Romania, GE, and Changing a Nation

Written by Kevin Folta

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.

Written by Guest Expert

Kevin Folta has studied biology and agricultural biotechnology for over thirty years. His research examines the role of light in controlling plant traits, especially those relevant to agriculture. His group is known for using innovative genomics approaches to identify genes associated with fruit quality, especially flavors and aromas.


  1. Kevin,
    That’s a stupendous post. Absolutely spot-on.
    The only thing I’d add is that by joining the EU, the CAP is sure to follow.
    And with Europe’s farmers making 60 percent of their income from EU subsidies, only a fool would embrace GM crops.
    When more than half of your income is derived from growing weeds, the smart farmer grows weeds.
    And then there’s the new situation in Italy, where farmers actually incur government penalties for producing ‘too much’ milk in their dairy herds.
    The European situation for agriculture is broken, and there is no relief in sight.

  2. I have to agree with Eric, this is an excellent post. I love going to conferences because of of the opportunity to talk with people like Dr. Popescu. It’s so sad that she feels gagged. I know a lot of scientists in the US that feel the same way. Activists have succeeded in convincing the USDA that we shouldn’t do any research on genetic engineering, which has resulted in a ban on just about anything applied, including safety testing!!! And then we wonder why there aren’t more independent studies.

  3. I was just talking to a professor about the USDA policy on speaking, and he said that things are more open in the Obama Administration. He will be going to Turkey in 3 weeks to go to a meeting that will in part focus on Turkey joining the EU and the future of transgenics in that country. Then I come home and see this post up, what a coincidence. I wonder what the USDA will let him potentially write about the meeting? Hmmm.
    He did say that the EU, although they are slow to adopt GE, is and will be using it in the future, that it is a matter of time. I wonder if adding previously GE-growing countries to the EU will somewhat alter the political balance? If others experience something similar to Romania, there would be motivation to do that.

  4. Dr Popescu’s “neutral” comment is very typical of the situation in the US, but also for LGU/Govt scientists and faculty opposed to GE. Examples: Dr. Steve Jones saying no to GE wheat in his program at WSU, and losing his funding for it until the wheat farmers he served complained to Dean and got it back. I know an untenured NDSU faculty member who was warned of firing from his position if he continued to post articles on a list serve that were “anti-GMO”, but the articles he posted were simply studies in European Journal regarding the impacts of glyphosate on soil (Fusarium issues if I remember right). It goes both ways is my point.
    You all write about getting beyond the polarities, but than you use words like “activists” as if it was the word “terrorist” – and while I agree that there are A LOT of misinformed activists, the majority of people I know concerned with GE are concerned about the current applications, the lack of true independent integrated on-farm research, and the concentration of power and decision making on these issues. These are all valid concerns socially, economically and scientifically. I agree it is all over-politicized, and feel strongly that Dr. Popescu should be able to speak as a scientist regarding her research and perspective on any agricultural technology – but it needs to go both ways.
    That’s the point that Kevin misses, because he is trying to polarize this debate into us and them. I really thought biofortified was going to be different than that. You lost an ally biofortified – not an ally that agrees with your points all the time – but one who appreciated that initially this appeared to be more than a propaganda site. I know you think you are, but in your passion to defend your work and perspective against “activists” you are being about as blind as those Americans who lump all Muslims together. No, we don’t want neutral – but objective and honest – you accuse the anti-GE side of not being this, but the trend here is for posts that give no alternative consideration to what the true concerns are. It’s all “there are activists lurking in every corner”. The recent joke of a post blaming activists for the broken regulatory system and lack of funding for basic research was the tipping point, and I can see you all are full steam ahead without the us-them war. Kevin’s warrior bio says it all. Man, I miss Karl’s posts after reading Kevin. This guy is full of passion, I’ll give him that, but he’s so overly drama queen-warrior hybrid. (oh wait, the “ad hominem fallacy isn’t allowed and proves I am an activist. But his attacking the EU with that is not ad hominem????)
    “It also is sad that in order to get into the EU clubhouse a nation must check it’s scientific soul at the door.”
    – can anyone actually read this without laughing? It’s not even worth analyzing if the EU is more pro or anti science than the US across all fields, as the statement is so obviously an overly exaggerated piece of rhetorical garbage. This, from a warrior out to protect objectivity in science. This from bioforitified? Karl, you need to get the pimp hand stronger if you want to be a good editor. What about the science of honest communication without overly exaggerated hype? A read of your peresonal website shows just how insecure you are Kevin, attacking “societal mediocrity” before you even tell us who you are. Yikes. Seek help for your disdain of society. Hope your propaganda skills land you a marketing job at Monsanto, or with Glenn Beck, in the post-university job hunt. Just assuming that you are deluding yourself with thoughts of tenure, given we activists have deprived you of adequate program funding.

