The Modified East – genetically modified crops – Monsanto Co

The Modified East – genetically modified crops – Monsanto Co – Advanta Seeds Inc

Iza Kruszewska


THE RECENT SCANDAL of GM-contaminated rape seed, imported to Western Europe from Canada by the seed company Advanta, highlighted the problem of cross-pollination of conventional plants by their GM relatives. It also threw up the difficulties of finding regions which are still GM-free. In response, Advanta claimed to have moved seed production to countries like New Zealand where no GM production takes place. Meanwhile, Pioneer Hi-Bred, which specialises in maize seed, has moved European maize seed production to Romania, Hungary and Austria.

Romania is a strange choice. Since 1997, US seed companies have tested and registered seven varieties of GM crops in the country, and in 1999, the Ministry of Agriculture approved the commercial growing of GM soybeans and large-scale trials of potatoes, maize and sunflower seeds, despite the absence of any law on GM seeds. Last year Romania cultivated at least 100,000 hectares of GM crops.

Yet Romania is not the only country in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) that is growing GM crops. The uncertainty surrounding what is actually going on in CEE and the Newly Independent States (NIS) lies in the absence of any public right to information and, in many cases, poor government oversight.


Science and technology have a long history in this region. Indeed the grandfather of genetics is Mendel, a monk who lived in Brno, now in the Czech Republic. Already in the 1980s, scientists in many of these countries were undertaking experiments in agri-biotechnology, and by the early 1990s were releasing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment without any regulatory controls. Since 1991, Bulgarian scientists from the Institute of Genetic Engineering in Kostinbrod have been releasing GM tobacco plants during field trials. In 1996, in Poland, Greenpeace discovered GM carp with human growth hormone genes (to make them grow faster) that had been swimming in the ponds of a government institute since at least 1994! At this time, most of the biotech research was still domestically driven and funded by the public purse.

Now, in the face of strong opposition to GM foods in Western Europe and increasingly elsewhere, the transnational ‘life sciences’ companies, such as Monsanto and Pioneer, are choosing Eastern Europe and the NIS as a playground for their genetic experiments. Where better to exploit a culture of secrecy and oppression than in a region where decades of authoritarian rule has created a society afraid to assert their democratic rights to information and participation. These may be nominally democratic countries, but state officials there are still regarded with fear, rather than as public servants. The transnationals know that their activities are safe from public scrutiny and legal challenge. Many countries in the region still have no specific GM laws, and even in those that have laws, they are either weak or non-enforced.

First-round EU accession countries, such as Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland, and those torn by war in the former Yugoslavia, like Croatia, have been spared some of the worst corporate excesses. Yet second-round countries, like Bulgaria, and certainly the Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union, offer the best chances for TNCs to push their GM seeds.

It is clear that companies want some legal basis for starting field trials of GM plants, because these are the first steps to commercialisation. In 1996, when Bulgaria became the first country in the region to introduce minimal regulations providing for an approval system for GM seeds, this was the cue for Monsanto to introduce GM seeds.

The picture presented below is sketchy, since information held by officials in most of these countries is closely guarded. They prefer to bend to the wishes of industry which demands that information on field trials be confidential, despite the fact that these same companies accept extensive lists of their field trials in Western Europe being publicly available on the Web. Some information about field trials then may not even reach officials, since few countries require the maintenance of a publicly accessible central database of all GMO releases. Information on the presence of GM food on the market is likewise non-existent. According to a Polish environmental ministry official: ‘Strictly for ethical reasons, producers should label products which contain GMOs. Companies are the ones that have the problem [in enforcing Polish GM labelling law], not the Polish Trade Inspection Service’.

To overcome this information deficit, the NGO network, ANPED, The Northern Alliance for Sustainability, based in Amsterdam, has been working with member groups in Croatia, Bulgaria and Poland to undertake a ‘mapping’ of the national situation. Information about the level of commercialisation of GM crops, regulatory structures and so on, has helped identify the most urgent targets for campaigning. The findings have been published in reports, released in both English and the local language.

Elsewhere, the situation in Ukraine and Georgia, and in particular the activities of Monsanto, have been documented by Greenpeace. In Hungary and the Czech Republic, NGO campaigns provide a picture of the situation.

However, large parts of this region, including Russia, remain largely uncharted by NGOs, although campaigns are starting to emerge. And these are urgently needed. UNIDO’s database of GMO releases in Russia reveals that AgrEvo’s herbicide-tolerant sugar beet and Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soyabeans are already grown commercially.


