania planted only about 325 hectares, or 800 acres, of MON810 in 2007 and this year is expected to plant about 10,000 hectares. That still represents just a fraction of the roughly 2 million to 3 million hectares of corn planted each year in Romania.

Even so, Korodi's strategy would mark a major change for Romania.

Over the past decade, Romania became the largest producer of gene-altered crops in Europe because of large amounts of modified soy, mostly produced by Monsanto and Pioneer, a unit of DuPont. That crop was approved for use by farmers in Romania but not in the EU, and the government had to pledge to stop growing the crop when Romania joined the bloc in 2007.

In the future, Korodi said, farmers - particularly those with small plots in mountainous areas - could prosper from selling smaller quantities of unmodified produce, as it would command higher prices on local and international markets.

"GMOs mean crops are cheaper to produce," Korodi said. "But if we look at the market price that GMO-free crops earn, and we look at the costs to biodiversity of using GMOs, then non-GMO crops are better," he said.

Early this month the Hungarian agriculture minister, Joszef Graf, said his country's seed industry earned 25 percent more by selling seeds that had not been cross-pollinated with altered crops.

But Nathalie Moll, a spokeswoman for Europabio, a group representing the biotechnology industry, said seed companies had disputed the minister's statement.

Klaus Reinsberg, a senior researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Central and Eastern Europe, said growing nonbiotech crops was often more expensive, requiring more manual labor to remove weeds and to control pests. But labor costs in Romania remain low compared to other parts of the EU, potentially giving the country a competitive advantage.

Even so, Romania would still have to prove it could grow produce to high standards for specialized markets and finicky consumers, and deliver those goods to markets on time.

"Countries like Romania and Ukraine are dreaming of producing organic products and to export them for the profits they can bring," Reinsberg said. "But organic products can have diseases and fungus." He also said that a big problem for countries like Romania was a "lack of logistics."

Despite such hurdles, environmental groups welcomed signs of a change of heart in Romania.

"It marks a seismic change," said Geert Ritsema, who campaigns against genetic engineering for Greenpeace International in Amsterdam.

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