EghtesadOnline: Iranian lawmakers have banned the development and production of genetically modified crops as well as their import and consumption without securing state permits.
“The government must adopt measures for testing transgenic crops and raising people’s awareness on the possible hazards of such foods,” reads the freshly approved bill, which might calm critics of the government-approved studies on transgenic agricultural products.
"Over the past 22 years, more than 200 million hectares have gone under the cultivation of transgenic crops worldwide," says one of the vocal critics of the legislation, former agriculture minister Isa Kalantari, Mehr News Agency reported.
“Despite extensive research in this regard, no single report has proved that these products could be harmful to human health. Genetic transformation of plants and other organisms does occur naturally and routinely. The modified crops, we see in nature, have evolved gradually and the transgenic science is going down the same path.”
According to Financial Tribune, transgenic technology refers to the processes that remove genetic material from one species of plant and add it to another to improve crop yields and protect those yields from pests and diseases.
A topic of intense debate in the world, research on development of transgenic crops has also sparked controversies during the past two year.
Opponents object to research on transgenic crops on several grounds, including environmental concerns and food safety. They also argue that pests are likely to become resistant to the toxins produced by transgenic crops and these toxins might affect non-target organisms.
Kalantari believes what lie behind objections to transgenic food are economic motives.
“They prefer to keep open the country’s gates to imports,” he said.
He said a vast majority of the world’s genetically modified crops have been mostly designed to resist pests and not to increase production.
“For example, the transgenic rice Iranian scientists have developed is resistant to rice stem borers—one of the most destructive types of pests of rice. Up to 20 kilograms of pesticide per hectare are needed to eradicate the rice stem borers,” he said.
Proponents of transgenic organisms, particularly crops and foodstuffs, maintain that the technology is intended to make the crops more hardy and healthful and to make more food available to more people in need.
"If people refuse to consume transgenic vegetable oils or chicken, they have to spend multiple times more money than they currently do," Kalantari said.
“Iran is among the first 10 countries with expensive food prices whereas the gross domestic product per capita is not among the top 50. This has led to malnutrition and undernourishment of poverty-stricken people. Food in rich countries tends to be much cheaper than in Iran.”
He stressed that officials encourage local farmers to compete with the world but then in the same breath prevent them from harvesting transgenic crops.
Critics of transgenic research, according to Kalantari, falsely point out that the producers of transgenic crops are reluctant to consume their products themselves.
“Such claims are baseless. All producers of transgenic foods export the product in excess of their need. Farming of transgenic crops is not forbidden in Europe, either," he said.
On the ban imposed on imports of transgenic foods, the former official thinks such policies are impractical.
“About 80% of the imported soybeans and corns to the countries are transgenic. It costs three times more to replace these imports. Such a shift would automatically push prices up exponentially,” he said.
Asked about the criticism leveled on the absence of clear labeling of transgenic foods, Kalantari said people have the right to choose whether or not they want to consume transgenic food.
"Fears about the harmful effects of eating transgenic foods have proved to be largely without scientific basis," he said.
On the possibility of investment in organic farming instead of transgenic crops, Kalantari believes, “Given the shallow depth of soil in Iran (around 20 centimeters) and lack of organic substances (less than 0.5%) as well as water shortage, extensive organic farming is not practical in the country.”
Farmers who grow organic produce do not use conventional methods to fertilize and control weeds. Examples of organic farming practices include using natural fertilizers to feed soil and plants, and using crop rotation or mulch to manage weeds.
Organic farming would bear one-fourth of the current yield, Kalantari said, adding that such methods of farming are only possible in small areas of the northern province of Golestan and fractions of western provinces.
Kalantari served as minister of agriculture in both terms of Hashemi Rafsanjani's presidency and the first term of president Mohammad Khatami. He has a BSc in agriculture from Urmia University, MSc of Physiology-Biochemistry from Iowa State University, and PhD in agricultural physiology from University of Nebraska.