The Tomato Monster in Bulgaria (13/8/2007)

Coming soon near you: The Tomato Monster in Bulgaria
Bennett Tohara
Sofia Echo, 6 Aug 2007

It must be a carnival, an amusement attraction, thought casual strollers as they approached the entrance of Primorski Park (Sea Garden) in Varna on July 18.

Closer inspection revealed a bunch of clowns dithering about in front of a giant, inflatable red sphere. But something about it was amiss. Instead of the usual, children-friendly, zany smile, it took on a menacing, threatening countenance like a monster.

With everyone’s curiosity piqued, the clowns (teenagers and adults dressed in fluorescent wigs and amorphous costumes) began a skit.

One girl decked in green stepped forward: "Some mad scientists have injected something from an ostrich into me without previously informing me or obtaining my permission," she announced to the gathering. "They just said I would become big, and strong, very quickly, and be full of protein and nutrients. Well, I have grown 10 times bigger than my friend," she said gesturing towards a cabbage head in her left hand.

"But I have also developed feathers, wings, a beak and talons, and...I...feel...very strange." The others, ostensibly portrayed as a carrot, corn, aubergine, onion, pumpkin, potato, tomato and watermelon, rushed to her aid-then began what appeared to be the latest dance craze. "Oh no! We’ve contracted bird flu!" cried the onion.

Several more acts followed. It finished off with a free for all. "Look! We are all talking and dancing fruits and vegetables! Nobody will ever eat us now!" The audience, not sure of what to make of all this, began applauding.

The performers then handed out leaflets, while one of them, a young woman in the aubergine costume, addressed the crowd, saying that we must never let genetically modified crops grow on our farms, nor allow "Franken-foods" to sneak onto our plates. "These will poison and destroy our children, the environment and civilisation," she extolled.

All those who cared for the aforementioned were invited to come to a small table and sign a petition to be presented to Parliament calling for Bulgaria and Europe to be declared genetically modified organism (GMO) free.

Prominently displayed on the table was a large book with a picture of a casino wheel, entitled Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods by Jeffrey M Smith. The group said that anyone harbouring any doubts as to the perils of GMO (or the mendacity of biotech corporations) was free to browse through it.

Why the monster?

The person who brought the event into fruition, Dr Svetla Nikolova, a polymer chemist and chairperson of Agrolink, an establishment that champions sustainable and organic agriculture, said that the Tomato Monster had come from the Belgian branch of the Friends of the Earth, an environmental organisation. This summer it is on tour of the Balkans. In Bulgaria, the Monster visited seven cities in late July, and was hosted by a network of local NGOs including the Za Zemiata (For the Earth) Environmental Association, and the Organic Beekeepers’ Association. The actors came from the Kids of the Balkans Foundation, which is akin to Boy and Girl Scouts.

Nikolova then brought a small group to the Varna Youth Centre, where she showed a documentary film entitled Life Running Out of Control. Ten people had showed up, including the head of the Public Environmental Centre for Sustainable Development, which is involved with recycling, global warming and Natura 2000, Ilyan Iliev and his family.

It featured interviews with rapeseed farmers in Saskatchewan, Canada, who lamented about how pollen and even entire plants from genetically engineered fields nearby had blown over into their organic fields, and cross-contaminated it.

To the other side of the world, activist Vandana Shiva explained how some 3000 Indian farmers have committed suicide out of despair because they had become trapped in a downward spiral brought about by globalisation. She also raised fears of how agricultural technology would reduce the thousands of traditional rice and lentil varieties to a few monocrops.

After the film, Nikolova told the audience that farmers in Bulgaria faced similar prospects of falling into the clutches of big business. "If GM crops become widespread here, agronomics would compel small, independent farmers to purchase seeds and their accessory herbicides from multinational corporations, tow their agenda and become indebted to them."

GMOs in Bulgaria...

Dimitar Yanev, a scientist from SGS, a chemical analysis company, explained how he analyses food, soils, water and crops for their molecular components, including the presence of GMOs. "We have discovered some chocolate wafers imported from Romania containing hidden GM soy," he said. Romania along with Spain has sizable fields under GM cultivation. Reports of unlabelled GMOs in maize flour, popcorn, soy flour, sauces, sausages and frankfurters in Bulgaria have also surfaced.

Nikolova said that Bulgaria has stringent rules governing GMOs. "If someone wants to import GMO products, they must first obtain approval from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. To cultivate GM crops, they have to apply to the Ministry of Environment and Water Affairs, and agree to strict requirements such as informing the public, undertaking environmental and human impact assessments and containing pollen spread." However, she believes the latter is not possible, and rogue farmers have smuggled GM seeds in from unknown sources.

...and elsewhere

The European Union had approved a number of GM produce, such as puree made from GM tomatoes from 1996 till 1998, when a sudden public backlash led to a moratorium on them in 1999. The year 2004 though, under threat of litigation from the World Trade Organisation, at the behest of GMO exporters Argentina, Canada and the United States, saw the moratorium replaced by a GMO labelling and tracking system.