Hungary has the strongest regulatory and civil oversight over GE activities, and also one of the longest-running NGO campaigns against genetic engineering in the region. A comprehensive law on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), complying with EU Directive 90/220 has been in place since 1999, with model participation provisions. The 17-member Genetech Committee that evaluates applications for releases of GMOs includes four representatives of environmental NGOs and two from consumer groups.

Information on field trials of GM sugar beet, corn and oilseed rape is available on the web. The campaign’s visibility was boosted when the NGO, ETK Nature Conservation Club, the main group in Hungary working on GE, invited Arpad Pusztai, the Hungarian scientist gagged in Britain for his criticisms of genetic engineering, to speak at public meetings in Budapest in April 1999.

In the Czech Republic, a law on GMOs was adopted only in May 2000, despite the fact that field trials have been going on for several years and GM food is on the market. However, due to intense lobbying by the pro-biotech group, Biotrin, which is funded in part by Monsanto and other TNCs, the new law is weak on public participation. It does not cover GM food and its labelling, despite the fact that testing of foods by the media and Greenpeace has revealed GM-contaminated foods on the market. A new law on GM labelling is to be introduced in summer 2000, but will not cover GM food additives.

Poland was the first country in Eastern Europe where NGOs started campaigning on GMOs. In November 1996, the Polish group, Green Federation, working with international NGOs, released a report ‘Playing God’ to alert officials and the public to the releases of GMOs taking place in Poland and elsewhere in the region, in the complete absence of any legal framework. It revealed releases of GM carp in Poland, field trials of GM tobacco and alfalfa in Bulgaria, GM potatoes in Russia and of potatoes, tobacco, maize, oilseed rape and alfalfa in Hungary.

The Polish parliament finally passed a GMO regulation in late 1999 that introduced a permitting system for field trials. However, field trials with potatoes, corn and beet had already started in 1997 and some 10-20 trials with corn, potato and oilseed rape had taken place in 1998 — mainly by AgrEvo, Pioneer and Monsanto. Permits for field trials are approved by the same geneticists that are working on GM plants. According to a Ministry of Agriculture official: ‘The scientists police each other’. In 1999, 10 permits were granted for oilseed rape, sugar beet, fodder beet, maize and potato, each of which can cover several sites.

A recently introduced regulation requires approval and labelling of GM food, but it is not enforced and no labelled food can be found in Polish supermarkets. Even Environment Ministry officials admit that the law is ‘just a paper tiger’, since there are no reference laboratories and no enforcement procedures.


If the situation seems lawless in first-round Accession countries, elsewhere in the region, it really is the ‘wild east’ as far as the companies from the ‘wild west’ are concerned. The activities of Monsanto in Ukraine and Monsanto and Pioneer in Bulgaria provide a picture of the chaos that parts of this region suffer and that these companies exploit.

In 1997, Monsanto first imported GM Bt potatoes to Ukraine, allegedly for field trials. The seed potatoes came from Prince Edward Island in Canada. However, only in August 1998 was a government resolution introduced, in an attempt to legalise what had already been taking place for two years.

The field trials were the first steps towards commercialisation of the GM potato. The two years of ‘trials’ were used to multiply the initial stock of imported seed potatoes, after which Monsanto hoped they would gain approval of the Bt potatoes for human consumption and have them included on the National Seed List.

After two years of ‘trials’, the 1,300-ton harvest of GM seed potatoes was stored in refrigerated warehouses while Monsanto sought authorisation to commercialise the potato in Ukraine. In early 1999, Monsanto and Solanum PEI — an arms-length company of the provincial government of Prince Edward Island, which grows the potatoes for Monsanto — held a press conference at the Canadian Embassy in Kiev to announce their intention to establish seed production of the Bt potato in Ukraine. This event coincided with the visit to Ukraine of the Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, and was used to convince Ukrainian officials and journalists of the necessity to register the transgenic potatoes.

By this time, the Ukrainian media was picking up stories of the controversy surrounding GM crops and foods in countries like the UK. This probably influenced the decision of the minster of health who refused to certify the transgenic potatoes for human consumption. Without this approval, the Ministry of Agro-Industrial Complex advised Monsanto to destroy the 1998 harvest of seed potatoes by industrial processing.

Monsanto, however, destroyed the 1,300 tons of potatoes by crushing and composting, since this avoided transport costs. But, this was no solution. Monsanto’s Bt potato also contains a kanamycin antibiotic resistance gene as a marker, which through horizontal gene transfer, could confer antibiotic resistance to soil bacteria, and, potentially, on through the food chain.

