Romania, GE, and Changing a Nation

posted in: Science & Society | 20

The last talk of the IHC2010 session on transgenic plants and public policy was Dr. Carmen Popescu.  Her first words hit me in the chest like a sledge hammer and I’ll save them for the conclusion of this entry.  Dr. Popescu is a scientist in Romania, working at one of the country’s several  crop testing laboratories.  The information herein is paraphrased from her presentation.

First let’s talk about Romania.  I’m no expert, but I’ve hosted Romanian scientists in my lab.  It is a country and people trying to join the highly industrialized nations of the world.  There is a desire to move from the historical challenges of being a former Eastern Bloc nation into a modern economic power.  Right now a sagging economy is weighing heavily on the country and impairing their ascent.

Until recently, one of their strengths was agriculture, and one of their major crops was potato. In particular, they used Bt-producing transgenic potato to resist attack of the Colorado Beetle, a beetle clearly out of its jurisdiction in Romania.  Switching to Bt potato saved $10 million USD a year for farmers, $4 million in insecticides and $6 million in their application.  Here transgenic technology made the farmer more competitive and helped Romania grow as a food exporter.

Romania also grew herbicide resistant soybeans.  Before 2007 they were net exporters of soy, forming the basis of a trade surplus for the growing nation. Romania went from producing 199,200 ha of soy in 2007 to 41,400 ha in 2009. They went from a net exporter of soy to importing it from the USA, Argentina and Brazil.  Bt resistant potatoes were now off the table, returning to the high costs and environmental impact of conventional potato cultivation. Almost overnight the country went from positive trade balance to deficit, at least in part due to losing transgenic technology.

What happened in 2007 to change this?   Drought?  Flood?  Vampires?  Other disaster?  No.  Romania joined the European Union and had to abandon agriculture involving transgenic crops to comply with EU mandates.  A country in the process of taking off the training wheels gets an anti-science stick in the spokes.

While these facts were sad, the most surprising comment was Dr. Popescu’s opening comment. She said, “I work for a government lab, so I have to remain neutral on GMO”.  If my doctor said that he had to stay neutral on vaccines, if my high school biology teacher had to stay neutral on evolution, if my history professor had to stay neutral on if the holocaust occurred, I’d be equally blown away.

As a scientist living in a world dominated by evidence, I was amazed that the person reporting the before-and-after impacts of growing GE crops reserved comment on the data she was about to present. It shows the power of the anti-science, anti-biotech forces, and how her synthesis could potential imperil her position as a scientist in her nation.

I certainly trust Dr. Popescu.  It is amazing that a proven scientist in a nation that once benefited from transgenic technology has to watch her words to avoid causing trouble in the EU.  It also is sad that in order to get into the EU clubhouse a nation must check it’s scientific soul at the door.  Shouldn’t science, reason and evidence dictate political decisions?

Maybe someday.

Follow Kevin Folta:

Kevin is a public scientist that enjoys illuminating hot-button scientific issues for non-scientists using an evidence-based approach. Kevin is always uncomfortable referring to himself in the third person.