Armenia has always been blessed with bountiful lands, ripe for the agricultural undertaking, and the country’s culinary heritage is, as a result, a point of pride for its residents. But how is food in Armenia faring in the industrial era?
In the last few decades, while Armenia’s food system has industrialized along with the rest of the developed world’s, it’s remained worryingly unregulated. Predictably, the market favors producers who get food to supermarket shelves quickly and cheaply. And while that may be good for ‘the market,’ turns out it’s not for much else. Quality of food items in grocery stores all over in Armenia as a result are, it seems, in decline. Even simple foods, like rye bread and more notably, ice cream, have taken major hits–transforming from simple staples to cocktails of chemicals and additives. But while there have always been watch dogs, the issue has typically lingered in the public’s periphery–that is, until people started getting sick.
The effects of food insecurity in Armenia has reared its ugly head with greater frequency as of late. Outbreaks of gastrointestinal diseases are on the rise. Last May, in Armavir, at least 80 people suffered Salmonella poisonings. More recently, Hripsime Apresyan, head of a department at Nork Infectious Diseases Hospital in Yerevan, said in a report to Arka News Agency, that the number of people hospitalized as a result of food poisoning has increased by 25%, about 80% of whom are minors.
Hoping to better understand the causes and potential solutions, as well as current food safety policy in Armenia, the Weekly’s correspondent, Sofia Manukyan, recently sat with David Pipoyan, Head of the Department of the Informational-Analytical Center for Risk Assessment of Food Chain at Armenia’s National Academy of Sciences’ Centre for Ecological-Noosphere Studies. Pipoyan received his full degree in Veterinary food safety at the Armenian State Agrarian University and later completed his PhD in Production quality and safety at the University of Tuscia in Italy. From 2012 to 2016 he was a doctorate researcher at the Department of Agri-food Systems Innovation and got the degree of doctor in food science and nutrition at the Campus Biomedico of Rome. He has also worked for the Armenian Government as an expert of food safety and export.
Below is our interview.
Sofia Manukyan: How does the state control what we eat?
Davit Pipoyan: Armenia is a member of Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), so regardless of which body carries out the state control, it has to follow the legal code of this union. In Armenia the institution of compliance assessment is still operational, which follows guidelines adopted back in the seventies and eighties. But since then, the world has gone in another direction. In Armenia, legislation was drafted back in 2013 in accordance with European Union (EU) directives, but political changes happened and we went back to previous technical regulations.
S.M.: What kind of regulations are these?
D.P.: These regulations have physical-chemical indexes and security indexes—indexes that show the quantity of fats in the food or the food origin, so that, for example, a certain type of spread is not presented as butter, and security indexes, such as the presence of pesticides and so forth. The rest of the world has, for years, abandoned this model. There are now quality assessment mechanisms, such as geographical labeling, which are a sign of high quality and help protect the location of the product, such as in case of Champagne, Cognac, and Feta. This way, historically certain geographic locations have granted their names to certain products and have become brands of high quality.
As a result of this policy, for example, Armenia cannot produce cognac today, because it can be produced only in the town of Cognac and the brand is a protected label. So I always raise the question both within the government, as well as within our scientific community, that Armenia can become a country of quality food and geographical labeling.
Moreover, in terms of culture and cuisine, there are several “Armenias” in this country. The immigration from Western Armenia has brought the traditions of a certain location to [Eastern] Armenia, including the gastronomic traditions. In this sense, Armenia is a microcosm of a once big cultural-gastronomic diversity.
S.M.: What are some local brands in Armenia and how are they marketed? What’s the new government’s approach to export policy?
D.P.: For example, an apricot from Ararat or potato from Martuni are the tastiest. Wine from Areni is famous too, so in this sense Armenia has good potential. However, discussions with the previous government, the Ministry of Agriculture, about making Armenia an exporter of food brands didn’t lead to anything. Unfortunately, the ministry’s approach was hardly professional.
As for the current government, it’s still early. We haven’t had the chance to meet with them and understand their approach. When the government presented its program, the section on agriculture was not written in the traditional way programs are, so I can’t really comment on what policy they will have.
So far, we have had only one label apply for recognition as a quality brand product: Sevan’s Trout.
If a company is going to claim that it produces a quality product, it also has to have ample research conducted, which proves that its product’s quality differs from similar product with its taste, smell, etc. For example, in case of apricot, we all know that Armenian apricot and its nut are sweet, however there should also be research showing, for example, what antioxidants Armenian apricots may contain and how it differs from apricots in, let’s say, Uzbekistan, since they grow apricots there too. This demands time and a professional approach. For years our previous governments paid no attention to this.
S.M.: So who is testing our food for its quality? How is the market regulated?
D.P.: For years, there was no real testing happening. Let’s take a recent case: when producers were protesting about milk prices. All over the world, there are categories of milk products: extra, first category, second category, abnormal. Producers of these categories cannot get the same amount of income for their products. The regulation is as follows: Producers of fresh drinking milk fall into the “extra” category, “first category” milk can be used in pasteurized milk, and so on. Their prices differ in the market. The market dictates that if you produce milk of the first or second category, the prices are lower.
