It was recently brought to the fore after an All Food Importers Association’s (TÜGİDER) request to the Biosecurity Committee, consisting of nine members appointed by the ministries of agriculture, environment and forestry, health, industry and trade, and the Foreign Trade Undersecretariat along with two other members selected from a university and a trade organization, for permission to import three types of genetically modified soybeans for consumption by humans.
The Biosecurity Committee’s previous decision to allow seeds for 13 types of GM corn and three types of GM soybeans to be imported paved the way for the use of GM animal feeds in Turkey.
If the committee grants TÜGİDER’s request, it will be the first time Turkey has imported GM soybeans for human consumption.
The committee will draft a report on the economic and social impact of importing the GM soybeans, which will be published and opened to public comment on the Biosecurity Committee’s website. Following the acceptance of TÜGİDER’s application in January, many nongovernmental organizations and associations voiced their opposition. However, the committee’s president, Hakan Yardımcı, argued that they only permit or reject requests to import GM food after conducting careful research.
Also, the Fikir Sahibi Damaklar convivium, the local branch of Slow Food -- an international nonprofit member-supported association founded to counter the rise of fast food, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the rest of the world -- launched a social media campaign in protest of the request. The slogan of the campaign is “TÜGİDER wants it, do you?” Hundreds of signatures have been registered on its website, from which the campaign is being run.
The convivium’s representative, Defne Koryürek, says reactions to the application reflect a general negative attitude towards genetically modified organisms (GMOs). “There has always been a voice of opposition against GM products in Turkey, but as people have become more aware of the dangers of GMOs, this voice has become louder. Now the quality of reactions and depth of understanding is much greater, and opinions are being heard from various groups of people. Another reason for TÜGİDER’s application receiving a louder reaction is that people do not care about GM animal feed as much as they care about GM foods. People are apparently not aware that the animal feed affects people’s health when they consume animal products. Yet, as I said, it is good news that people’s reactions and sensitivity about their health are increasing.”
There is also opposition from within TÜGİDER that could possibly lead to an internal conflict. Saying that it could not support a decision that had the potential to pose a threat to human health, a vintner recently resigned from the association, which currently counts more than 150 companies among its members. The company’s owner, Cem Çetintaş, said: “As a vintner, we did not think it would be the right thing to be included in such an association. We are not interested in seeking profit from importing GM foods. We found it troubling to think that even baby food will be made out of GM soybeans.” Ali Ekber Yıldırım, a columnist for the Dünya daily and a specialist in agriculture, points out that such controversial applications are always made by associations, as sole companies cannot afford the risk of giving themselves a bad name by applying to import GMO products. Companies are understandably afraid of being targeted by severe criticism or even a boycott, which could eventually damage their prestige and success, Yıldırım says, adding that he has talked with TÜGİDER Secretary-General Melahat Özkan, who said the association is against GMOs. However, what they demand from the Agriculture Ministry is to determine a threshold value. Özkan says: “There are already a certain amount of GMOs in the soy proteins we consume today, but it is such a small amount that they do not include it on the ingredients list. The safety threshold for GM foods in Europe is 0.9 percent. That means if GMOs constitute less than 1 percent of a food product they are not considered to be damaging to people’s health and are therefore not included on the label. If the ministry determines a threshold value for GM foods and limits GM foods according to this value, then it would actually pave the way for business interests.” However, Yıldırım says Özkan’s argument is not that convincing and that in the face of such huge opposition they will most probably withdraw their application.
Yet, the debates on GMOs in Turkey does not only stem from applications to import GM goods. At the core of the debate are Turkey’s high food imports, despite its potential to meet domestic agricultural demands internally, says Yıldırım.
Turkey imports 500,000 to 1 million tons of corn annually, mostly from the US, Canada and Latin America. Some 29 percent of the total amount of corn produced around the world is grown from genetically modified seeds, says Yıldırım.
“However, with its favorable climate and geographical conditions, rich soils and biological diversity, Turkey is an ideal country for agriculture. While the Justice and Development Party [AK Party] have been in office, the total amount of land given over to corn cultivation in Turkey expanded from 550,000 hectares to 594,000 hectares, while corn production nearly doubled from 2.3 million tons to 4.3 million tons. Such a surge in output naturally matched a decline in imports. However, right now it looks like corn is growing in importance in Turkey’s fluctuating agricultural sector. Businessmen see no other solution to importing more corn to meet demand. It may be that GM crops seem like the solution to this problem, but as an increasingly important global economic power, Turkey must pay much more attention to managing the delicate balance of choices and expectations in the agriculture sector. Turkey is not dependent on imports when it comes to agriculture, especially in terms of corn and soybeans. The only way to fight against GMOs is to reduce imports as much as possible and encourage the planting of more non-GM crops in our country,” he states, adding that once GM food enters the country, it will eventually spread to other food products. So a country must either completely ban GMO or it allow it altogether; it is not possible to pick and choose. Koryürek also highlights Fikir Sahibi Damaklar’s motto, created in 2009, which says “GMOs should be banned, not limited,” adding that they continue to maintain this argument.
Current regulations stipulate that GM products can be fed to livestock but not to humans, and no GM foods may be legally produced in Turkey. The Agriculture and Rural Affairs Ministry’s appeal against importing GM foods began in 2009, when it cited concerns from agricultural unions as the chief reason for tighter regulation of GM food imports.