In the Romanian mass-media, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have not been the subject of too many headlines, leaving the vast majority of those who have no connection with agriculture to believe that the cultivated varieties would still be normal and natural, as we were used to – wheat wheat, corn corn, unmodified soybeans, without genes of bacteria, etc. Many of us were watching how in Western countries there is a consistent concern on the part of consumers about the origin and composition of consumer products, in the sense of being as natural as possible, and we thought that we would be somehow more protected from such problems, because what we find in shelves in groceries or supermarkets would come from natural sources. But the lack of cause for concern was, in reality, due to ignorance!
We will present below some surprising data regarding the culture of genetically modified organisms in our country, data that highlight both the criminal unconsciousness of some and the indifference to human health, financial interests being on the first place.
In Romania, GMOs were introduced in 1998. Even at the time when the use of genetically modified varieties in protected areas and in their immediate vicinity was strictly prohibited, transgenic maize and soya were grown in several such areas.
In 2006, Grivco (Voiculescu Industrial Group & CO) was fined 30,000 euros by the National Environmental Guard and was forced to destroy the respective fields, as a result of the cultivation of genetically modified soybeans on land located at a distance of less than 15 kilometers from the Comana Natural Park (in Giurgiu County).
In 2007, after joining the EU, Romanian entrepreneurs were forced, according to European norms, to eliminate the modified soya. The European authorities accepted as transgenic crops only mon810 maize, produced by Monsanto and potato Amflora, produced by BASF. In May 2007, the Romanian government issued an emergency ordinance (GEO no.43/ May 23, 2007) on the deliberate introduction into the environment of genetically modified organisms. It entered into force on 28 June 2007. In October 2007, the Romanian Academy hosted the symposium “Biotechnologies in Agriculture”, organized together with the Embassy of the United States of America and the Biotech association, with the aim of lobbying for the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture.
In 2008, Environment Minister Attila Korodi wanted to ban the use of MON810 maize, the cultivation of which was already no longer allowed in France. For this he set up the Biological Safety Commission (BSL), which was supposed to decide the fate of GMOs in our country. The head of this commission was appointed nutritionist Gheorghe Mencinicopschi, a person who was known at the time to promote natural nutrition, having an anti-biotechnology orientation, partly due to the harmful effects on health that the consumption of genetically modified organisms was observed to determine.
On July 25, 2008, csb held the most important meeting on MON810 maize. Quite surprisingly, Mencinicopschi was absent from that debate, more precisely he came and left immediately after it began! In his absence, the meeting was led by Elena Badea – a researcher who had worked for Monsanto and Syngenta – and the result was the approval of the maintenance of this modified maize in the crop. Mencinicopschi’s gesture also surprised the minister of environment, but later, as he said in an interview, he explained this fact through the “very close connection”, about which he did not know at that time, between Mencinicopschi and grivco’s owner, Dan Voiculescu, who was an ardent supporter of biotechnology. It is worth mentioning that the friendship between Voiculescu and Mencinicopschi did not stop here. As we know, in 2013, Dan Voiculescu was sentenced by the Bucharest Tribunal to 5 years in prison with execution in the case of privatization of the Food Research Institute of Bucharest, for a damage to the Romanian state worth 60 million euros. In this case, along with the grivco owner, another 8 persons were convicted, among them Gheorghe Mencinicopschi (ICA director), as well as Gheorghe Sin (member of the AGA of the ICA and president of the Academy of Agricultural and Forestry Sciences).
Returning to the CSB meeting on July 25, another significant fact came to light. In the Biosecurity Commission there was, according to certain sources, only one opponent of biotechnology – Dr. Aurel Maxim, associate professor at the University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine in Cluj-Napoca. But he was not invited to that meeting that decided the fate of genetically modified maize. Even if later dr. Maxim repeatedly asked for explanations on his omission from the list of participants in the meeting, received no response. This well-known tactic, together with the dodge of Mencinicopschi, an emblematic figure for natural nutrition, shows without any doubt that, in reality, the decision to continue using mon810 maize had been adopted even before entering the CSB meeting.
