A visit to the Transylvanian Food Company

It wasn’t what I had been expecting at all: a discussion about genetically modified crops with an environmentalist who doesn’t run screaming into the hills.  And who didn’t make me want to do the same.

Until I met Jim Turnbull, I was agin GM per se, entrenched in loathing for a barrowload of reasons while forgetting that the science behind the process has a benevolent, not to say enthralling side.

Jim is the director of a new venture called The Transylvanian Food Company (TFC).  As it says on the tin, the firm is based in Transylvania, and it specialises in juices, cordials and preserves made from locally-sourced, naturally-grown flowers and fruits.

Before I frighten the horses, I should say that TFC has nothing to do with GM…  but Jim’s attitude to the technology and its uses got me thinking.  What are the real benefits?

Well, obviously, there is the alleviation of hunger and poverty: by allowing people to grow their own food for one thing.  So why are people so against GM:

The Citizenship Foundation has summarised the arguments for and against as follows:

Crops can be engineered to be pest/disease resistant and so reduce or eliminate the need to use pesticides or herbicides. This reduction in chemicals can benefit the environment and wildlife.    The creation of pest or herbicide resistant GM crops could result in superbugs or superweeds that evolve to be resistant to the chemicals or toxinsdeveloped in conjunction with GM crops.
GM foods could be made healthier than conventional foods by, for example, modifying them to include extra vitamins and nutrients.    The growing of GM crops could result in cross-pollinationbetween GM crops and non-GM and organic crops thereby contaminating them.
Since the wide scale consumption of food from GM crops began some seven years ago there have been no substantiated cases of harm to human health.    Because it is a new technology, there is a need to adopt the precautionary principle. The long term impacts on human health, food safety or the environment cannot be accurately predicted. It is too risky to allow the commercial growing of GM crops at this stage.
Crops could be modified to reduce or eliminate allergic affects, e.g. by removing the allergic properties from nuts or altered so they have medicinal benefits, e.g. contain vaccines for specific diseases.    GM crops which have additional proteins or altered genetic composition could result in toxic and allergic reactions in certain people.
Crops could be modified to enable them to survive and grow in unfavourable conditions and withstand drought or floods. This could be particularly beneficial to farmers in the developing world.    GM crops will result in increased dependency on transnational biotech corporations to supply seed and chemicals, the result being monocultures. This will prove particularly costly and damaging to small scale farmers in the developing world who rely on saving seed from year to year and often plant a diversity of crops.
Crops can be created that give higher yieldsand better quality food. This is particularly important to help meet the demand for food by an expanding world population.    GM is not the key to food security and GM crop developments to date have largely benefited northern countries and markets, not small scale farmers in the developing world. Food security lies in the more equal distribution of food, access to land and money by the poor.

Why is someone like Jim Turnbull encouraging the use of this technology?  After all, on the face of it, he is running a classic Slow Food organisation, which surely means that GMs are anathema?  Well, no: like a good scientist, he likes the idea in its purity, but not some of its grosser applications.  While mentioning the M word, he cited the example of Monsanto injecting tomatoes with fish genes to prevent the fruit from freezing.  But unlike some of us, he does not start bristling with anger when Monsanto’s name is mentioned.  This may be partly because he used to work for Cargill, one of the world’s largest trading corporations (in terms of its revenue).  Cargill is one of the giants of food marketing; it employs 140,000 people in 65 countries.  To quote from its own factsheets:

Between 1975-99, “Cargill diversified with new operations in beef, pork and poultry processing, steel making, citrus processing, petroleum trading and merchandising, international metals, fibers and tropical commodities trading, and fertilizer production. By its 125th anniversary in 1990, Cargill, its subsidiaries and affiliates were found in 57 countries representing nearly 55,000 employees.

And from 2000 to the present, “Cargill’s goal of becoming the premier global food and agriculture company pushed a renewed emphasis within the company on innovation and technology. The company evolved from trading soybeans, to processing them into meal and oil, to producing high-value natural vitamin E from a soybean byproduct. And it moved from trading corn, to processing corn into ethanol and fructose, to creating a whole new family of renewable products — from plastics to fabric made from corn.”

