When it comes to genetically modified produce, public skepticism may be big, but big biotech’s reach may be even bigger, suggests a new Turkish regulation which legalizes the importation of genetically modified feed corn.
The regulation, approved in late November by Ankara’s Biosecurity Committee and put into effect at the start of 2012, gives the green light to the importation and sale of 13 genetically modified varieties of corn for livestock feed, a sign to activists and biotech lobbyists alike that Turkey’s once bio-technologies adverse climate may be coming to an end.
“The decision is an indicator of a changing regulatory climate surrounding GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in this country,” said Koray Çalışkan, an assistant professor of political science at Boğaziçi University and who has written extensively about GMO regulation in Turkey.
The GMO regulation brings with it the bitter debate between industry lobbyists who defend their use as solutions to global agriculture needs and activists who question the health and economic impacts of their use.
“This new regulation is a serious concern for the Turkish consumer. There will be major health risks,” said Kemal Özer, GMO opponent and head of Turkey’s Food Safety Movement.
“Every animal you now consume may contain these products. Consuming these animals is not only unsafe, but the regulation does not even require labeling of products to inform the public which animals consumed genetically modified (GM) feed corn,” he explained.
Meanwhile, industry lobbyists for biotechnology firms have strongly disputed the health risk claims. A spokesperson at the US based biotechnology giant Monsanto told Sunday’s Zaman that GM products are only released to the market after “rigorous safety assessment along internationally accepted guidelines.”
In November The Ministry of Agriculture and Food voiced its endorsement for the feed plan, saying it would be mandated “in accordance with regulations which currently exist in the European Union,” and promised consumers that there would be no ill health effects from consuming livestock which had been fed the special feed. Activists say that the Ministry’s endorsement and the easy pass of the regulation suggest that the door is now open for further use of GMOs in Turkey.
Turkey’s Biosecurity Committee: a sleeping watchdog
Beyond the debate about the safety record of GMO, activists say the very process which secured the Biosecurity Committee’s approval suggests a disregard for a long standing public skepticism of reengineering nature.
“In Turkey, there exists significant public suspicion about any food products that have been genetically modified and in fact this has long meant public opposition to any kind of GMO,” said Boğaziçi professor Çalışkan. “Although there is this public suspicion, in the time I have followed this issue, it has been simply discarded – the Biosecurity Committee was supposed to consult the public, but there has been a lack of any dialogue on what the public thinks about GMOs.” Çalışkan notes that an anti-GMO petition garnered 100,000 signatures last year, a result he says was notable in a country which “doesn’t discuss environmental issues.”
“But there was no response to the petition. There wasn’t a real consulting process,” says Çalışkan. The current acrimony between regulators and public interest groups stands in stark contrast to the originally cooperative role imagined for the committee. In 2009 the Biosecurity Committee, composed of Agricultural Ministry officials, academics, and members of several trade boards, was founded as part of a bill which banned GMO production in Turkey and aimed to closely regulate any GMO imports. The committee, which was authorized to give stiff legal penalties to any GMO importer who harmed public health or caused environmental damages, was supposed to “maintain a strict regulatory environment” and keep GMO importers accountable to the public, an announcement by State Minister Cemil Çiçek said at the time.
“The committee was meant to represent the public’s opinions, its hesitations, on bio-technology,” head of the Food Safety Movement Özer stated. This, he claims, has hardly been the case. “One good example is the issue of GMOs being un-Islamic. GMOs are unpopular with the public because they are considered un-Islamic. But the committee didn’t try to act based on the public’s beliefs. Instead they sought a fatwa [a ruling by an Islamic scholar] from the Religious Ministry that decreed that it was helal [religiously permissible].”
Ahmet Atalık, president of the Agricultural Engineers Association, voiced a similar concern about the committee’s “lack of input” from public interest groups. “Genetic modification is taking the country down a road which many in agriculture don’t want to go down. If there’s going to be a safe livestock industry in Turkey, it needs to rely on a safe, parallel agricultural sector.”
Despite such fears that biotechnology threatens the future of Turkish food, professor Çalışkan remains guardedly optimistic. “What is happening is very serious. It has definitely opened up the door for more GMO in the future. But I think we will see much, much more opposition when it comes to approving GMO for direct public consumption, and in that case it will be hard to ignore the public.”
Food safety activist Özer is less optimistic. “The current law is designed to closely regulate what a biotech firm could import. But already it does not back this up through any substantial oversight measures. With the arrival of more GM products, regulation is unlikely to improve in the future. It is a bad sign for public health.”