In our country, high quality milk is produced in small amounts. And since the market here is not regulated and producers cannot be differentiated according to their categories, the prices are based on competition. This competition comes at the cost of lower quality. For five years, we have been studying the quality of one such dairy product: ice cream. Year after year, this product loses quality, mostly because the producers go for cheap options, using products such as milk powder, imported vegetable fats, manufactured spreads instead of butter, and so forth. We have sounded the alarms on the issue, noting that this is not simply a matter of labeling, but also of unfair competition.
The state must regulate this market, because consumers cannot differentiate between products. In order to be competitive in the market, producers drop quality. It’s a problem, when in 2018 we still don’t have product labelling, categorizing, etc. We have some serious gaps in this field and the person who will be appointed as the head of State Service for Food Safety will have a burdensome task.
S.M.: What about the food quality control at supermarkets?
D.P.: Since the institution of compliance assessment is still operational in Armenia, there is a certain procedure and products need to be taken to laboratories and get certain certifications before they hit the supermarket shelves. There is also a state body, which acts based on complaints. If we are speaking about issues such as security, control cannot be implemented with the technical regulations that we have. For example, this system can regulate three or four types of pesticides, however today, this number has multiplied throughout the world. That’s why in Europe, for example, there is a system that tracks producers, to know when each producer buys a certain pesticide. The controlling body can then check for those specific pesticides in the product. In Armenia, we don’t have this or other type of mapping—no system of enumeration of domestic animals, no registry of animals and producers, and so forth.
Just a few days ago, a mass poison breakout happened at a factory, probably one of the biggest such case in the past years. The factory workers were provided with food that had salmonella in it. The producer was not even a registered entity. So controlling the food security without this mapping is very difficult.
S.M.: Food is primarily affected by soil and water quality. Here in Armenia, we have a lot of mining activity. How does mining affect our food?
D.P.: Food security globally maintains the principle: “from farm to fork.” This means that if the soil is polluted, the pollution will eventually reach the food. Quality and security control mechanisms have two procedures—primary production and the processing phase. In Armenia, various regions have different amount of pollution of soil: In one place it is copper, in another it is lead, and so forth. In order to operatively control the soil with these mechanisms, one has to have the soil mapping to conduct a risk assessment of the soil. In Armenia, we don’t have this as well.
The Ministry of Nature Protection is the body that regulates this sphere (risk assessment of soil), but it doesn’t assess agricultural lands because it is outside its realm. It would be best if environmental impact assessments (EIAs) were carried out not only when opening factories or mines, but also for agricultural activity.
Today we have products grown near mine sites, and there is an everyday potential that this food can enter the market [and we don’t know how safe it is or isn’t]. That’s why it is of particular importance to make an inventory (mapping) of lands.
S.M.: Has your center assessed soil and water pollution in Armenia?
D.P.: We do projects based on grants, which is never enough to undertake such large research projects, so instead, we do thematic research projects, such as one on heavy metals, another on pesticides. So each year there is certain fragmentary research being conducted, but large funds are necessary for a large-scale project.
In 2013, we studied agricultural lands in Syunik, in 2014 we conducted research in Alaverdi, then in 2015, in Ararat; but these cannot be combined under one research project, since they are done at different periods, under different climatic circumstances, and so forth.
Our research has shown various locations having various levels of pollution from copper, molybdenum, mercury, and other metals. All of these have different levels of toxicity. The level of such substance may be two to three or more times higher from the permitted level. But it is also important to take into account as to what is growing on this type of soil, because some plants absorb these elements more than others. Garlic, for example, even if growing on the tailings of a mine, will absorb no heavy metals.
S.M.: So using the right methods, areas polluted with heavy metals can be cleaned up?
D.P.: Exactly, and it could be a cost effective measure to clean up this way. In our sphere, there are two departments: one dealing with risk mitigation, the other with lowering risks. Risk mitigation is pretty much about risk veiling, because the fact that garlic doesn’t absorb metals doesn’t mean it cleans the soil—the risk remains as the metals stay in the soil.
Lowering risk means cleaning the soil, which costs a lot. There are different methods for doing this, for example the phyto-remediation method, when certain species that absorb the metals intensively are planted for years, but not used in food, but for biogas, for example. It will be of particular importance to involve scientific communities in the process of such policymaking.
S.M.: So what can be done for your concerns to be heard?
D.P.: Well, with the order of the prime minister, I was recently appointed a member of the board of trustees at the government’s authorized body in food sector. This is an opportunity to express all our concerns not just through media as we did before, but to respective public bodies. Taking into consideration the situation scientists have been in for many years while trying to maintain their objectivity, this is a very welcoming step.
The problems in our sector can be divided into short, medium, and long term issues. There are issues that won’t be tackled in a short term period—whether it is forming registries, enumerating domestic animals, and so forth. These issues also demand funds. For example, counting and creating the registry just for cattle will cost about $2-3 million. It is equally important to have the political desire to solve important existing problems, unlike the situation in the past years. During its short life, our centre has done its best to maintain objectivity and independence and I think this is one of our main achievements, which we will keep up in the future as well.