  5. I often ask people in intertubz discussions: which agricultural technologies are you qualified to withhold from farmers around the world?
    This frequently goes unanswered. Yet they remain convinced it’s up to them to keep this technology from farmers who might want it, and who can benefit from it.
    Thanks for that example. I can use that in other discussions.

  6. Perhaps a clarification is necessary. When I use the word activist, I mean something very specific. I do not include thoughtful reasonable people in that category. We are all opponents or proponents of different things to different degrees and I think using those words (opponent or proponent) are appropriate for most people. Activists have moved beyond being reasonable opponents or proponents. They throw away science and reason to promote ideology and do not reconsider their positions even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
    Unfortunately, activists are louder than opponents or proponents and have more political sway. Consider the example of Bt brinjal in India. Opponents and proponents were discussing the issue until activists literally shouted everyone down, silencing even government scientists. I’m sure the behavior of those activists is considered warranted or even desirable by some but I think a mob mentality is not useful.
    In the US, opponents and proponents have accomplished much, and sometimes the loud brash voices of activists have been useful, but in the case of agriculture (and perhaps medicine as well) we need to strip away all the yelling and get back to reason. Instead of carefully proceeding with research, scientists are told to cease and desist. Instead of hearing thoughtful debate from opponents and proponents of various ideas, activists (I include lobbyists here as paid activists) run the show. This is not working.

  7. I should add that as co-executive editor of Biofortified, I don’t feel the need to change any posts – although I have recommended changes. I do not think it’s fair to blame any author for the opinions of anyone else. Actually, to ensure that the different authorships were clear, I recently added each author’s bio to the end of each post. Our disclaimer is clear on the About page:
    “None of the opinions expressed on this website necessarily reflect the opinions of the employers of the authors. Opinions of one author may not necessarily be shared by any other authors. Our opinions are ours alone.”
    One major flaw at Biofortified that strangely no one has pointed out is that we are lacking authors that oppose genetic engineering! It’s not for lack of trying, but no one seems interested. I just get the impression that people in general are happy with echo chambers and don’t want to actually discuss the issues. This bothers me, but aside from continuing to try to write posts that aim to unify and to seek out authors that might write about low input ag and similar things to balance our pro-technology authors, I don’t know what I can do. The other problem is that I haven’t been able to find many good resources that oppose genetic engineering that don’t either cite discredited research or fall into fallacies in the first few pages. Where are the reasoned, careful opponents? We need them, or the discussion ends up being one way. If the discussion is only one way, we have no hope of finding ways to improve ag in the US or anywhere else. This problem pains me in a very real way, especially as I’m wrapping up my PhD and plan to head to Washington to work on ag and aid issues.

  8. It’s been a decade and a half since activists chose to make agro biotech a pawn in the culture war. Kevin laments that science, reason and evidence are not used to dictate political decisions, and the reasons for this situation are easy to discern.
    The fact is, nearly all anti-GE activists are actually not truly anti-GE. They are against globalization of trade, corporations, intellectual property, etc., or pro-organic, etc. “The debate” over GE would not be polarized, were it not for these people. And when these people complain about polarization, they’re actually demanding capitulation instead.
    Capitulation in a “debate” which does not involve science, but has, unfortunately, embroiled scientists who would rather deal with reason and evidence instead.

