The problem of “Genetically Modified Organisms” (GMOs) entered the field of vision of the Public Center for Environment and Sustainable Development in 2005. That period was a good time for the organization. The non-governmental sector in our country still enjoyed funding from many external donors. In addition, even the large companies of the country began to allocate funds for socially responsible projects.

As in any initiative, however, the human factor was decisive. In this case, a key role was played by one of the current members of the organization, at that time a volunteer – Todor Slavov. Back from a volunteer in Germany, he brought with him new ecological ideas, so that he was credited with having “opened” the topic of GMOs locally.

“There is hardly any citizen who remains indifferent after understanding the nature of genetically modified organisms. Interfering with the plant genome and pretending to be God … Once released in nature, GMOs cannot go back, as genetically modified plants dominate over normal ones and sooner or later prevail and change the biosphere “, Ilian Iliev begins the story of him.


For waffles and people

Thus was born the first anti-GMO project, starting from the first GMO scandal in our country. All kinds of sweets are randomly purchased from the Varna commercial network, especially the waffles, which are mixed and used to test for the presence of GMOs in the local SGS laboratory. “They lit up like light bulbs, full of GMOs,” says Iliev. The media raised the issue by causing the scandal to explode. Ilian Iliev recalls one of his media appearances, emblematic at the time: “The morning block of Channel 1 wanted to do a live report, which was then broadcast by RTVC Varna. But since I’m an ecologist, there must have been grass and trees around me, but it was raining very hard outside. The camera and cameramen remained hidden in the TV garage filming through the open doors and I was given an umbrella. I will never forget the presenter’s question, who opened the interview by asking me: How can you say these things? don’t you realize that the population can panic? It was another hammer blow to the head. Aren’t we telling the truth ?! We are warning people. The goal is to worry about being more interested in the topic and taking an active position and the media should help this process. The whole interview was a cold shower. Attention to the issue increased after the government’s clear position regarding the changes to the “Pro GMO” legislation. “We had to become the third country in Europe, together with Spain and Poland, to authorize GMOs.”


The Canadian farmer

The topicality of the issue required more serious work and the commitment of more citizens. Thus, in 2009, the “GMO – the invisible threat” project, funded by Mtel Eco Grant, was launched.

Due to the lack of information in Bulgarian on the subject, translations of articles into English on GMOs were carried out, information brochures published and a traveling exhibition organized. Press conferences and information meetings with farmers and the public were organized in six districts of northeastern Bulgaria: Varna, Dobrich, Shumen, Targovishte, Razgrad and Silistra. The information campaign ended in Sofia with a public meeting of deputies from various parliamentary groups. Finally, a meeting was organized in parliament with the members of the parliamentary committee for the environment. For Ilian Iliev there were several memorable moments during the campaign.

One was during the information meeting in Varna, which was also attended by representatives of the dioceses of Varna and Veliko Preslav. After the lecture and the film, a gentleman called me from outside and said directly: “Have you gone against the corporations? Do you know what can happen to you ?! I replied that I didn’t care what the corporations would do to me if the legislation had changed by allowing GMOs to enter Bulgaria.

Because if that were the case, from now on what happens to people will lose meaning. He went away angry. One of the volunteers who kept the attendance list asked me what the man wanted and that he was a representative of some of the GMO corporations, which is why he was threatening me. The man had signed up with a female name on the list of participants. Very often the great daredevils are even afraid to reveal their real name” says Iliev.

At the time, Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer who had fought against Monsanto in the United States for many years, came to Bulgaria on tour. The purpose of his meetings in our country was to explain the damage caused by GMOs. “We met him at the airport in the car we use to collect recycled paper for the Leaf by Leaf campaign,” recalls the president of the Public Center for the Environment and Sustainable Development.

In Varna, Percy Schmeiser, Ilian Iliev and Svetla Nikolova of Agrolink held a press conference at the Palace of Culture and Sports. A meeting with farmers and journalists in Dobrich followed. The next day, many media outlets in the two cities published extensive articles on the harm of GMOs. “Meeting a civic activist of this caliber who was threatened, persecuted but ultimately won a battle with a large multinational was quite inspiring. In the end I drove him to Silistra, where he took the ferry to Romania. Here, he continued his tour, meeting local farmers and talking about his struggle, “Ilian Iliev recalled.

The large-scale campaign meetings end in Sofia, in the Czech Center, where both MPs and advocates for GMOs are present. Representatives of the project take part in the Parliamentary Committee on the Environment during discussions on legislative changes on the subject of “GMOs”. The law, which will have to be approved by parliament, liberalizes the release into nature and the cultivation of genetically modified organisms, reducing the buffer zones of protected lands from 30 to 15 km around Natura 2000.


Civil protests

Tensions escalated in November 2010 with mass protests across the country. When Boyko Borissov’s first government was in power. The Public Center for the Environment and Sustainable Development was one of the co-organizers of the Varna protest, defined after some time as one of the few successful outbreaks of popular discontent.