If that all sounds gung-ho, Cargill has plenty of critics.  To see a list of complaints which include human rights abuses, deforestation and food contamination, visit Criticisms of Cargill.

Jim Turnbull was a relatively small cog in Cargill’s wheels, but he has no time for those who damn global companies simply because they are big.  Or who complain about corporations without engaging with them.

To give ‘the other side’ their say is a fundamental principle of getting on in life, let alone journalism, but the cynical among us may be forgiven for believing that ‘they’ (the powerful, the Establishment) won’t listen unless they are forced or shamed into it.  Some campaigners can be so extreme that they do more harm than good – animal rights activists who attack scientists and their families, for example – but the other side of this coin is government bullying and the loss of free speech.  It was good to find someone who has had feet in several very different camps.  Apart from this, Jim’s willingness to discuss the pros and cons of genetic modification with a complete stranger struck me as more than media-savviness; it was courteous.

Talking about his time as a rural development consultant in Africa, Jim told me (and I’m paraphrasing him here): “In certain situations, companies like Cargill are the only ones that can get things done.  How would you move thousands of tons of food hundreds of miles to an area where people are starving, without guys like them?  Those are real situations.  You have to be practical.”

TFC is based in Saschiz, a village in Mures county, in the heart of the Siebenburgen, an area of Transylvania famous for the fortified churches which German colonists built in the 13th and 14th centuries to defend themselves from marauders.  Presented to tourists as a fairy-tale land, the region is full of potential for sustainable development but poverty levels are high.

The factory – which is surely a misnomer for such an attractive timber-clad building – abuts the E60 which runs through the centre of Saschiz.  The road takes the brunt of Romania’s transcontinental traffic, and it’s unlikely that the truckers who thunder through the village have a clue that the TFC is there, or that Saschiz is such a lovely place.  Its fortified Saxon church is listed as a World Heritage Site, and its castellated clock tower is a copy of the gorgeous 13th century one in Sighisoara.

If you visit TFC, you get to see behind the scenes in more ways than one: for sure, life takes a deep breath once you leave the highway and goes at a slower pace.  You can still see horse-drawn carts here although they are becoming a rarity.  Rows of wonky red tiled farmhouses stagger becomingly along dirt tracks and a charming wooden bridge with a timber canopy allows people but not cars across the stream.  Stop a moment: the bridge is not as old as it looks: it was built for a British tv film set in the Cotswolds and starring Ian McShane.

Going round the back into TFC’s courtyard brings you into the heart of an organisation that is merging a cottage industry with high-tech ideas.  It is also helping to give employment to the inhabitants of this village of just over 2000 people, many of whom live in squalid conditions and most of whom have very little hope of improving their lives.  Official statistics say that 35% of the population is unemployed.

TFC can provide work at least some of the time: apart from five permanent, full-time employees and four seasonal workers with contracts, the firm pays people piece rates to collect elder and acacia blossom for its various fruit juices.  During the picking season which may last between three to six weeks, about 1300 individuals collect the blooms.  Some of them work in teams; others collect the flowers alone.  One old lady paid for the medication that she needed for a whole year by gathering blossom for TFC.  Many of the harvesters are Gypsies – Roma who would otherwise have little work except weeding.  Pickers get 50 Euro cents per kilogram.

Jim told me that TFC has an agreement with the primari (mayors) of Saschiz and surrounding villages that allows their workers to take the blossom from their waysides and common land.  Anyone tempted to increase their yield by cutting down trees will get caught, because it is obvious by the quality of the flowers, and their harvest will be rejected.

Enforcing legislation to do with food and the way it’s produced is a problem: people often just don’t see the point or feel that they can’t afford to comply with it.

Jim is strict about his business methods.  ‘There is no point in being dishonest.  We make an issue of sticking to the rules…  We pay £1800 in council tax, but we’re probably the only company [in Saschiz] paying the tax!’   He admits that implementing global food standards may be ‘a mission impossible’, but better controls ‘will come’.

