The article below was first published in 'Biotechnology and Development Monitor", Issue Nos. 44-45, March 2001 and is reproduced here for educational purposes only.
The biotech war: Bulgaria torn between North American seed producers and EU consumers
Bulgaria is caught in a war between North American corporate seed producers like Monsanto and Pioneer Hi Bred who target farmers with their genetically modified maize seeds, and corporate food processors and commodity traders who want to buy GM-free products for markets within the European Union (EU). This article examines how this situation arose and what it implies for Bulgaria's agricultural economy and EU membership.
Bulgaria, with a population of some 8.5 million is situated on the Balkan peninsular in Southeast Europe. Agriculture plays an important role in its economy. Corn, vines and fruit trees are grown on the black soils of the north while farmers in the more mountainous regions cultivate potatoes, tobacco and flax. On the Danube plain the most important crops are corn, sunflowers, sugar beet and grapes. Tobacco, maize and wine are Bulgaria's main exports.
Under the late, authoritarian, communist regime, agriculture was managed on State collective farms. When communism collapsed in the early 1990s, collectives were privatised and the land returned to its original owners. These far-reaching structural changes coincided with economic recession. The percentage of the population employed in the agricultural sector fell from 13.5 per cent in 1990 to 8.1 per cent in 1998. At the same time there was a 40 per cent decline in cereal and livestock production.
In the transition from an authoritarian and centralist regime to a more open and liberal economy in Bulgaria, democratic processes that ensure access to information and encourage public awareness have sometimes been neglected. This is reflected in the absence of any public debate on the role of GM crops in Bulgaria. The lack of any clear institutional structure for regulating and implementing measures to control transgenic plant material, and ensure that information on genetically modified crops reaches the government and the public at large is highlighted in this article as a major and potentially disastrous problem.
In Bulgaria, it is difficult to get information about the cultivation of GM plants from official sources. However, without information on the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), it becomes impossible for manufacturers and consumers to assess the quality of Bulgarian products and all crops becomes suspect. The contradictions and lack of clarity in Bulgaria's policy towards GM crops and transnational companies selling transgenic seed is threatening Bulgaria's position in the European market.
First releases of GMOs
Bulgaria has a history of tinkering with genetic engineering. In 1991, transgenic tobacco plants were the first GMOs to be released in open field trials in the Balkan region. Four years later, extensive field trials of virus- and bacteria-resistant tobacco were being run at the Institute of Genetic Engineering (IGE) in Kostinbrod. In 1997, Professor Atanas Atanssov, the chief proponent of transgenic agriculture in Bulgaria and head of the IGE announced to the press that Bulgaria wanted to commercialise GM tobacco by 1998. Bulgarian scientists were making progress in introducing new traits into tobacco, such as resistance to mosaic virus, fungal and bacterial diseases, extremes of temperature and tolerance to herbicides and heavy metals.
Reuters reported this planned commercialisation and the news quickly reached Bulgaria's major tobacco buyers - Phillip Morris, British-American Tobacco and Reemtsma. According to Dr Elena Apostalova of the Tobacco and Tobacco Product Institute, these companies reacted swiftly by making it clear that if Bulgaria went ahead with its GM plans they would stop buying its tobacco altogether.
Commercial cultivation of GM maize
The issue of GM herbicide tolerant and pest resistant maize shows that little had been learned from the crises that followed the announcement about commercialising GM tobacco. In Bulgaria there seems to be a lack of sensitivity and an inability to react at an effective political level to the changing requirements of a European market that is increasingly critical of transgenic crops.
The case of GM maize and the confusion surrounding field trials, farmers' participation, and the subsequent disposal of the harvested maize demonstrates this problem clearly. In 1999, Bulgarian farmers harvested their first crop of GM herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant maize. Farmers had bought seed from local distributors and planted at least 12,000 hectares with Monsanto's GM maize. Marketing campaigns by Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred included attractive catalogues, meetings and, according to one of the workers at the Panacea seed company, discos in many of the villages in Bulgaria's corn-growing belt. Pioneer's 1999 seed catalogue, available from seed distributors, introduced Bulgarian farmers to GM maize hybrids and reported the satisfactory yields achieved on a farm in Dobrich. There was no suggestion in the catalogue that these seeds were intended for trial purposes only, as was claimed later, or that farmers should ensure that once the crop was harvested it should be kept away from the animal and human food chains.
Pioneer’s 2000 seed catalogue offered farmers a number of varieties of GM maize, varieties that have yet to be approved by the EU.
* Clearfield: tolerant to Imidazolinon-based herbicides, whose trade names are 'Pivot' and 'Escort';
* Liberty Link maize: tolerant to the glufosinate-based herbicide Liberty manufactured by Aventis (France).