Mencinicopschi resigned as csb president very shortly after, in his place being enthroned, for two consecutive mandates, none other than Elena Badea, although it was publicly known that she had had professional contracts with Monsanto (the largest GMO producer in the world). Therefore, the committee that was supposed to decide whether different genetically modified organisms could be introduced into Romania for cultivation and consumption had come to be headed by a person who had worked for the world’s largest producer of GMOs. In this situation, there was practically no chance that the decisions on GMOs would be unbiased, or that the introduction of these varieties to Romania would be rejected. Biotechnology had a free way, on the part of the decision-making authorities, to enter our country unhindered.
In 2011, Ionel Haiduc, president of the Romanian Academy, and Gheorghe Sin, president of the Academy of Agricultural and Forestry Sciences, signed a document entitled “The position of the academic environment regarding genetically modified plants”, which tried to determine the authorities to approve the large-scale cultivation of transgenic plants. You can read this document here, which is a clear proof of the immeasuring indifference of academia towards the health of the environment and of the human being, related to the cultivation and consumption of genetically modified organisms. In this material, the financial benefits brought by these crops are analyzed first of all, as well as how the country’s economy was affected when these modified varieties were banned, but their impact on the environment and on human health are hardly taken into account. Regarding the dramatic way in which the consumption of these products affects the health of the human being, no concrete clarification was made, passing very easily over this aspect, in two general phrases: ‘The introduction of transgenic plants into commercial crops shall be authorised only after a thorough assessment of the risks to the environment, human health and animal health which could be associated with this action. This is the first time in the history of agriculture that the producer of a plant that has undergone improvement must provide scientific evidence that his product is safe for the environment and consumption.” Beyond the praise for the adoption of so-called protection measures, from these statements, which seem to cover the problem, we see that the tests are left to the producers, that is, precisely those who have the greatest interest in selling their “creations“. How rigorous or objective these studies are, we clarify very quickly if we stop, for example, even on mon810 maize, aggressively promoted by Monsanto, but which precisely because of the negative impact on the environment was banned in 8 member countries of the European Union (France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Luxembourg).
The conclusion that emerges from the document elaborated by the Romanian academicians is that the production per hectare is of interest first of all, and the collateral effects – the environmental risks, the negative impact on the soil, whether the product can be consumed by man safely for health or not – are conveniently overlooked.
In developing the demanding position of the academic environment, those who drafted it seem not to have consulted the scientific investigations available at the time either in terms of environmental safety or in terms of the impact on human health. Either out of incompetence or, most likely, out of a queasy obedience to the imposed policies, the report being nothing else, as mentioned above, than a maneuver to legitimize the large-scale cultivation of GMOs in our country. As the document shows, academics (and this title can only be attributed to them with a considerable dose of sarcasm) have merely supported the ideas promoted by the proponents of biotechnology: “numerous scientific evidences and practical experience have led to the conclusion that the transgenic plants currently marketed bring considerable benefits (only financial! – n.a.) to farmers and are much more “environmentally friendly” than technologies that have become conventional”.
It is good to know that these genetically modified plants are not at all “environmentally friendly” at all! The Greenpeace report on the interaction of transgenic cultures with the environment highlights the incalculable risks to which we expose ourselves through the indiscriminate introduction of these unnatural organisms: “Genetically modified crops pose a significant threat to the natural environment through pollution from the pollen of genetically modified plants and the consequent flow of modified genes (which will occur, n.a.) in the wider plant community. Genetically modified crops also pose threats to soil ecology. In summary, there are four main areas of concern: 1. Agrochemical changes necessitated by the use of genetically modified crops, with genetic implications for soil microbes; 2. Genetic contamination of existing soil and microbes as a result of horizontal gene transfer; 3. Modification of the soil ecosystem through the altered characteristics of genetically modified plants; 4. Soil contamination by genetically modified seeds remaining in the soil after harvesting. These aspects highlight the fact that the use of GMOs brings unacceptable risks to the health and fertility of the soil, one of the most precious natural resources we have.”
