By Heghine Buniatian
Environmental and consumer rights organizations are ringing alarm bells over the virtual absence of government controls on the spread of genetically modified (GM) food in Armenia, warning of serious ecological and health risks.
Biotech crops, widely cultivated in the United States but banned across Europe, have been rapidly spreading around the world. According to some studies, last year saw a 20 percent jump in their production levels compared to 2003.
Armenia has no laws or government policies regulating imports and domestic production of GM foodstuffs, the impact of which is still a matter of great contention. Local environmentalists say the apparent government complacency could lead to negative consequences.
“The danger facing both nature and human beings is enormous. We are violating the most important laws of nature,” warned Karine Danielian, a former environment minister who now heads the Association For Sustainable Development, a non-governmental organization opposed to genetically engineered crops.
Anush Galstian of the Armenian Ecological Club, another NGO, shared Danielian’s concerns, arguing that the authorities do not even check the genetic origin of crop seeds imported to the country. “We don’t have laboratories to conduct such studies,” she said. “Nor do we have laws obliging every importer of foodstuffs to go through such procedures.”
“We have yet to clarify what we are importing and growing,” Galstian added.
The Armenian Ministry of Environmental Protection did recognize the problem in 2003 when it received a $156,000 grant from the United Nations to develop a “national framework for biological security.” Artashes Ziroyan, a ministry official who runs the project, told RFE/RL that the document has already been drawn up and will serve as a basis for a special law to be drafted by the government.
Ziroyan could not say whether GM seeds are already used by Armenian farmers and, if so, to what extent. According to Melsida Hakobian, chairman of the Association of Consumers, the unusually big size of some vegetables sold in the markets indicates their GM origin.
“The farmers do not know what [genetic engineering] is,” she said. “But when we explain the risks involved, some of them start having second thoughts. But other say proudly, ‘See how big our tomatoes are’.”
The possibly negative effects of biotech crops has prompted concern from environmentalists and farming specialists around the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a UN agency based in Rome, held a special conference on the problem this week. In a statement released afterward, FAO called for thorough consultations and checks on the impact that GM food might produce on natural resources such as soil and water, as well as of rural livelihoods.
"The need to monitor both the benefits and the potential hazards of released GM crops to the environment is becoming ever more important with the dramatic increase in the range and scale of their commercial cultivation, especially in developing countries," Louise O. Fresco, assistant director-general of the agency's agriculture department, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying on Thursday.