* Maisgard: Bacillus thringiensis (Bt) corn that is resistant to corn borer. A note in the catalogue warns farmers to provide 'refuges' or areas of the field that contains non-Bt plants in order to delay the time it takes for insects to develop resistance to the widespread use of Bt. In Bt plants each plant cell continuously produces Bt toxin.
Pioneer's catalogue goes on to suggest that farmers should attend seminars to learn more about this procedure;
* Combined Maisgard and Liberty-Link maize seed that carried the warning that herbicide resistance may not always be evident.
Seed offers for the sowing season 2000 from another seed distributor revealed that Monsanto's Roundup Ready (RR) maize seed was also on sale to farmers. They cost US$ 907 for five packs of seed. Each pack contained 80,000 to 100,000 seeds together with 30 litres of Roundup. No restrictions were put on the amount of seed farmers could buy and sow and there is little evidence of any official supervision of the areas sown with GM maize. Little is known about how this maize was subsequently used. The only records likely to be available on where the GM seed was planted are probably with the transnational seed companies themselves because seed distributors keep records of who buys GM seeds and the quantities bought. Otherwise information is scattered and incidental and what does emerge creates an alarming picture.
The Council for Safe Use of Genetically Modified Higher Plants is responsible for issuing permits for the environmental release of GMOs both for research and commercial purposes.
The Council was established on the basis of regulations formulated in 1996 and given the task of controlling the deliberate release into the environment of genetically engineered higher plants obtained by recombinant DNA technology. The 1996 Regulation was based on an earlier law introduced in 1958 dealing with seeds and seed material. Parliament was not involved in formulating the Council's mandate or in drawing up the 1996 Regulation. The Council's chairman is the Minister of Agriculture, its executive secretary is Professor Atanassov of the Institute of Genetic Engineering, and its members are government officials and scientists.
The case of GM maize
Official information shows that since 1998, three companies - Monsanto, Pioneer Hi Bred and Novartis (Switzerland) - have applied to the Council for permits to commercialise transgenic crops that are either herbicide tolerant to Roundup or Basta (Aventis), resistant to corn borers or have combined herbicide and corn borer resistance.
Early in 2000, Professor Atanassov was quoted in the press as saying that, in 1999, Monsanto had signed contracts with Bulgarian farmers to sow 12,000 hectares of GM herbicide tolerant and insect resistant maize. He reported that these plantings were just field trials and that the Council would meet in March 2000 to decide whether or not to permit the commercialisation of GM maize.
By the time the Council met in March 2000, ANPED (The Northern Alliance for Sustainability), an NGO network working with the Bulgarian NGO EcoSouthWest, had begun investigating how far GMOs had been commercialised. This was not an easy task. Council members are required to sign a statement of confidentiality and efforts to meet with them proved largely unsuccessful. In addition, although the Council maintains a register of the GMOs released for research and commercial purposes, this information is classified and not available to the public.
NGO activity and growing concern about GMOs in general did seem to have some effect, however. At the beginning of April 2000, the weekly periodical Capital reported that the Council had refused to allow the commercial cultivation of GM maize although it had agreed to increase the area under GM maize to 20,000 hectares, presumably in field trials.
The Council's position is weak and ambiguous as we shall see below and its lack of executive powers means it is impossible for it to ensure that its decisions are implemented. As Atanas Kaimakchiev, a representative of the Ministry of the Environment on the Council admitted there is simply not enough control. The fact that GM maize seed had been freely available from seed distributors since March 2000 and never been recalled would seem to confirm his point.
It is not only difficult to find out what GM maize was grown and where, it is also difficult to discover what happened to the crop after it was harvested. Atanassov was amongst those who claimed that the GM maize cultivated in 1999 and 2000 was grown in field trials only and that the harvest was segregated and destroyed. Other Council members claim that Monsanto and Pioneer bought back the GM harvest from farmers. In an interview, Mityu Mitev, a farmer from Bogatevo near Sevlievo, who had grown GM maize explained that a third of his crop had gone to the seed distributor who had originally sold him the GM seed, a third had been used to feed his animals and he had sold the rest as animal feed to people outside his collective.
Challenging the Council's status
In 2000, EcoSouthWest together with two other Bulgarian environmental groups filed papers challenging the Council's legal position and the status of the 1996 Regulation on which it had been established. This challenge followed the publication of a joint ANPED-EcoSouthWest report, "Bulgaria: The Corporate European Playground for Genetically Engineered Food and Agriculture", which finally triggered a public debate on the issue of GM crops (www.anped.org).