  9. It does seem to be true that anti biotech activists are actually anti globalization/corporations/capitalism. This is fine, I’m somewhat an opponent of those things myself, but I don’t think this train of thought makes any sense:
    I’m anti globalization/corporations/capitalism.
    Monsanto is a corporation that makes money from capitalism, and has globalized much of ag inputs.
    Monsanto makes GMOs.
    I’m anti GMOs no matter where they came from – public research be damned.
    Perhaps I’m over simplifying, but just look at the Organic Consumers Association. They claim to be pro-organic but is there anything on their site about advocating organic farming? Maybe a little. But sign up for their weekly email and you’ll see what they really care about (hint: the campaign is called “Millions against Monsanto”).
    I’m not saying we should all love Monsanto AT ALL but to condemn all genetic engineering and to even be anti-hybrids because one company does things we don’t agree with just doesn’t make any sense. Even groups that have recently toned down their anti-Monsanto rhetoric keep pushing the same discredited studies.
    OCA and other groups that spend so much time railing against GMOs could be a lot more productive if they entered the debate as reasoned careful opponents who advocated, for example, a strong science-based regulatory system. They should be allies of proponents who also want strong science-based regulatory systems (like me!!!) but instead they’re shutting down debate. They throw away evidence for ideology which is wrong no matter what the subject is.

  10. My definition of activists includes those who are reasoned and actively pursuing political change, however I know that the term has a negative connotation. I guess it is important for people to know what kind of activist you’re talking about!

  11. If you recall when I debunked Jim Riddle’s ten reasons why Organic and GE are incompatible, I sent him an email inviting him to participate in the discussion.
    His response, after calling us immature, was to say that he had no interest because there were far too many interesting things happening in Organic to waste any time talking about GE. (then why did he write about it in the first place?) It is indeed true that organic organizations spend an inordinate amount of time railing against genetic engineering, as if it was the reason why that sector of agriculture is still hanging around 1-2% of the total in the US. Instead of complaining that “Why won’t nature let us grow a no-till organic crop without losing 25% of our yield??” It becomes “Monsanto is trying to ban backyard gardening and seed saving!”
    I say this as someone who is pro-organic growing methods. I say this as someone who thinks that modifications to the way we grow things could enhance nutritional and flavor aspects of food (while not getting on board with the hype about it), and that traits can be developed to enhance that style of growing. I also say this as someone who believes that the opposition to GE that the organic sector has often led will ultimately harm, not help, that agricultural system.

  12. Hi Matt,
    Maybe a few quick comments. I’m certainly not offended, but would like to help you understand a few things.
    The polarization you detect is simply my desire for logic, reason and evidence to frame the discussion. Be it vaccines, climate change or GMO, that’s all I want. Yes, I am a warrior for science, and that’s a good thing. Someone better be.
    And it is not a blanket indictment of activists. I love activists. What I appreciate less are activists that are not active with facts. In this capacity I can actually help them.
    I know that’s true. When in Madison WI I actually presented a GMO lecture at Willy St. Co-op. We had a wonderful discussion, after which many commented on how I helped clarify the science and helped them refine their arguments. That’s a good thing.
    To me, most of the problem comes from activists that confuse the nuts and bolts science (what I do) with the business and social inequities (stuff I don’t necessarily like either). I can’t fix the latter, but I can help people understand the distinction. In a lecture to an organic class the other day they were blown away by the fact that I didn’t defend big agribusiness, and even was critical of it.
    And yes, I do criticize “societal mediocrity” probably in ways that you do too. Please don’t confuse that with insecurity. I have zero ego, I’m a marginally recognized scientist with some little impacts that dot the journals, I’m wrong all the time, and certainly acknowledge that.
    As far as being a “drama queen”– I guess I’ll take that as a compliment. I could write like a scientist (do it every day) but that doesn’t sell a point. Maybe I get a little over the top with some rhetorical license for your tastes, but I hope you understand and still keep reading and commenting.

