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East/West: History Of Bio-Engineering Research In The Former Communist Bloc

In the last of a three-part series on genetically modified foods, or GMs, RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky looks at their use in Central and Eastern Europe. He finds that extensive bio-engineering research began in the former communist bloc almost 20 years ago.

Prague, 8 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Back in the mid-1990s, investigative journalist Iza Kruszewska found something not so fishy swimming in the ponds at a research institute in southern Poland.

"When I was doing research in the mid-'90s in Poland, I came across genetically-engineered carp fish with human growth hormone genes inserted to make them grow faster. Now, these were swimming in an institute, in the ponds of an institute in the south of Poland where the director said, 'Well, we're lucky in Poland because we don't have any regulations, we can do what we like,' despite the fact this is funded by the public purse (government budget)."

While most of the public in Central and Eastern Europe -- as well as in the former Soviet Union -- might have little idea what bio-engineering is, scientists there have been conducting GM research since the 1980s. Kruszewska, who now works as an environmental adviser for non-governmental organizations in the region, says some of the first GMs actually came out of the Balkans.

"One of the first regions was actually in the Balkans, in Bulgaria. The Institute of Genetic Engineering in Kostinbrod was releasing genetically-engineered tobacco in 1991 in field trials and also alfalfa, mainly bacteria-resistant and virus-resistant strains. This was in the absence of any regulations."

George Tzotzos is the chief of the Biodiversity Unit at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, known as UNIDO. He says Western bio-engineering firms are now developing ties with Eastern research centers -- many drained of cash since their state funding dried up -- to introduce GM crops into the region.

"So, very often you find that Western firms that are the holders of technology come into some kind of agreement with local institutions to engineer local varieties. This again happens where the law allows it. Genetic engineering law [is] only recently being promulgated in most of these countries."

In Western Europe, public opposition to GMs is growing. A year ago, France, Greece, Luxembourg, Italy, and Denmark declared a suspension on all new GM approvals, and their stand was supported in a similar declaration by Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden. At the same time, the European Commission has upheld a two-year moratorium on granting approval to new GMs.

But in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union there are no similar restrictions. In fact, in many of the countries there are no rules at all regulating the sale of GMs.

According to UNIDO, Bulgaria was the first country in Eastern Europe to have instituted formal regulations for GM foods, when it established the Council for Safe Use of Genetically Modified Higher Plants four years ago. But critics say Bulgaria's agency is very autocratic and answerable to no one. Poland also has a bio-safety law. But Polish officials admit it is rarely, if ever, enforced.

Ukraine has no bio-safety laws, which has made it easy for Western bio-engineering firms to do research there. In 1997 and 1998, the U.S.-based international company Monsanto conducted field tests in Ukraine using their "NewLeaf" potatoes. The potatoes have been engineered to produce a toxin that kills the Colorado Potato Beetle, a common pest. According to Monsanto Ukraine, every year the beetle eats 40 percent of the potential potato harvest, resulting in a potato yield of 11 tons per hectare, as compared to 30-40 tons per hectare in the U.S., where there is extensive bio-engineering.

But the environmental group Greenpeace later accused Monsanto of importing to Ukraine potatoes that had been genetically engineered in Canada, ignoring domestic laws requiring an environmental impact assessment. Yuri Samoilenko, the chairman of the Ukrainian parliament's environmental committee, said: "Foreign companies are exploiting the very poor economic situation and the absence of instruments of control in Ukraine."

Yuriy Petrus, a Monsanto spokesman in Ukraine, says the company broke no laws.

"Whatever we did in Ukraine -- and I can comment on Ukraine -- was done in compliance with Ukrainian legislation. There was a temporary procedure of importing, growing GM products before we brought our products here, and everything we did was done in compliance with Ukrainian legislation. We didn't violate a single Ukrainian law."

But Monsanto never received permission to grow the potatoes commercially in Ukraine, and the company was forced to destroy 1,300 tons of potatoes. Petrus says Monsanto still hopes to sell its NewLeaf potatoes in Ukraine after the country adopts a bio-safety law. A draft has been prepared and could be approved by parliament later this year.

A Kyiv-based environmental non-governmental organization, Green Dossier, says the proposed legislation is pro-industry and was shaped by a group representing some of the world's biggest agro-business firms. It says the Citizens Network Agro-Business Alliance help Ukrainian officials draft the law.

Peter Sochan is the policy coordinator for the agro-business group. He says the network was only telling the Ukrainians how legislation works in the U.S.

"I have difficulties complaining about the U.S. government; I think the legislation it has is pretty good. And if it shows that to other people and allows them to choose as they wish -- as a matter of selection and as a matter of education -- I can see the complaint they have, but on the other hand, I have to ask myself, are they suggesting that maybe people shouldn't be aware of all the choices that are there and how legislation is drafted?"

The agro-business industry group has also received money from the U.S. government's Agency for International Development. None of that money, Sochan says, has been targeted for bio-engineering.

But there are two draft laws now in the U.S. Senate that would give U.S. taxpayer money to support bio-technology in Central and Eastern Europe. One of the bills, sponsored by Senator Mitch McConnell (Republican from Kentucky), would target $30 million under the Support for East European Democracy, or SEED, for plant bio-technology activities in the region.

The other, proposed by Senator Jesse Helms, (Republican, North Carolina), would allocate $6 million to "educate government officials in developing countries regarding the use of bio-technology in the agricultural sector and the regulatory procedures used by the United States."

The bills are expected to be taken up within the next few month. That's good or bad news, depending on your perspective on GMs.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.