When I visited the company in May 2013, it was nearing the end of one of a bumper season for elder flowers.  Romania had had a severe drought for the previous two summers but last spring the rain and heat came at the right time.  TFC had just finished making 20,000 litres of elder flower juice in two days.  Two weeks previously, pickers collected 7.5 tons in one day: a record harvest to date.  They bring the flowers in whatever transport they have: in carts, on bikes, using hand carts or on foot.

Elder and acacia are their best sellers, but TFC also makes a raspberry cordial that is “to die for”.  Using beet sugar from Brasov, the fresh juices are semi-processed in Saschiz and exported in tankers to the UK where a firm called Bottle Green makes the finished article and sends some of it back to Romania.  In Britain, TFC’s fruit juices and cordials have been taken up by stores such as Waitrose.  There is no doubting the quality of the drinks, or the other products in the company’s larder – a delicious range of jams, ketchups, sauces, and chutneys.  Some of them are wild combinations: jam made from chile peppers, and rhubarb and vanilla are recent innovations.  My favourite is the plum ketchup.

Saschiz is also the home of ADEPT, an NGO founded in 2002 to work with local farmers “in order to solve the range of problems threatening the survival of these remarkable landscapes and of the small-scale farming communities living within thempromote local products and small-scale farming.”  ADEPT has concentrated on supporting local people who make jams, and for a limited period, it has enabled several local small holders to sell their milk in Bucharest.  It has won an impressive amount of funding for prestigious development projects.  Through ADEPT’s intervention, Tarnava Mare, a “high nature” geographical region of 85,000 hectares around Saschiz, has become a Natura 2000 site, a protected environment that qualifies for certain EU development funds.  One of the aims for the area is to encourage sustainable tourism.

Although Jim used to work for ADEPT, TFC has a different aim, not only in the type of foodstuffs it makes but by becoming a business it has “a chance to grow and stay alive”.

He told me that is a crucial difference: “NGOs have tended to make a virtue out of negativity”, he said (my paraphrasing again), “They often focus on problems rather than solutions”.  That is quite a sweeping statement, but Jim was not exaggerating.  He knows the terrain, having started out by doing Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) in Africa.  To quote his profile on LinkedIn, his career encompasses:

“Over 40 years of commercial business and agribusiness experience in Africa, Asia, South America and Europe. During this time he has been involved in rural development projects, commercial operations, the identification of business opportunities, the preparation of feasibility studies, strategic planning, development plans for privatisation, restructuring, change management and the introduction of commercial management to a variety of micro, small, medium and large enterprises. He has work experience in 30 countries worldwide and has won and supervised over 500 projects in a further 48 countries. A sound understanding of business, the private sector, international aid agencies and the consultancy industry has been combined with the ability to identify specific client requirements, establish the resources required and to provide practical solutions…  He is now putting into practice what he has been advising about for decades…”

“I tell my staff to concentrate on solutions not problems”.  This was a wake up call to those of us who get a little bit set in our ways!  One area of real concern is the lack of support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), such as this one.  Romania is not unique in this: it’s a global issue that hinges on what’s known as the ‘missing middle’.  It’s main case is lack of access to capital.  Even though respected financial analysts such as the Harvard Business School have proved that in rich countries, SMEs generate up to 50% of GDPs adn 60% of employment, grant-funders, banks and other financial institutions generally are not interested.  So far all of TFC’s backers are based in Great Britain.

In the meantime, Jim is determined to encourage business in Romania.  To this end he has founded a business network for Transylvania which, when I spoke to him, had 45 members across the region.

There is plenty more to say about TFC, Jim Turnbull and Saschiz, but I want to return to the question of GM crops.  When I got back to Britain, Jim sent me an email with a file attached.  It was an article called ‘Genetically modified crops: time for a reasoned stance’.  The piece was from the spring 2013 issue of a magazine published by the Tropical Agriculture Association.  The TAA was founded in the late 1970s and aims to “advance education, research and practice in agriculture for development”, particularly in the tropics and sub-tropics.  Its website urges you to join this vibrant, voluntary group of professionals and institutions which wants to:

“Contribute to international policies aimed at reducing poverty and improving livelihoods in rural areas in the tropics, sub-tropics and countries with less developed economies in temperate areas.
Encourage efficient and sustainable use of local resources and technologies, to arrest and reverse the degradation of the natural resources base on which agriculture depends, and to raise productivity of both agriculture and related enterprises to increase family incomes and commercial investment in the rural sector.”