The NGOs argued that the status of the Council on the Safe Use of Genetically Modified Higher Plants was poorly defined in Bulgarian law and that this created a dangerous vacuum as far as responsibility for decision-making on GM plant material was concerned. On the one hand, the Council appeared to be a separate authority whose responsibilities include issuing permits. However, it was not listed as a separate agency within the government and therefore no one in government was directly responsible for controlling its activities. If the Council was asked for information it could refuse to provide it on the grounds that it was not explicitly a State institution and was not on the list of Ministries obliged to provide information to the public. As the attorney Alexander Kodjabashev pointed out, direct appeals for information on the release of GM material or the fate of GM harvests to the Minister of Agriculture were unlikely to be effective because officially he neither holds this information or issues permits.
With the need for a more effective, democratic and transparent process of decision making and enforcement in mind, the NGOs argued that, the 1996 Regulation under which the Council had been established, was based on the Seed and Seed Material Act of 1958 and that this law did not provide for:
* granting permits for the release of GM higher plants;
* creating the Council for the Safe Use of GM Higher Plants
* the Minister of the Agriculture to issue a regulation enabling the creation of an authority to grant permits for the release of GM higher plants.
In the 1950s, Stalin had banned the study of genetics throughout the Soviet block. When the Seed Act was introduced in 1958, geneticists were still considered "enemies of the communist regime" and were often interned in psychiatric clinics. In fact, the NGOs argued, the 1996 Regulation enabling the introduction of GM plants was far from being in the spirit of the original Seed Act. They gave additional weight to their argument by demonstrating that the 1996 regulation also contravened the Law on Normative Acts (1995) which required that in implementing an act the whole act had to be implemented not just selected parts of it.
In February 2001, the Supreme Administrative Court issued a decision against the NGO appeal. The court argued that it was sufficient for the Minister of Agriculture to authorise the creation of a regulation even though the Seed Act did not mention GMOs as one of the elements regulated by this law. The court also declared that the Law on Seeds and Seed Material currently being drafted referred to the 1996 Regulation and that this in effect confirmed the Regulation's legal status. The NGOs had also challenged the Council's right to call itself an administrative authority under the terms of the new administrative act. The Court failed to comment on this, an omission that many see as effectively weakening its ruling.
Who foots the bill?
The tacit acceptance of the cultivation of GM crops by the Bulgarian Government and its administration is likely to have severe economic repercussions that will not only affect Bulgaria's farmers, but its animal feed producers, the animal husbandry industry, the starch and food processing food industries, as well as grain traders and those specialising in the export of Bulgarian food and animals.
If Bulgaria intends to continue on the path towards GM agriculture, but wants to meet the demands of the EU market where identity preservation is required; the following measures need to be taken at each stage in the production chain:
* Additional investment in farm and grain storage capacity to enable segregation of crops after harvest and during storage to ensure no cross-contamination of GM and non-GM produce. This would need to be enforced and controlled by an authority with sufficient credibility to satisfy buyers of GM-free crops, especially those exporting to the EU.
* Additional investment in laboratory infrastructure to enable testing and certification of GM-free crops. To be able to guarantee GM-free raw material all those involved in the production chain - farmers, food processors, and exporters- will need to certify their products as GM-free. Additional investment in labelling: EU legislation requires that all products containing GM material are labelled
Who is going to bear the additional costs of GM agriculture? If farmers, food processors and exporters pass on these costs to the consumer, the higher price of GM food is likely to lead to consumer discrimination against GM. The companies may consider absorbing the additional costs of testing and labelling and accept lower profit margins. However, for those Bulgarian farmers who are already struggling to survive, this could well spell bankruptcy. The transnationals could simply ignore all the requirements for labelling and testing and risk losing the EU market. This would be the least transparent alternative and one that would seriously hamper Bulgaria's efforts to join the EU.
In the long term, Bulgarian NGOs also worry that the commercialisation of GM crops will have a severe impact on biodiversity and human health. More immediately, the cultivation of GM maize in Bulgaria, the lack of segregation of GM maize from non-GM and thus the absence for any procedure for tracing the GM product threatens to destroy Bulgaria's export market for maize derivatives and fodder.
Already the chances are high that Bulgarian consumers will find GMOs in their food. Most of the GM maize harvested in 1999 and 2000 was not segregated from conventional maize, and was probably used for animal feed and has entered the human food chain via meat and dairy products. Bulgaria's customers, particularly EU-based food-processing companies such as the Belgian starch company Amylum and grain handlers like Glencore (UK) want to buy Bulgarian maize and maize derivatives but have already implemented purchasing policies that require GM certification and labelling. At present Bulgaria cannot guarantee the status of its maize and therefore risks losing essential international markets.
Bulgaria has become a pawn in the corporate biotech war, caught between the corporate seed producers, like Monsanto and Pioneer, and the corporate food processors and commodity traders who want to buy GM-free products for the EU market. In Bulgaria, as EcoSouthWest observes, the Ministry of Agriculture does not seem to be able to defend Bulgarian agronomic interests. The Ministry of the Environment is failing to protect biodiversity and the Ministry of Health is not protecting public health. As Kalin Anastasov, President of EcoSouthWest points out. "Unless there is some Government intervention and democratic control of this technology, all Bulgarians stand to lose - farmers, food processors, exporters and consumers".
