Do GMOs seriously damage health? How do GMOs arrive on Romanians' plates without them being aware of it

14.06.2014

Gandul (Official translation, please see Romanian version on the website)

In Romania, cultivation of genetically modified plants has become a rarity upon integration in the European Union. This does not mean, however, that we do not consume them indirectly, when in Romania the animals are fed with genetically modified feeds produced by the Americans, Brazilians or Canadians. Therefore, milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs, and meat products that we consume daily come, most likely, from animals fed with genetically modified feeds. Read the review of Gândul Newspaper in order to find out about the risks on health as well as the impact on Romanian economy of resuming large scale cultivation of genetically modified crops.

An important part of the worldwide existing fodder comes from genetically modified crops, also known as transgenic plants. About 30 million tons of feed arrive annually in Europe, mainly genetically modified soybean meal and soy beans that are used in farm animal feeding.

Practically, a large part of the soy, corn or rape on the EU market is imported from the United States of America, Argentina, Brazil and Canada.

Therefore, the milk, eggs or cheese that arrive on the Europeans’ plates and implicitly on those of Romanians, come from animals which have been fed fodder obtained from transgenic plants or even products containing such source material. If for the latter you can find on labels a statement warning consumers of the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) used, in the case of milk from a cow fed GMOs such a statement is not mandatory.

An issue referred to by many of the anti-GMOs activists’ states that if a person consumes GMOs his or her health would be at risk. Over the past 15 years, hundreds of millions of people worldwide have consumed over 2,000 billion food portions with a genetically modified content, according to EuropaBio data (European Association of  Biotechnology). However, no specific case has been officially reported yet, concerning consumers’ health being strictly affected by these products.

"There is a very rich scientific documentation that highlights the safety for the environment and human health of these products", stated for Gândul Newspaper Professor of  Biology Elena Marcela Badea, PhD.  

"These products are more controlled, more checked, and surely healthier than others", stated for Gândul Newspaper the Executive Director of AgroBiotechRom Association, Romania (Romanian Association of producers and users of agricultural biotechnology).

The Spanish and the Portuguese, large European amateurs for genetically modified crops

In order to be integrated in the culture in the states members of the European Union, genetically modified plants must be granted the consent of the national authorities, and then the specialists within the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) must assess the risks and issue a scientific opinion subsequently sent to the Union leaders. Approval itself is strictly political and depends on the vote of Brussels.

Genetically modified corn hybrids are currently authorized for cultivation on the agricultural lands of the Member States. However, crops of corn, soy, rape, sugar beet and cotton – all genetically modified are approved for import and processing for the purposes of food and feed production.

Corn approved within EU is developed to protect the crop against pests and it can be found as well in the portfolio of one of the most important players on the Romanian market, which is MON810.

"The benefits of this corn can be noticed when there are problems with a certain pest called Ostrinia Nubilalis. Then you can see the differences in production between a conventional corn and a genetically modified corn", said for Gandul Newspaper Mihaela Vasile, public affairs specialist Monsanto.

Genetically modified potato Amflora that can be used in the production of various products such as paper, was banned by the Union Tribunal at the end of the last year, although it had been initially approved for cultivation.

According to the most recent data for the year 2010, the largest European amateurs for transgenic plants are the Spanish and the Portuguese. At the time, they occupied the top positions among the eight EU Member States who cultivated transgenic crops over an area of 91.438 hectares.

In 2010, Romania cultivated genetically modified corn on 822 hectares. In 2014, the two largest players on the seed market who include in their portfolio such a corn, Monsanto and Pioneer, have crops of about 1000 hectares. In Romania, corn cultivated surface reaches 2.6 million hectares every year.

"Farmers who choose to cultivate this genetically modified corn need an approval from the Local Department of Agriculture. After getting the approval, Monsanto Company delivers this corn. After sowing, some traceability steps shall be taken and the farmer must declare the cultivated surface to the Local Department of Agriculture, namely we declare it to the Ministry of Agriculture", explained the Monsanto representative .

Genetically modified corn does not grow faster, but only withstands pest attacks. "This is a healthier corn with fewer mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are defined as products which may cause cancer. Maybe you remember the story of aflatoxins in the milk. A corn withstanding Ostrinia and undergoing this pest attack may have fewer aflatoxins. It is healthier as well", claims Mihaela Vasile.

