Azerbaijan seeks to remain GMO-free zone
By Nigar Orujova
Ecologically pure nutrition is a challenge of modern world, but this crucial issue sometimes puts the mankind face to face with many problems, and using genetically modified organisms (GMO) is believed to be the best way out.
GMO is obtained through the extraction or artificially forcing of genes from the DNA of one species into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal. It has now become a real threat among its users. People sometimes feel horrible when just hearing the alien genes may come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals and even humans.
Although the impact of GMOs on the future generation is still under the study and yet to be determined, the frequent questions in this situation are whether our grandchildren will have three eyes, or new color of skin. Can the planet stand the changes?
Soil-rich Azerbaijan, by a happy coincidence, has nine of the 11 existing climate zones, and it has definitely every right to be a GMO-free zone.
Azerbaijan has approved in 2011 a law on protection and effective usage of genetic resources, which bans import, zoning and entering the state register of the GMOs. A special group involving the state bodies was created to bring the law into action.
This law is aimed to protect population's health and the country's biodiversity.
Azerbaijan has joined a number of international environmental conventions to stop GMOs penetration on the local market. Nevertheless, experts believe that modified products are widely spread in the country.
Mehraj Abbasov, deputy director for scientific issues of Genetic Resources Institute, says there is still no exact data on the genetically modified plants in the country.
"Being the expert group, we held expeditions and workshops in 2013 to evaluate the GMOs situation in the country. Moreover, a technique to identify genetic modified plants was also prepared in 2013. Next year, seeds will be taken from the large farms around the country to be analyzed using the method," he said.
Samples taken from a number of plants across certain parts of Azerbaijan showed no genetic changes in any of the samples in 2013.
There is also no information on using the GMOs in commercial plants breeding, such as cotton, tobacco, tea, and potato planting.
No information is also available on using the GMOs in cattle breeding, which is also a problem, as the most part of the genetically modified plants are used for animal breeding around the world.
"There is also a possibility of using such products in our country. While the safety of the GMO products is not proved, their usage is considered to be risky," Abbasov said.
GM plants can genetically pollute the nearby plants, if the necessary rules are not observed. Azerbaijan does not have the strong bio-security rules yet, which is one of the reasons GMOs are under seizure in the country.
Some scientists believe GMOs are extremely dangerous, while the others regard it as salvation to the nutrition problem. Genetically modified foods are believed to threaten the biological diversity, and cause a number of illnesses including infertility.
There are also some financial concerns on the issue, which makes it more complicated for the ordinary people.
Is the game worth the candle?
Around 40 percent of tomatoes and 40 percent of potatoes are genetically modified in Azerbaijan. About 98 percent of the soya beans, which are widely used in food and cosmetic industries, as well as 15 percent of the country's maize, are also believed to contain GMOs, the head of the Azerbaijani Free Consumers Union Eyyub Huseynov said.
These alarming amounts of the GM products are believed to be both imported and planted in Azerbaijan.
"Most of the plants imported from Iran are genetically modified," Huseynov said.
"The law on the environmentally friendly agriculture, approved in 2008, says that the genetically modified products should be marked. However, there are still no marking of GMPs in Azerbaijan," he said.
Importing GM plants is also banned in Azerbaijan. The control over plants is based on their certificates, however, Mehraj Abbasov believes, in the near future all the plants will be allowed to the country only after the laboratory test.
Customers around the world are attracted by genetically modified plants, because of their cheaper price. GM plants are created to be more sustainable and productive, which makes them also very attractive to farmers in Azerbaijan, as well.
It's worth to note that the newly produced GMO is stronger than other organisms of that species. There are a number of genetically modified vegetables, which have the genes of animals - like potatoes and tomatoes - and human genes are in genetically modified rice, for instance.
This makes awareness program on the matter crucial to make population more educated in what to choose to eat. Awareness programs should give information on the issue both to customers and to farmers.
"Sometimes farmers even do not know that they grow genetically modified plants," Abbasov said.
Genetically modified future
However, the possibility persists that Azerbaijan may also allow cultivation of the genetically modified plants, once the strong bio-security system is created, or the complete safety of one or another GM plant is proved.
Abbasov went on to note that so far profound work has been done in the country to protect the biodiversity, for example natural preserves and parks were created. Moreover, national gene bank was created to more reliably preserve the country's biodiversity. At present, the bank has over 10,000 seeds.
In addition to the bank, a special attention is paid to agro-biodiversity protection at farms and in nature.
"Protection of the rich biodiversity of the country was one of the main aims of the GMOs ban in Azerbaijan," Abbasov said.
Azerbaijan's neighbor Georgia has recently banned import of genetically modified seeds without a license of the Environment Ministry. Other former Soviet Union republics have essentially the same point of view on the problem, and are against GMOs, varying in the strictness of attitude to the issue.
It is still unknown whether our future will be "modified" or not. But as the saying goes, "forewarned is forearmed" and it is definitely better to be aware that our food does not "eat" us.