The Bulgarian government's policy of withholding information on GMOs has led to a critical lack of information. The public and those with a critical stake in the agricultural sector remain largely unaware of what is going on. There is no legislation to ensure public access to information about GMO releases or the labelling of GM food and there are no procedures in place to enable the public to participate in decisions concerning the use of gene technology. If Bulgarian scientists and officials believe that by withholding information they can prevent EU buyers rejecting Bulgarian agricultural exports on the grounds of GMO contamination, they are mistaken. The prevailing lack of information is likely to lead to greater scepticism among grain traders, animal feed producers and the food derivatives and processed food industry who are increasingly reluctant to buy products of uncertain origin.
European Union considerations
Companies producing for the local Bulgarian market are also unable to avoid the implications of GM agriculture. Bulgaria is in the second round of EU accession countries. In line with EU harmonisation measures, companies wanting to put GM foods on the market will be required to get government approval and label their products. Another question that arises with respect to Bulgaria's EU accession is the fate of GMOs that have already been introduced into Bulgaria agriculture such as Pioneer's GM varieties of maize and Monsanto's Roundup Ready maize, but which have not been approved in the EU.
In retrospect it can be seen why Bulgaria seemed to provide an attractive environment for transnational companies wanting to promote agricultural gene technology. From research undertaken in countries, such as Poland and Hungary, it is known that transnationals companies are reluctant to undertake GM experiments in regions where there are no laws on GMOs. Countries in the first round of EU accession, such as Poland and Hungary are equally unattractive for field trials and commercial release because they are actively adjusting their regulations to harmonise with European Union GMO legislation and are not prepared to compromise their position.
Bulgaria, however, has only recently been invited to join the EU. In 1996, it became the first country in Central and Eastern Europe to establish regulations relating to the biosafety of GM higher plants. This was the cue that the transnationals had been waiting for. They now had a legal basis for starting field trials of transgenic varieties of plants - the first step to commercialisation. It was anticipated that commercialisation would follow in possibly three years.
What now for Bulgarian agriculture?
Today Bulgaria is facing the consequences of a legislative and political structure that was unable to control the first assertive intrusion of gene technology into its agriculture. In the last three years, however, the NGO campaign has had considerable success in building up public awareness about GM food and agriculture. This has had direct results at the parliamentary level. Two months after the publication of EcoSouthWest's report the head of the parliamentary Environment Committee called for a moratorium on the commercialisation of GMOs. While Parliament rejected this proposal, it nevertheless agreed to cut all government funding for GM research on tobacco and wine - Bulgaria two most important export earners. The Minister of Agriculture also announced there would be no commercial cultivation of GMOs until the new legislation on GMOs, currently being drafted, was in force.
In the summer of 2000, Bulgaria became the first country to ratify the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. In the same year Parliament responded to increasing public concern about GM food by requiring that products using GM maize and GM soybeans should be labelled.
Today, although NGOs participate officially in discussions at Parliamentary and Ministerial level on issues of GM agriculture, there is still considerable confusion over GM policy and practice. In letter from the Minister of Agriculture to the Prime Minister Ivan Kostov in January 2001 and copied to EcoSouthWest, the Minister reported that permission had been granted for the cultivation of 20,000 ha of GM maize in 2001. Given the weak regulatory structure in Bulgaria, the difficulties of accessing information on permits and subsequently tracing the final destination of GMO harvests, there is still it is clear that much still needs to be done to ensure a transparent and strict control of gene technology in Bulgaria. The lesson of the threat to boycott any Bulgaria tobacco tainted with suggests of GMOs does not seem to have penetrated. What is preventing the Bulgaria government taking a more pro-active position and responding to the current suspicion within the European Union to GM crops in a way that is in the interests of the Bulgarian agricultural sector as a whole?
Atanas Atanassov (1999) BioSafety and regulations of GMOs in Bulgaria, Institute of genetic Engineering, Kostinbrod, Proceedings for the 5th Central and Eastern European Conference for regional and international cooperation on safety in biotechnology, 12-14 December 1999, Sofia
ANPED-EcoSouthWest (2000) Bulgaria: the corporate European playground for genetically engineered food and agriculture. <?color><?param 0000,0000,DDDD>www.anped.org<?/color>
Letter dated 31 January 2001, sent by the Minister of Agriculture, Verbanov to the Bulgarian, Prime Minister, Ivan Kostov, with copy to EcoSouthWest.
ANPED (2000) European Union Enlargement and GMOs: Chasing a moving target. The implications of EU Accession for Eastern European agriculture and food policy. <?color><?param 0000,0000,DDDD>www.anped.org<?/color>