By Bill Horan: Rockwell City, Iowa
Around the world, we hear stories of agricultural progress, as more countries join the Gene Revolution. In 2012, Cuba and Sudan planted biotech crops for the first time. This year, Bangladesh—which has the world’s eighth-largest population—will make the leap as well.
In one country, however, we see a unique case of agricultural regress: Romania, which I visited earlier this summer. It’s the only nation on the planet to take part in the Gene Revolution and then drop out. But not by choice…
Romania’s farmers want back in—and the story of GM crops in the Black Sea region may be instructive as the United States and the European Union try to negotiate a free-trade agreement and find common ground on the thorny question of genetically modified crops.
The goal of my two-week study trip, sponsored in part by the Iowa Farm Bureau, was to examine the grain potential of Romania and Ukraine, with a focus on how their productivity will impact markets.
Eastern Europe is still recovering from the legacy of Communism, and many Western Europeans consider it a backwater. Yet Romania defied the stereotype in 1998, as GM crops became available. On a continent hostile to GM food, it became a Gene Revolution pioneer, utilizing the technology that allows farmers to grow more food on less land.
GM corn and soybeans grew in popularity and appeal with Romania’s farmers; just as they have everywhere they’ve been adopted. Then politics intruded. Lawmakers banned virtually all GM farming in 2007 so Romania could become a member of the EU, which has been relentlessly hostile to farm biotechnology.
In 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Romanian farmers grew more than 335,000 acres of GM soybeans. By last year, this number had plunged to almost nothing.
Romanian farmers didn’t choose to abandon GM crops, but were forced to give them up. Many have switched to growing low-priced grains such as barley, rye, and wheat—and wish they could go back to the old rules, when they enjoyed the freedom to plant what they wanted.
Today, Romania cannot allow its own farmers to grow the crops their country needs—but it imports soybeans, including GM soybeans. This surely raises the price of food for ordinary Romanians, where per-capita income is less than $13,000 annually, according to the International Monetary Fund. That’s only a little more than one-quarter of per-capita income in the United States.
Ukraine is in a different position. It’s not a member of the EU, though officially it shares the EU’s anti-biotech attitudes and bans GM crops. Unofficially, however, it recognizes the benefits of biotechnology. My hosts estimated that about 70 percent of Ukraine’s soybeans and about 30 percent of its corn are the beneficiaries of genetic modification.
How do they do it? Perhaps they smuggle in seeds. In the case of soybeans—but not corn—they may be able to save seeds from one year to the next.
Yet the "how" is less interesting than the "why." Ukrainian farmers break their country’s laws and grow biotech crops on the sly because they know this technology improves food production. Apparently the government is willing to look the other way.
It made me wonder: How many other European countries grow GM crops off the books?
The answer is unknowable. It won’t show up in any official figures, after all.
The fact that we can ask the question, however, undercuts the myth that European farmers don’t want to have anything to do with GM crops. Clearly many of them do—and they’re willing to take risks to do it.
For what it’s worth, farmers in both Romania and Ukraine believe that they’ll have access to GM crops in the next five or ten years. The advantages are so obvious, they think, that widespread acceptance is inevitable.
Inevitability should not become an excuse for complacency. As U.S. and EU trade representatives negotiate a free trade agreement, more European farmers should speak up and explain why biotech acceptance is important to them—and know that a lot of their European farmer neighbors will cheer them on, even if only in secret.
Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa. Bill volunteers as a board member and serves as Chairman for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.