NOT NUMEROUS, BUT NOISY: Protesters in front of Parliament in January were followed by a flash mob on February 9 in a popular shopping centre. More protests have been scheduled, asking MPs to drop the moratorium proposal and adopt an outright ban on genetically modified crops.
A public outcry in Bulgaria culminated when protests, organised by the coalition To Sustain the Nature and other environmentalist organisations, saw all of 300 protesters gathering in front of the central library in Sofia in late January under the motto "Clean food, a healthy earth! Bulgaria GM foods free."
Protesters carried signs reading "GM food is trading with our health," "Our health is not for trade" and "GMO = imperialism."
Organisers wanted any changes to the Genetically Modified Foods Act to limit the use of GM foods to scientific purposes. Changes being proposed served only the interests of a small group of interested parties and foreign companies, organisers said.
The amendments, the first reading of which was approved by Parliament, allow cultivation of genetically-modified tobacco, vines, cotton, rose, wheat and vegetables. The bill did not allow cultivation in areas protected under the EU’s Natura 2000 programme, but lowered the minimum distance from protected areas at which such crops could be cultivated.
On February 7, Bulgarian National Television (BNT) reported that Euro-Toques Bulgaria, the local chapter of a European association of chefs, which lobbies to promote traditional recipes and regional products, was against the cultivation of GM foods.
Tanya Pravchanova, deputy chairperson of Euro-Toques Bulgaria, was quoted as saying "if we cook ordinary pork, and at some point the meat starts to smell like fish, then we wonder how this meat has been produced."
According to Euro-Toques Bulgaria, this did not immediately mean the meat was genetically modified, BNT said, but it "does not exclude fact that a large part of our food is not what it is advertised to be."
In a statement on February 3, the Environment and Water Ministry said amendments to the law were necessary to bring Bulgarian statute in line with European legislation.
The amendments targeted implementing two directives, both of which were long overdue. The European Commission had already started infringement procedures against the country concerning the implementation of one of the directives, the ministry statement said.
"I also do not want my children to eat genetically modified foods, but I do not think that is a reason to stop GM foods," Bulgarian news agency BTA quoted Deputy Agriculture and Foods Minister Preslav Borissov as saying on February 5.
According to Borissov, a ban on GM foods would hurt Bulgarian competitiveness in the European market as neighbouring countries were already gaining experience with GM food production.
In the face of public opposition, which appears to be stronger than protest rallies, judging by the heated debates in online forums, Environment Minister Nona Karadjova was drafted in to present the compromise solution: the EU directives would be implemented, but a five-year moratorium would be put in place, banning the cultivation of genetically-modified crops for test or commercial purposes. Amendments to that end were being drafted by the country’s ruling party, GERB, she said.
That failed to assuage the critics, however, who viewed it only as a temporary postponement of making a decision rather than a solution to the problem.
Seeing an opportunity to oppose GERB on an issue where public opinion was already against the Government, opposition party Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), which enjoys a traditionally strong support in the agricultural areas in Bulgaria populated by ethnic Turks, called on other political parties to oppose GMOs, under the slogan "Bulgarian lands GMO free."
According to MRF MP Lyutvi Mestan, 70 per cent of Bulgarian land was suitable for ecological agriculture, compared to only around five per cent in many other European countries.
Bulgaria’s other major opposition party, the Socialists, also took a stance against GM crops and party leader Sergei Stanishev was quick to point out, on February 2, that earlier statements by Nikolai Cherkezov, the leader of the Socialist youth organisation, did not represent the party’s position, only Cherkezov’s personal views.
As it emerged two days later, to the disappointment of conspiracy theorists and Stanishev’s mild embarrassment, it was a case of mistaken identity – the Socialist youth leader shared the same first and last name as the head of Bulgarian operations for Monsanto, the world’s leading GMO seeds producer.
Monsanto’s Cherkezov was caught on camera in November 2009 – even before the first set of amendments, which widened the scope of GMO cultivation in Bulgaria, was submitted to Parliament – as saying at an annual farmers convention that Bulgarian laws were about to change, allowing the cultivation of genetically-modified maize in the country.
The recording, broadcast by terrestrial TV channel Nova Televiziya, further fuelled media speculation that the amendments were the result of lobbying and backroom deals with MPs.
A lot at stake
US-based Monsanto is by far the biggest producer of GMO seeds globally, to the extent that the US department of justice opened a formal antitrust investigation of the seed industry in January. Monsanto’s rivals have often accused it of unfairly using monopoly powers to drive up prices and hinder competition in the corn and soybean segments of the market, an allegation that Monsanto denies.
Forbes magazine’s company of the year in 2009, Monsanto sold $7.3 billion of seeds and seed genes in the fiscal year ending on August 31 2009. Its total revenue was $11.7 billion and net profit was $2.1 billion for the period.
Monsanto’s competitors include fellow US companies DuPont and Dow Chemical. In Europe, German chemical giant BASF won approval to cultivate GM soy in Brazil earlier in February and Swiss agrochemicals group Syngenta is another big player.
But despite the rapid growth of their business worldwide, opposition in the European Union to the cultivation of genetically-modified crops remains strong. Only two genetically-modified crops have been approved for cultivation in the bloc, but some other crops grown elsewhere are allowed to be importedand used in the EU.
The Netherlands has emerged as the leading voice for liberalising the existing rules, arguing that the spreading use of GMOs globally meant that the EU could not afford doing nothing.
The EU had to find a better way of handling cultivation approvals, Dutch officials have argued, putting forward a proposal that would give individual governments the final say on the issue, as opposed to the current single-market approach.
The proposal is backed by several countries, including Austria, one of the least countries most opposed to GMOs in the EU, but only because that would allow the country to completely ban all genetically-modified crops.
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso was reported to be in favour of the plan, but critics have said that it could set a dangerous precedent for the single-market and could result in internal barriers being raised between countries that adopted eased restrictions and those that opted out altogether.