The article’s author was Brian Sims.  Its strap line tells you that Brian Sims is an “FAO agriculture mechanization consultant focussing on the needs of conservation agriculture”.  The writer sums up current attitudes to GM crops and pleads for an unemotional reassessment.  He says:

“The regulatory environment in Europe is somewhat hostile to GM and there are just three institutions working in this field in the UK…”

He reports on a seminar held in 2012 at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) in Cambridge.  Its title was “Is it time for a public-good programme?” Among the GM products discussed at the seminar were:

“anthocyanin-rich tomatoes; aphid-resistant wheat; long-chain fatty acid Camelina; and potatoes for bioplastics. There is a wide range of future R&D possibilities for GM, most importantly for insect resistance and herbicide tolerance, but also for resistance to blight, drought and salinity, conversion from C3 to C4 photosynthetic pathways, N(itrogen) fixation and creating perennial cereals.”

Brian Sims argues that:

“Genetically engineering crop plants with on-board pest resistance is not only good for production and the pocket, it is of great environmental benefit as well.”

He uses Rachel Carson’s frightening book, ‘Silent Spring’ (1962), to show that flooding cereals with chemicals to kill weeds and diseases was a short-term answer that created a long-term disaster.

The article’s tone is eminently sensible.  It wants to set GM in context:

“…let us back-track a little and see how we can transfer desirable traits from one organism to another by an exchange of genetic material.”

He continues, almost as though cooing:

“First there is the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens, the cause of crown gall disease, which infects plants by tunnelling into them and delivering its genetic material, which it extracts from a plasmid and is wrapped in a protective protein specialized proteins. The former promote cell division and produce the gall; the latter form the substrate for the bacterium and the invader’s renegade DNA is copied with each division of the host’s cells. Apparently, it is not difficult for molecular biologists to cut and paste desirable genes into the bacterial plasmid and so gain access to the host plant on the back of the bacterium. Agrobacterium is, as James Watson describes, a natural genetic engineer.

“Agrobacterium has itself been the subject of genetic engineering and it can now be persuaded to perform its magic on even the most recalcitrant crop species. Before this, getting desirable DNA into plant cells involved firing gold or tungsten pellets, attached to the DNA to be transferred, into the target cells. Haphazard and lacking in finesse, the ‘gene gun’ (or biolistic particle delivery system) is nevertheless successful and is still used.”

All this is extremely interesting.  But it doesn’t address the problems of misuse, deliberate or accidental.  Hold on, though:

“There is much debate on the Monsanto ‘Roundup Ready’ herbicide-tolerant GM crops (soya, canola and sugar beet). At first sight, this would appear to be a multinational company out to lock farmers into using their products and coming back for new seeds each year. In fact, the glyphosate herbicide used is a lot more benign than the herbicide cocktails that would otherwise be required and, when combined with resistant GM crops, much less of it is needed. The introduction of the so-called ‘terminator gene’, which flips genetic switches and produces seeds incapable of germinating, was a PR disaster for Monsanto and it was withdrawn from the market. As always, farmers have the last word and they are the ones who can see the advantages of Roundup Ready crops and select them through preference.”

Are those of us who are hostile to GM crops strangling beneficial research?

“Currently, Europe has a hostile regulatory environment with respect to GM R&D. This means that there is limited private sector investment which could, in the near future, put us at a disadvantage compared with the rest of the world. In this scenario, it may be time to call for increased public investment so that the outputs remain in the public domain as public goods. Barriers seem to have been erected to achieving improved genetic potential from crops and, given the kind of poor harvest that we have had in 2012, this may not be the wisest course to take. One question to ask, for example, is that if the UK needs to import wheat, then where would the source be in these times of droughts, floods and dramatically reduced yields? Crop productivity is the key to increased production and, at the moment, the rate of improvement of 0.5% annually is not enough to satisfy rising needs. With GM, although it would be a long and expensive process, yield improvements of up to 2% per year could be achieved.”