The key foreign players in this story – Monsanto, Solanum PEI and the Canadian government – exploited the lack of biosafety rules in Ukraine. They failed to undertake an environmental impact assessment of introducing GM potatoes, even though this is required by Ukrainian law and in Canada and the US. They were helped in their efforts to introduce the GM potato by the citizens network agribusiness alliance (CNAA), whose members include Monsanto, Novartis and Pioneer Hi-Bred. CNAA has been helping the Ukrainian Ministry of Environment draft legislation on GMOs, since the absence of laws is regarded by its corporate members as a major barrier to getting GMOs in place. Since Ukraine has no liability regime, any negative impacts on biodiversity, human health or on the agricultural economy, will be borne by Ukrainian society, with no recourse to compensation.


In 1999, Bulgarian farmers harvested the first crop of GM herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant maize. Most of this maize was probably used for animal feed and thus entered the human food chain. Farmers bought the maize seeds from local seed distributors, having seen them advertised in the catalogues and seed offers of the TNCs that produce them – Monsanto and Pioneer. In 1999, Monsanto’s GM maize was allegedly grown on 12,000 hectares and in 2000, this increased to 20,000 hectares.

While this is the reality, officials from the Council for Safe Use of GM Higher Plants, giving permits for releases of GMOs, claim that these are just large-scale field trials. The Council was established on the basis of a 1996 regulation, which itself was based on a law from 1958 on Seeds and Seed Material. As in the USA – Bulgaria’s mentor on biotech matters – parliament was bypassed. This Council meanwhile, is accountable to no one – not even the Government – and all its activities are considered an administrative secret, including the registers of GMO releases. Members of the Council include officials and scientists; the most prominent being Professor Atanassov, who is both executive secretary of the Council and director of the Institute of Genetic Engineering, which undertakes projects for Monsanto. The fox is guarding the hen house. ‘Is there no conflict of interest? Is Prof. Atanassov serving the public interest of biosafety and public health, or is he serving Monsanto?’ asks Dr. Dian Deyanov from the Bulgarian environmental group EcoSouthWest.

This NGO, along with three other groups, recently filed papers challenging the legal status of the 1996 regulation and the Council. This followed the launch of a joint ANPED-EcoSouthWest report, Bulgaria: The Corporate European Playground for Genetically Engineered Food and Agriculture, that finally prompted a public debate on this issue. The stranglehold of Monsanto on Bulgarian scientists and officials was clearly evident when they infiltrated the NGO press conference in Sofia, held to release the report in May 2000. In an attempt to discredit the report, Prof Atanassov brought with him to the press conference a farmer and a seed distributor from Sevilevo (300 km away) that NGOs had interviewed for the report, to refute their earlier statements.

In the long term, the commercialisation of GM crops could have severe impacts 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 traceability, threaten to destroy Bulgaria’s export market for maize derivatives and fodder. Already, foreign food-processing companies and grain handlers in Bulgaria, such as the Belgian starch company Amylum and UK’s Glencore, wanting to buy maize and maize derivatives for the EU market, are starting to request GM-free certificates of purity. These cannot be guaranteed.


There is a serious threat that countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States are becoming a dumping ground for GE seeds and products, as EU farmers and consumers reject them.

In the short term, if this region chooses to go the route of GM agriculture, there is the increasingly real threat that it will close itself off from EU markets, as consumers there reject GM food. The lack of any regulations to ensure segregation and labelling of GE foods, plus the threat of genetic contamination will undermine consumer confidence in agricultural products from throughout the region. Even EU consumer suspicion of GM contamination of foods imported from CEE-NIS will be sufficient to destroy this market for the farmers there. This would have disastrous impacts on the economies of CEE countries and NIS and the farmers there, given their reliance on agriculture.

The only viable alternative for agriculture in this region and entry into the EU market is to move towards organic and other more sustainable farming methods. The millions of smallholdings in this region, particularly in Poland and Croatia, the reduced use of agro-chemicals during the last decade and the availability of traditional varieties of plants provide an excellent base on which to build organic farming. ‘Instead of looking towards genetic engineering to “improve” crop varieties, we need to look at what our rich local biodiversity has to offer. Due to our being economically “underdeveloped”, we still have the biodiversity on which organic agriculture relies,’ explains Vladimir Lay, from the Croatian group, Green Action.

Iza Kruszewska is an environmental activist who has been working with NGOs in Central and Eastern Europe for ten years, tracking the transfer of hazardous technologies.

A REPORT INTO the rampant usage of GM seeds and foods in former Soviet countries.

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