Chinks in the door have further widened by a trickle of new GMO approvals starting with corn genetically engineered by Syngenta, a Swiss seed company, by way of a legal default process whereby the European Commission has final say when member states fail to reach a consensus over an issue after a certain period. This usually pitted Britain, the Netherlands, sometimes Finland, and now Spain and Romania, against Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxemburg and generally everyone else.

Currently, soybeans, maize, rapeseed and cotton form the bulk of GM crops grown commercially, the first three serving mostly for livestock fodder and industrial uses, though in the case of the US, some 75 per cent of processed foods contain some GMO. Monsanto, a giant, gene-manipulation company has shelved plans to market GM wheat.

There’s what in my soup?

The most common method of genetic modification essentially involves "cutting" DNA with the trait in question for which it encodes from plants, animals or even humans, then "pasting" it into the host organism’s genome with the intent of manifesting that feature, such as resistance to decomposition, drought or frost.

The activist group Scientists for Global Responsibility, though, argues that the real world is seldom that straightforward, and GM foods could pose as yet unknown, long-term health risks, like cancer, birth defects or sterility. Arpad Pusztai, a protein scientist, discovered that rats fed an experimental GM potato developed immune system damage and other physiological problems. However, subsequent reinterpretations and analysis of the data have led researchers to bipolar conclusions.

Currently, two broad types of transgenic traits account for 99 per cent of commercially grown GM crops. One, Bt, takes a gene from a bacterium, and confers upon host crops resistance to targeted insects. The other exploits a trait also from bacteria that gives plants tolerance to particular herbicides. In the scheme of things, hungry bugs leave Bt crops alone, while glyphosate resistance means that the beneficiary plant emerges largely unscathed from a dousing, while its weed competitors do not.

Nikolova points out that farmers would be induced to apply herbicides more liberally, leading to more collateral damage on innocent wild plants and animals, as well as contaminating water tables and the produce itself with additional residue. A Soil Association policy document showed increased use of herbicides on GM maize in the US.

Touted benefits

But advocates of GMOs cite a study by the US-based National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy showing a reduction of pesticide use in GM crops and spill-over into the environment.

This is one of the reasons many farmers in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, India and US like bioenigeered crops. In a BBC documentary, an Iowa farmer said switching over to GM corn meant he no longer had to store and handle toxic pesticides on his farm. "It’s a big relief for me, my family and the community," he said. However, Bruce Tabashnik, an entomologist at the University of Arizona, notes that insects do overcome resistance as they eventually have to every other pest control.

Fewer inputs overall combined with higher yields translates to higher profits for GM crop farmers, and savings for consumers, Leonard Gianessi of the National Centre for Food and Agriculture Policy in Washington, DC, claims. In addition, more available food would help feed starving people in the world, says the Nuffield Council of Bioethics. Oxfam, a charitable organisation, on the other hand maintains that the cause of hunger is not scarcity of food but the uneven distribution of grain.

At any rate, demand for food is expected to mushroom, following the UN’s projected world population increase from the current six billion to nine billion by 2050, mostly outside the First World. With virtually all the world’s arable land under cultivation, and decreasing due to urbanisation and industrialisation, the only viable option, contend GMO proponents, is to increase yield per acre, something only revolutionary, breakthrough measures can deliver.

Moreover, since GM crops can boost productivity on existing cultivated lands, says Monsanto, pressure to convert forests and natural habitats and ecosystems into agricultural fields would ease up, perhaps even reversing itself with redundant croplands reverting "back to wilderness".

Good news for agribusinesses have come from reports by ISAAA, a research body partly funded by the biotech industry, which showed that the acreage devoted to GM crops worldwide has increased by double digit percentages annually since 1995. But not for Amilum. Nikolova says the Razgrad-based company posted huge looses when it dabbled with GM crops from 1999 to 2003. European markets refused to deal with them.

And on the most contentious issue of all, little evidence has emerged of health risks from eating GM foods, the British Medical Association announced in a 2003 statement. Opponents say that the results are inconclusive, and found flaws in experimental designs. They in turn highlighted cases such as that among 20 farms in the US where cattle and pigs fed GM corn experienced false pregnancies, stillbirths and sterility. The BMA has called for more research into the matter, and longer-term studies.

But with advancing technology, GMO could even promote good health. That is according to The Royal Society, the UK’s science academy, underscoring the potential for wheat, rice and corn and other sources of empty-calorie, starchy foods to be enriched with fibre and phytonutrients inherent in dark-green vegetables.

On the whole Nikolova say genetics has infinite complexities, and that at present not enough is known about what the millions of possible DNA sequencing, recombining and splicing can unlock, suppress or synergise. "It is much too early to be jumping into the commercialising of genetic engineered crops and foods. We need to be 100 per cent certain regarding all the aspects, of short and long-term consequences," she says.

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