  13. Karl,
    It’s important to realize that all farming, anywhere and everywhere in the world, is a variation on ‘organic’ farming.
    Every single aspect of organic farming — which used to be all farming — is being used by modern farmers. With the proviso, that it works. If there’s something that works better, it gets used.
    Which is of course what farmers have been doing for at least 5K years.
    The ‘organic movement’ is so rife with false dichotomies that its members have to be schizophrenic to do anything at all.

  14. I have to wonder why comments are closed on ‘Fall crops are on the way’, Pamela Ronald, 13 September 2010.
    Is this because the trash-talking opponents of modern farming blew the doors off? They’re well-known for ignoring what many consider to be polite discourse.

  15. Pam blogs over at ScienceBlogs, and while her posts are re-posted here with her permission, she wants to continue a single comment stream over there, as is noted on the post.

  16. I think the word has acquired such a negative connotation (denotation?) that it’s not really useful to use it to describe people who employ reason. I know, I can’t just re-define a word at my whim, unfortunately.

  17. I would like to have it so the blog doesn’t make it so bold that comments are closed for these syndicated posts. It does make it look like something bad happened and we had to shut down the discussion. Maybe a tweak for the text that the plugin adds to the bottom of the post, something that gives a better explanation?

  18. I tried to find a way to unbold it, but that’s not an option in the theme – it must be the plugin. I would also like to remove the top “this post is from…” because it breaks flow. The part at the bottom is enough, I think.
    PS: I fixed the sidebar comments link – now when you click on a post title in the comments widget no matter your browser it goes to the comment, not the post. It previously didn’t work in Safari and Chrome (at least Chrome for Mac).

  19. Perhaps a clarification is in order. My definition of ‘activist’ also encompasses those who, in lieu of reasoned argumentation, say things like ‘drama queen-warrior hybrid’ and ‘overly exaggerated piece of rhetorical garbage’,and ‘pimp hand’ and demand that the editors delete posts which embarrass the activists with concrete proof of the pervasive threat of vandalism in GE research.
    In fact, part of my definition of ‘activist’ also encompasses those who believe so completely in their moral authority that they are allowed to ignore the customs of polite discussion or the laws against arson.

  20. Whoever, as between Dr. Carmen Popescu and Kevin Folta, observed that “in order to get into the EU clubhouse a nation must check it’s scientific soul at the door” got it slightly wrong. On the one hand, any nation which wants to join the EU must abide by the EU rules, that is the rule of the game. On the other, all EU member States fare in the same train in which, unfortunately, science, reason and evidence do not dictate, nor even guide, political decisions as regards GMO. Bad luck for Romania’s agriculture.
    You may have hard words about this on your side of the Atlantic. Looking at your side from my side, however, I think that you have been very fortunate with the sober reception given to the FlavrSavr tomato and then Bt and herbicide-tolerant corn, cotton and soy. I am afraid, however, that you are heading towards trouble, as exemplified by the cases of HT alfalfa and sugar beet. For the time being, it would seem, the judiciary is actioned, successfully. Very soon, the ballot box will beckon and the hunt for the votes of the prejudiced and fearful may be on.
    Kevin, in which world are you living? As a scientist you surely know that even the world of scientists is not free of prejudice and bias, and of all sorts of manipulations. We have GE Séralini and his mates, you have… well you know very well.
    Eric, you have reproduced a view on European agriculture which is the one US media like to spread because it falls on fertile ground. Even if Europe’s farmers make 60 percent or whatever other percentage of their income from subsidies, they still have every reason to grow a good crop using the most effective husbandry. That would include GM crops if circumstances allowed them.
    Matthew, I for one would not confuse an “activist” with a “terrorist”, yet on my side of the Atlantic we have a kind of opponents who have clearly trespassed the limit. How should we call the people who destroy testing fields and laboratories? Who threaten scientists and their families? Who, most probably, mix unauthorised GMs into authorised ones to scupper a lawful scientific or commercial operation? You know people who harbour genuine concerns and are able to discuss them; I do as well. But I also know people who are able to discuss but not to the point of surrendering to reason and evidence; and people who spread FUD, knowing damn well that it is unjustified. And we see the utter wrongdoings in Europe.
    Some reading: German GM research – a personal account.

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