A lengthy report was published in the independent online weekly magazine EVN Report in response to recent criticism of an event hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Armenia, which featured representatives from American agricultural biotechnology giant Monsanto. The goal of the Nov. 1 business forum was “to strengthen commercial ties between American and Armenian agribusinesses,” and updates about the event were published on the Embassy’s Facebook page.
Negative reaction from the public ensued shortly afterward, facilitated by a Facebook post by System of A Down lead singer Serj Tankian, who called on followers to protest Monsanto’s presence in Armenia: “When I’m in Armenia and bite into an apple, it’s pure, crisp and delicious, as it is the result of thousands of years of agriculture and cultivation. Let it remain so, please. I can’t find apples like that in the U.S. thanks to Monsanto.”
A number of opinion pieces soon appeared in local and international Armenian media outlets opposing the cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Armenia’s farming economy:
- Why Monsanto in Armenia Should Raise Red Flags For Its Farmers
- Say No to Monsanto! Open Letter to Armenian Prime Minister and US Ambassador to Armenia
- It’s Pitchforks-and-Torches Time: Speaking Out Against the Invasion of Our Homeland by Monsanto
Many facts regarding the precedent of GMO seeds in Armenia, however, remained unclear. In response to the uncertainty, EVN Report launched a 10-day investigation involving interviews with representatives from a wide array of institutions in the country’s agricultural, international development, public health, and legal sectors.
The report revealed that, unaware to many, Monsanto has had a presence in Armenia already spanning nearly two decades. The local distributor of Monsanto seeds in Armenia is a company called Agroline Limited, which has the exclusive rights to selling seeds from Dutch-based companies Seminis and De Ruiter Seeds, both bought out by Monsanto in 2005. The report found, though, that Monsanto’s indirect presence in the country dates back as far as 1997.
The report also demonstrated that the seemingly straightforward question, “Are GMO seeds being distributed in Armenia?” does not have a strict yes or no answer. “After conducting intensive research, speaking with officials from relevant ministries, specialists in agribusiness, representatives and distributors of Monsanto products, and others,” EVN Report editors wrote, “there are more questions than answers.”
The official answer is no, GMO seeds are not being distributed. According to the director of Agroline Limited and Monsanto’s representative in Russia, only hybridized seeds are sold to farmers in Armenia. Hybrid seeds are those that have been bred to combine the desired traits of two pure parent lines in the first generation (a process that would could take a decade or more to occur naturally). They are different from GMOs, which require an alteration of genetic material in ways that would never could occur in nature.
The unofficial answer, however, is that no one is sure. Armenia’s lack of regulation and technology to assess the GMO/hybrid content of seeds makes any official statistics about the presence of GMO seeds in Armenia nearly impossible to assess. “Armenia is still not able to prove if a given food that enters the country contains GMOs or not,” Gagik Manucharyan, head of the Environmental Protection Policy Department of the Ministry of Nature Protection, is quoted as saying. Although hybrid seeds have been circulating Armenia’s economy for decades, there is only one lab, in operation since 2010, that claims to be able to do GMO testing and analysis.
Representatives from Agroline Limited and Center for Agricultural and Rural Development suggested that up to 90 percent of seeds in Armenia are of the hybrid variety. That number was strongly contested by Armenia’s Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Ashot Harutyunyan.
The article raised questions about some of the negative consequences of seed modification and hybridization. Unlike regular seeds, which naturally yield new seeds every year, hybrid seeds are engineered in such a way that they are only good for one year, allowing distributors to control the means of agricultural production and force small farmers to purchase a new batch of seeds annually, a cumbersome burden for Armenia’s impoverished farmers, who make up 30 percent of the population but only 19.6 percent of the country’s GDP (according to a report by FAO). Also, how will the abundance of hybrid seeds (and how has it already) affected the country’s “purebred,” indigenous seeds?
One of the threats that farming with GMO and hybrid seeds poses to Armenia that was absent from the report is the potential for disincentivizing farmland diversity. This phenomenon has been seen on U.S. farms, caused both directly and indirectly by the cultivation of genetically modified seeds, and it has been the object of intense criticism in recent years. The monocrop cornfields in Iowa, for example, were described in depth in Michael Pollan’s best-selling 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In the 10 years since the book was released, concerted action has been taken in the U.S. to reintroduce diversification into the farms. According to a 2016 article by Pollan in the Washington Post, there are now more than 8,000 farmers markets in America, an increase of 180 percent, and sales of organic food have doubled from $16.7 billion to over $40 billion since the release of his book over a decade ago.
From the perspective of agricultural diversity, where does Armenia stand currently, and what does it have to lose through the cultivation of GMO and hybrid seeds? And, generally speaking, where does Armenia stand on contemporary practices and technology in agriculture (i.e., fertilizers, pesticides, machinery)? The EVN Report investigation revealed that today over 90 percent of agricultural machinery in the country is outdated, resulting in high maintenance costs and low productivity, but these questions warrant further investigation, as lack of innovation in this sector is likely what the U.S. Embassy hoped to address by bringing representatives from Monsanto and Valmont in the first place.
The report’s main argument was that, regardless of the health, environmental, or economic pros and cons of GMOs, the present lack of agricultural policy and regulation in Armenia is a weak spot that requires immediate attention. In the face of such little regulation, not having a firm stance surrounding the possibility of future GMOs in Armenia poses unforeseen risks to the country’s food sovereignty and its ecological diversity.
Read EVN’s full report here.