The pro-biotechnology offensive then continued with the adoption in June 2013 of a bill allowing the cultivation of genetically modified organisms in certain protected natural areas as well. The document was promulgated in July 2013 and regulated the following: “4. In protected natural areas of Community, national and international interest, the cultivation of genetically modified higher plants shall be prohibited. Exceptions are the protected natural areas of community interest, Natura 2000 site, based on the opinion issued by the Romanian Academy.” And these areas of the Natura 2000 site have come to measure, in our country, 17.84% of the area.
What exactly are these Natura 2000 sites? Within the EU, through the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive, special areas of conservation and protection have been designated respectively for the different species that need it, forming a network of protected natural areas that has been named Natura 2000. In short, they are protected areas which, according to the EU nature directives, contain natural objectives/species that must be preserved “taking into account economic, social, cultural, regional and recreational demands” (according to the EU’s Natura 2000 Management Act).
Therefore, at present, according to the law issued in 2013, in Romania it is allowed to grow GMOs almost anywhere, even in certain protected natural areas, such as Natura 2000, with the help of the Romanian Academy!
Next we will briefly expose some of the results of some scientific researches that have been completely ignored by the decision-making forums in our country, by the supporters of biotechnology and of genetically modified organisms.
In the early 2000s, the health risk of the consumption of genetically modified organisms was under discussion around the world. However, very few studies have been carried out so far on the toxicological evaluation of the effects of medium- or long-term consumption of these products. One of these studies was conducted by Monsanto itself, regarding mon863 transgenic maize. The results of this study were initially classified by the company as confidential, but later, following a legal action in the Court of Appeal in Munster, they were made public for a fixed period of time. Monsanto published its own interpretation of the data that MON863 maize was safe for consumption. The study and the results obtained were subject to questioning by various European inspectors and eventually this maize was approved for cultivation and consumption in Europe in 2005.
Subsequently, a team of French researchers under the leadership of Gilles Eric Seralini independently remade the study conducted by Monsanto and found certain inaccuracies. In conclusion, what Seralini and his collaborators found, both from their own study and after careful analysis of the same data (obtained by Monsanto) and the application of statistically appropriate methods for their evaluation, was that MON863 maize is not safe for consumption. They noticed that in addition to certain weight changes that the consumption of this genetically modified corn gives to rats, there are also signs of hepato-renal toxicity.
Other researchers have also conducted studies on GMOs, independently of large producing companies. Irina Ermakova, from the Institute of Neurophysiology and the Study of Higher Nervous Activity of the Russian Academy of Science, showed that in the case of rats fed with MG soybeans, the number of deaths in the generation of offspring is much higher than normal, the data correlated statistically with the type of food that was administered. Arpad Pusztai, of the Rowett Research Institute, studied the effect of genetically modified potatoes, noting that laboratory mice that were fed this mutant variety had a smaller brain, liver and testicles, a deficient immune system, and had a high number of precancerous cells in numerous organs. After communicating these results, Pusztai was kicked out of the institute where he worked and his team was dissolved.
Researchers who have studied the harmful effects that genetically modified organisms can have on the health of the human being have also listed other aspects: a) new allergens may appear, with the development of GMOs (within the biotechnological process); b) the person who consumes these GMOs may become resistant to antibiotics; c) new toxins may appear; d) a concentration of toxic metals may occur in these GMOs and thus, the person who consumes them is exposed to heavy metal poisoning without even knowing it; e) may increase the amount of fungi toxic to the human body.
There are numerous studies that would have deserved to be considered by both the Biological Security Commission and Romanian academics or parliamentarians when they promoted and passed extremely permissive laws that allow the intensive use of genetically modified organisms. Ieconomic entanglements, and even more so the obscure interests of some corporations, should never take precedence over people’s health. The narrowness of vision of the decision-making bodies – focused exclusively on short-term benefits – opens the door to unpredictable and incalculable effects in the future.