Crops are usually used as animal feed or they are placed on the market.

Over 929 million euro lost by farmers

Romania would earn 21.5 million euro if it cultivated genetically modified corn on larger surfaces, in order to protect the crops against pest attacks more frequent in the south, south-east and west areas, in respect of year and climatic conditions. Without these, farmers lose about 9.4 million euro each year, according to a study conducted by the University of Reading in Great Britain.

According to the same study conducted in 2011, at the EU member states level, up to 929 million euro are lost annually, due to the fact that transgenic plants are not cultivated.

For example, cotton cultivation could make a profit of almost 21 million euro per year, while sowing the land with rape could rise with up to 318 million euro.

Romania, a particular case in the EU

Before becoming an EU member, genetically modified plants cultivation was normal in Romania. Until 2006, one could find transgenic soy resistant to glufosinate herbicide on the Romanian fields.

At that time, Romania was one of the nine countries in the world where genetically modified soy was cultivated. This was extended to more than 137.000 hectares. Thus, 69% of the soy-cultivated surface was occupied by transgenic soy.

Farmers were forced to give up on these crops upon EU integration, in 2007, because this crop was not authorized. Consequently, soy-cultivated land surfaces in Romania were dramatically reduced, reaching in only two years 53.000 hectares.

Genetically modified soybean and conventional soybean are the same as composition, as explained Elena Marcela Badea for Gandul Newspaper. The difference is that transgenic soybean is not affected by an herbicide.

"There is no difference in the chemical composition", says the professor.

Soybean, an important fodder for any farmer, is currently imported in Romania from Argentina, Brazil and the United States. Imports are not always done directly. Fodders may reach our country through other EU member states as well.

Soybean is no longer cultivated in the EU, even if Romania is likely to have a large potential concerning this matter. Genetically modified soy keeps being consumed.

In 2008, Romania was also one of the seven countries among the EU members cultivating genetically modified corn, the only crop approved by EU leaders at the time. The other states were Spain, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Germany, Poland and Slovakia.

What do Europeans think about GMOs

The results of a Euro barometer survey performed in 2010 show that 45% of the Romanians are very concerned about food safety, on a par with the Bulgarians. Among inhabitants of the EU member states, those who are concerned the most about food safety are the Cypriots (75 %) and the Spanish (54 %).

On the same date, 19% of the Europeans associated with food the danger of chemicals and pesticides, while only 8% were afraid of genetically modified organisms.

The Americans are the largest producers of genetically modified plants

On a global scale, 17.3 million farmers cultivated genetically modified plants in 2012, and their number is increasing in relation to the previous year, according to the EuropaBio data. Most of them were farmers form the developing states.

On a global scale as well, 170.3 million hectares were cultivated with genetically modified plants in 28 states. The surface was larger than the entire arable land surface in the European Union.

The Americans, Brazilians and Argentineans are considered to be the largest producers of transgenic crops. Tens of millions of land hectares are annually cultivated with soybean, corn, or genetically modified potatoes.

Genetically modified golden rice, humanitarian project in Asia

Scientists have not modified plants only to support farmers, but also to improve their nutritional qualities and even turn them into drugs.

An example would be the so-called "golden rice", a humanitarian project which could help thousands of people in Asia. The golden rice, which has a high content of beta-carotene, was intended to combat vitamin A deficiencies that lead to blindness and in extreme cases to death. 3,000 babies die every day and 500,000 go blind due to a lack of vitamin A in their food, according to the EuropaBio data.

"Universities in Europe have started this project. Companies have also contributed with genes. They have created varieties of rice which are currently tested in Thailand and in several countries in Asia. It is a humanitarian project", said Badea.

Genetically modified crops could, in a few years, protect us against diseases. "This is a very dynamic field where man is trying to produce cheap drugs and implicitly accessible with plants", added Badea.

"It may take a few more years until we can consume drugs produced by transgenic plants, for we have been consuming drugs produced by genetically modified bacteria for tens of years", added the professor. 

The article is available here (in Romanian).

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