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BULGARIA: Govt Forced Down on Genetically Modifed Crops

Claudia Ciobanu

BUCHAREST, Feb 21 2010 (IPS) - Campaigning by environmental groups and the general public has weakened the determination of the Bulgarian government to allow the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops in this country.

In January 2010, the Bulgarian parliament voted, on a first reading, legislation allowing the release of GM organisms into the environment. But as the law awaited final passage, the Environmental Parliamentary Committee came under public pressure to accept a five-year moratorium on GM cultivation and a ban on testing near organic fields and beehives.

Environmentalists are now pushing for the new legislation to be dropped completely, rather than pass it with a five-year moratorium.

Bulgaria already has a 2005 law regulating GM crops, but national authorities recently declared it too restrictive and contradictory to European Union (EU) legislation to be competitive in the internal European market.

According to the law, “the deliberate release into the environment and the placing on the market” of GM tobacco, vine, cotton, damask rose, wheat, and all vegetable and orchard crops was prohibited.’’ The same prohibition holds for GM organisms that have been refused consent by EU member countries and places restrictions on their release.

In January, the Bulgarian parliament declared itself in favour of amendments to the 2005 act which would increase the number of types of GM crops for which testing is allowed and diminish the distances permitted between trial areas and naturally protected sites or organic farms.

According to Preslav Borissov, deputy minister for agriculture and foods, banning GM crops in Bulgaria would hurt the country’s competitiveness, as other European countries are already making considerable progress with GM food production. “I also do not want my children to eat GM foods, but I do not think this is a reason to stop GM foods,” he added in a statement to the Bulgarian news agency BTA.

But Bulgarian environmentalists fear that the amendments will allow for increased contamination of food and animal feed with GM organisms, especially since the country has very poor labelling legislation. Such contamination has already happened, largely before the 2005 act was passed, but also afterwards in the case of GM crops for which testing was allowed (most notoriously, hybrid maize).

According to tests conducted by the Bulgarian Food Safety Agency between 2004 and 2009, seven percent of Bulgarian foods were found to contain over 0.9 percent GM content without being labelled appropriately.

According to a report published by the European Greens in the European Parliament in September 2009, GM contaminated food products are likely already on the market in Bulgaria. ‘’Most of the GM maize harvested in 1999 and 2000 was probably used for animal feed and thus entered the human food chain, via meat and dairy products. The GM maize was not kept separate from the conventional crop,’’ the report said.

Svetla Nikolova, director of Agrolink – a national organisation promoting organic and sustainable farming – and author of the European Greens report for Bulgaria, opines that the country is ‘’just 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.”

Belgian and British importers of maize from Bulgaria have already warned that they would stop purchases unless strict measures are taken to avoid contamination between GM maize and the crops they import.

Bulgarian environmentalists, however, are calling for a complete ban on MON810, the type of hybrid maize proposed by the United States giant Monsanto to Bulgarian farmers. They say the risk of contamination of organic crops is too great.

“After 13 years of GM crop cultivation there is categorical evidence for the impossibility for the joint existence of GM and non-GM crops,” warns national environmental network For the Nature (FN).

According to this group, “harmonisation with EU legislation can’t be an end in itself and cannot be a justification for one-sided decisions which will bring about the irreversible pollution of Bulgarian agricultural land and nature.” FN believes Bulgaria should follow the example of the six EU countries that have already banned MON810, even though the cultivation of this seed is permitted in the EU.

Agrolink and FN have been few of the organisers of several anti-GM protests taking place in January and February in capital Sofia and several other cities around the country.

According to Agrolink, over 8,000 people have signed anti-GM petitions. A 2008 Eurobarometer survey showed that 43 percent of Bulgarians were against GM and 16 percent in favour. Five Bulgarian municipalities have declared themselves GM-free areas following public consultations.

Hundreds of people marched in Sofia and four other big towns on Feb. 11, while the Environmental Parliamentary Committee was evaluating changes to existing law. Public pressure and direct negotiations with NGOs have led the parliamentary committee to accept the five-year moratorium and the increase of distance between GM testing fields and organic farms.

“After big pressures from society, they decided to change their intentions about modifying the law,” Nikolova told IPS. “Let us see what the parliament will vote. We are still negotiating.”

“Even though Bulgarian politicians are using EU legislation to push GM, the leading parties are split on the issue,” she added.

Indeed, the main political parties are divided on GM: while the centre-right government is a proponent of relaxing the GM act, the two main opposition forces – the Socialists and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms -are sceptical.

“Seventy percent of arable land in Bulgaria is suitable for organic agriculture, while only five percent of the soil in other countries is clean enough,” said Lyutvi Mestan, the deputy leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, considered the voice of Bulgarian Turks. “We should not waste such a resource because of an absurd law.”

A large proportion of Bulgarian Turks cultivate tobacco in southeastern Bulgaria. Fears that GM tobacco testing might be allowed in Bulgaria has in the past resulted in big tobacco producers such as Phillip Morris threatening they would halt their purchases from Bulgarian farmers.

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