Author: Desislava Georgieva
Published On: 02/02/2024

Small-scale agricultural producers in North East Bulgaria are seriously worried about a new European directive that provides for products and crops produced with “new genomic techniques” to be excluded from the current regulatory requirements. This means not being tested for safety, not being labelled as containing GMOs, and not being tracked or monitored after marketing.

“In the quest for high yields, attractive appearance and durability of fruits and vegetables, powerful seed and seedling companies, through the methods of GMO technology, have led to the result that today we eat fruits and vegetables without taste and smell, apples and tomatoes have the firmness of potatoes, and strawberries and peaches taste like plums. “This was stated by Rumyana Yosifova, who has been involved in vegetable and fruit growing for more than 26 years. In her opinion, the practice should be supported by science, but this should be done responsibly, openly and in an informed manner. Political actions, which often protect lobbyist interests, have led to a loss of consumer confidence, Yosifova believes. That is why Bulgarians who want to eat clean food are now looking for small producers in the fields or in food cooperatives on social networks. On the one hand, we are being killed by the big retail chains through price dumping, on the other hand by government policy, which this year left us without even subsidies, Yosifova said.

Is the end of organic food coming?

The only remaining competitive advantage of the small local producer, clean and fresh produce, is now in danger of disappearing. This will happen after the possible vote by the European Commission to drop the regulation of plant products obtained through “new genomic techniques”, said Ilian Iliev from the Public Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development (PCESD) in Varna.

The problem with repealing regulations on new modifications will be that even if you buy products from organic farms, you will no longer be sure if they are pure, because the spread of GMOs in nature cannot be controlled. This is what Iliev said when handing over an open letter to the regional governor prof. Andriyana Andreeva, addressed to Prime Minister Acad. Nikolai Denkov and Minister of Environment and Water Yulian Popov. It calls on the Bulgarian Minister for the Environment to take a firm stand against the deregulation of plant products obtained through new genomic techniques at the meeting of the Council of Environment Ministers of the EU Member States on 11 January in Brussels. Along with the letter, the Public Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development handed over a crate of organic vegetables from local farmers. In a special video message, the farmers who produced the vegetables took a strong stand against the marketing of the new GMOs and called for the protection of organic produce.

The Governor of Varna assured that the open letter and all the documentation, which contains detailed and scientifically sound information on the damage GMOs cause to human health, biodiversity and farmers, will be sent to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Environment. She added that the issue is of utmost importance and the country’s position needs to be taken after an informed and reasoned decision.

Unprecedented unity in the GMO battle

A day later, during the round table in the capital, more than 120 organisations stated a common position urging the Bulgarian government and parliamentarians to vote against the draft regulation of the new genomic techniques. “For 20 years, proponents of existing GMOs have been promising us that they will reduce the use of pesticides, that they will feed the world, that plants will be more resilient to drought and other extreme conditions. The facts show that these are empty promises. Now this is being repeated again for the new GMOs, which are not even ready at laboratory level, but have already been patented,” said Svetla Nikolova from the AgroLink association. In her words, four multinational corporations and their lobbyists are behind the European Commission’s new legislative proposal. “They control the whole process. From the GMO seed, through the plants and plant protection products, to the medicines. That is, they make us sick, then they try to cure us. The aim is complete control over the food production chains,” said Nikolova.

What are the new GMOs?

Gene editing, also called new genomic techniques, is a type of genetic engineering. In this newer technology, there is a change in DNA by introducing, cutting, modifying or replacing it into the genome of a living organism. Unlike the earlier genetic engineering techniques that may introduce a gene from a completely foreign species (e.g. from an animal to a plant), in gene editing there may be no introduction of a foreign gene, but there is also alteration/editing of the genome. The alteration in the genome whether from earlier or more recent techniques is done through genetic engineering and results in a genetically modified organism. The European Court of Justice has therefore defined the new genomic techniques as GMOs.

From a health and environmental perspective, the technical potential of new genetic engineering techniques, especially CRISPR/Cas applications, is alarming. This is recognised even by the inventors of the technology. Jennifer Doudna, who has filed many patents on CRISPR technology, writes, “Given how radical the consequences of gene editing are for our species and our planet, communication between science and the public has never been more important than it is now” (Doudna & Sternberg “A Crack in Creation,” 2017).

Unless gene-edited organisms are strictly controlled by laws, their release on the market will threaten human nutrition, biodiversity and agricultural production, according to a report by experts, “Genetic engineering threatens species conservation”. Many stakeholders, such as the lobby of agrochemical giants, openly seek to avoid any open discussion of these risks.

New techniques allow profound changes to the genome, even without introducing additional genes. These techniques are radically different from conventional plant breeding methods or naturally occurring mutations. Gene scissors, such as CRISPR/Cas, are biotechnological mutagens that can be used to bypass natural mechanisms of gene regulation and inheritance. They make the genome available for changes in a new and much more profound way. The resulting genetic changes differ significantly from those of “spontaneous” or “random” mutations. In addition, in many cases new genetic engineering techniques also produce specific unintended and undesirable effects.

In conventional breeding of cultivated plants, there is no alteration of the genome by excision or rearrangement. Mutations in nature occur over centuries and preserve the overall character of the plant and its characteristics.

New technologies are also often combined with “old” methods of genetic engineering, such as the “gene cannon”. These are used to insert “gene scissors” into the genome of the target organism, which carries many additional risks.
Will they patent bees?
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have modified the genome of natural gut bacteria in bees and drones using this method to make them produce additional biologically active molecules. The molecules are designed to target the bees’ behaviour and thus increase pollination efficiency. Other objectives are the destruction of parasites, such as varroa mites, or the rapid degradation of pesticides to which bees are exposed.
According to the U.S. patent application filed by the researchers, it claims not only the bacteria as an invention, but also honey bees and any other insects that have been found to have these genetically modified bacteria in their guts.
This is extremely problematic: if bees with these microbes are released into the wild, it will be impossible to prevent them from infecting other bee colonies or wild relatives such as drones, experts say. In addition, their synthetic genes could be transferred to other species of bacteria. Therefore, once released, there will be no effective way to control the spread of these organisms and their synthetic genes.

This will create a high degree of environmental risk. Producers are not content with directly manipulating honey bees, but involve genetic engineering of associated micro-organisms (such as gut flora). As a result, they can produce biologically active substances capable of altering the biological characteristics of their ‘hosts’. These complex interactions, with their enormous scale, will create a whole new dimension of environmental risk, experts are adamant.

GMO wheat that stops giving birth

Research is being carried out in England on genetically modified wheat using new genomic techniques, which when baked produces less acrylamide (a substance thought to cause cancer). The CRISPR/Cas gene scissors were used to switch off a specific gene that is crucial for the production of the amino acid asparagine, and hence acrylamide, during roasting. However, asparagine is also important for germination, plant growth, stress resistance and disease protection. Field trials presented in February 2023 showed that wheat formed smaller grains. Asparagine content was also higher in some cases than in the variants tested in the greenhouse. The results of the trials show that the new genetic engineering results in extreme traits in plants and animals. However, achieving major changes in the genome of crops through these methods does not bring real benefits to farmers, experts say.

Photos: Svilena Velcheva and Georgi Krastev