So, should we open Pandora’s Box or not?  Should we trust Monsanto and allow it to come off the naughty step?

To find out what one of GM’s fiercest critics was saying, I found an article on Greenpeace’s website.  Genetically Modified Crops and Soil is a Greenpeace Digital document about the potential for intensive agriculture – and GM crops – to destroy healthy soils.  In it, there is a quotation from Dick Thompson which says “if you take the living component out of soil, it’s a bit like switching the lights off in a factory: everything comes to a grinding halt”.

Dick Thompson and Brian Sims were once colleagues.  They both worked at the Silsoe Research Institute where Brian Sims was leader of the International Development Group.  Silsoe, as it was usually called, was a fantastically useful British organisation dedicated to improvements in agriculture, animal welfare and rural livelihoods.  Funded in 1924, Silsoe was first a university department and then a government-sponsored centre for research into agricultural, food processing and environmental engineering.  From 1994 it was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).  Silsoe’s aims were then concentrated on developing “physical, engineering and mathematical applications to agricultural and biological processes and systems”.  This included monitoring the effects of GM crops.  In 2006, the BBSRC withdrew its support for Silsoe and the Institute closed.

Jim Turnbull was so upbeat about the potential for GM crops that it was hard to be glum*.  Thanks to our encounter, I still do not feel like heading for the hills.  But it is hard to see how discussions about GM technology and the need for enormous increases in food production (and housing) to satisfy the world’s population explosion and energy expectations could leave room for transhumant pastoralism (which is the reason for this blog, after all).  If not by hiding in the Carpathian forest, maybe I can express my feelings by using Oscar Wilde’s last words: “One of us must go”.

*Update, 25th August 2013: In an email, Jim Turnbull commented on this post:

“I am not a fan of Monsanto by the way – I think they handled the whole
issue of GM very badly.

What I was saying was the that the science itself is not bad and should not
be dismissed outright because of the  mess made by Monsanto.

I am very positive in what I do, not about the future of GMO.

The issue of farm retained seed for small farmers is another hot topic. In
the past small farmers have used mostly open pollinated seeds and these were
improved over the years by farmers and by government funded research
stations. It is not normally the domain of the private sector to invest in
maintaining open pollinated seeds. However, in recent decades governments
and donors have failed to adequately fund research stations and this is why
small farmers are now struggling to get open pollinated seeds and why many
traditional varieties  have been lost. The private sector generally develop
hybrid seeds for medium to large scale farmers, without these improvements
in yield we would  be failing to feed the world, but of course there has
been a price in terms of the problems caused by intensive agriculture.”

Update, February 2015:

Since talking to Jim Turnbull in Saschiz, my attitudes have crystallised. In spite of his benevolent view
– which seems to say that things have got so bad in Africa that the only solution is to accept intervention
by huge foreign corporations, I’m convinced that the argument for GMO crops and factory farms is being
propagated by big companies that have vested interests in making them seem essential. If you accept that
colonialist powers made the problems in the first place, it does not follow that colonialist corporations are
the only ones that can clear them up. The more I talk to people who are not connected to such organisations,
the more I think that thinking so is wrong: it still smacks of ‘we know best’. If global markets did not have a
stranglehold on local economies, and if people were allowed to get on with growing their own, there would be
enough food for them without poisoning the air, soil and water with high concentrations of toxic chemicals
and introducing organisms whose effects have been shown to be dangerous: to cite only one case, GM crops
have led to an increase in resistant weeds that themselves need to be zapped by more chemicals. Monsanto
et al’s recent attempt (December 2014) to muzzle Oregonians who simply wanted to know whether their foods
contained GMOs or not show how badly these companies want to monopolise everything we own, eat, wear,
watch, etc, and how scared they are of losing their stranglehold. If GMOs were safe, why would they want to
hide them? But you will not take my word for it, so here is an article that explains what I mean very well:

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