Unlike most protests, which are usually outside business hours or on weekends, in front of the City Hall or the Sea Garden entrance, this one is during business hours, at 4pm , in the small street “Preslav”, opposite the entrance to the district administration. Here is what Ilian Iliev remembers at the time: “There was a performance, music, people sang peacefully. Previously we taught activists how to act if there were provocateurs, so as to be prepared for anything.

All the employees of the district administration were in their rooms and did not dare to leave work at 5 pm. We started negotiations and stood before the district administration until then regional governor Dancho Simeonov declared that he would not accept the changes to the law. So many years later, I can’t understand why, when protests are organized, they aren’t even aimed at the right person.

For example, a protest at the entrance to the Sea Garden. The mayor’s office is located on the second floor of the municipality and overlooks the park. When you step out onto the balcony, you can say to yourself: “How many people have come out to share the good weather at the Sea Garden in Varna!”. He will not understand at all that it is a protest. Or a protest against a national policy in front of the municipality. The mayor in front of the protests will take a nap, as the matter is not up to him. When you protest, you first need to reach out to the right person, then take them out of their comfort zone, as we did back then. ”


Exhibit Monsanto

Another memorable moment of the anti-GMO campaign occurred during the traditional agricultural forum at the Admiral Hotel in Golden Sands at that time. “We knew that Monsanto representatives were there and we organized a presentation on the new GMO crops.

We waited all day to be able to make our presentation, as it was postponed several times and left for last. We recorded the entire presentation with a camera. The Monsanto representative had the imprudence to promise and “reassure” farmers that GMOs would soon be admitted to Bulgaria. So we sent the recording to Nova TV, who broached the subject. There was a very strong reaction. ”

Monsanto’s representative hid from the media overseas, and the law was not changed, “Ilian Iliev said.


GMO-free label

Partly due to protests and publicity and partly due to a change in attitude, some of the Bulgarian producers are riding the “anti-GMO” trend. “Andreshkovski labeled one of his salamis as GMO-free.” People who knew we were dealing with the subject sent us photos of their purchased GMO-free sausage. It was paradoxical. We knew how much a GMO analysis cost and how unlikely a producer would spend money on it. It was a scam: to quickly attach a label, because no one will check it, “said the president of the environmental organization.

In order to collect data from inspections for the presence of GMOs on the market in our country, the Public Center for the Environment and Sustainable Development made use of the Law on Access to Public Information. At that time, regional health inspectorates were under an obligation to monitor GMOs on the market. “We sent our questions to RHI – Varna and they sent them to their headquarters in Sofia and from there they sent us the refusal” says Iliev. “Then we prepared a similar letter for access to information by making 100 copies with 100 envelopes and 100 stamps. Then we had a meeting with the citizens, during which we showed a film on GMOs and at the end of the meeting we asked the present those who wanted to sign the letter for access to information and send it to RHI – Varna. There were just over 50 citizens at the meeting and I don’t know how many of them sent their letters, but our hero of the inspection seems to have sent them all to Sofia. ”This angered Sofia’s office very much, and they finally replied.

So not only did we get all the information, but when we went to get it, knowing we were behind the initiative, they asked us if they could just reply to a letter and we could share the information with others. According to the same pattern of the letters for access to information, a massive attack was organized by citizens by sending cards, this time to parliamentarians in Parliament.


We won?

After nearly a decade, Bulgaria is still a GMO-free island, because genetically modified organisms cannot be released freely into nature, Ilian Iliev commented. According to him, seed producers have refocused and mainly sell non-GMO hybrid varieties. However, the topic is still relevant today, because large multinationals have not given up on their intention to promote their GMO policies. “The battle has subsided, but it has never stopped so it is important that citizens remain sensitive on the subject to prevent GMOs from being admitted in the future.

But if they succeed, sooner or later the multinationals will try GMOs on the market “, says categorically the president of the eco-association. His recipe for civic activism is:” When you win, you don’t have to rely only on your laurels because victory is not forever, you have to continue to be active. “According to Iliev, this is one of the weaknesses of civil society in our country. When citizens are successful, when they can change the system, at that moment, instead of take the next step, everything stops. Business analysts know this very well and are ready to wait for the periods of civic activity to pass, because sooner or later citizens will get tired. So as not to make foolish everything we do as active citizens, we should not throw ourselves into big battles, but aim for small victories every day, because it is one thing to be beaten every time and despair that nothing will change, it is another to lose once, but win the next. This gives self-confidence and strength to continue, “said the civil activist.



Improving public knowledge about the role of Civil Society Organizations

The project “Improving public knowledge about the role of Civil Society Organizations” shall be implemented with the financial support of Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway under the EEA Financial Mechanism. The main goal of the project is to improve citizens’ awareness of the role of non-governmental organizations in society. This material is established with the financial support of the Active Citizens Fund of Bulgaria under the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area. The whole responsibility for the content of the document is held by the Public Environmental Center for Sustainable Development and under no circumstances can this material be considered to reflect the official opinion of the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area and the Active Citizens Fund of Bulgaria.