Genetically Modified food: yes or no?

Genetically Modified food: yes or no?

The field is pristine with rows of plants line the paths as Gamal Mahmoud Sayyid rummages through the dirt. He lifts of pile of brown soil in his hand. “This is the fruit of life,” he says, as he attempts to explain the importance of his farm and his day-to-day work. The corn, he says, is bigger and better than his fellow Egyptian farmers’.

He wakes early from his small house just an hour away from Cairo, just after dawn, eats a quick breakfast and then heads to his corn fields to till the land, much as he has for the past two decades after taking over the farm from his family.

His farm is not the average corn farm that lines hills and waterways across Egypt, however, it is home to genetically modified produce and it has been this way for much of the past few year and a half, he says.

Last summer, controversy erupted in Egypt after the state-run MENA news agency reported that modified food would not be allowed to be imported into Egypt. Less than 24 hours later, the agriculture ministry fought back, and saying that the previous reports were wrong and there was no ban on genetically modified food into Egypt.

Sayyid admits he didn’t follow the controversy much, focusing his efforts on the task at hand.

“If I worry about what is going on with the politicians, I won’t get my work done and that is the most important thing for myself and my family,” he says, glancing at his two sons also working the land. They smile at the mention of their names, Mohamed and Mustafa.

“What we do here is what the government wants, so if they are going to ban other countries from importing food, then that will only be good for us, but it doesn’t get the vegetables grown,” he continues.

On August 13, the ministry allegedly announced that genetically modified food products would not be permitted to be imported into the country in an effort to bolster local farmers access to the market, MENA reported.

According to the initial report, Agriculture Minister Amin Abaza “gave instructions … against the entry of any imports, especially wheat, corn and soy beans, until samples of the cargo have been examined … in the absence of a certificate.”

The agency then quoted an official at the ministry the following day as stating that earlier reports citing Amin Abaza ordering that a certificate accompany all imports to show they were free of genetically modified materials were “not correct.”

Egypt imports more than half of its food products and is the world’s number one importer of wheat. Recent disputes have risen between the North African nation and Russia after bad wheat had entered the market this summer.

Egypt is the most populous Arab country and wheat exporters across the globe look to the country as a major source of revenue.

Genetically modified crops are widely grown in North America, South America and China.

Ahmed Mounib, an agriculture ministry official said that the confusion over the entrance of modified vegetables came after the “disease” laden Russian wheat. The ministry, he says, wanted to take action to ensure the food that came into the country was safe for all people to eat.

“It was a difficult period, when we were fighting the Russian’s over the importing of their products after there had been some bad wheat coming into Egypt. We made some statements that were taken a bit out of context. It was our fault, but we rectified them almost immediately,” he argues.

Mounib says that when the ministry commented to MENA, it was concerning the continued importing of Russian wheat and “the agency didn’t understand that we were not talking about other fruits and vegetables coming from other countries. It was a safety precaution to stop the Russian wheat from infecting people with sicknesses.”

There is no ban, says Mounib, and that he expects imports to continue to flow into Egypt, but that the ministry will ensure the safety of each crop before it enters the market.

“We have seen from the summer’s ordeal with Russia that we have to be extra careful and because of this, the ministry would like to see more farmers diversify more and give Egypt the ability to sustain itself a bit more,” Mounib adds.

For some, however, the initial ban was met with optimism. Omar Mohamed, an independent agriculture analyst now based in New York and former crop manager in Egypt, says that when he first heard that Egypt was to ban the import of modified foods, he was excited.

“With other countries being able to put out more food and get the best products to be eaten across the globe, it pushed Egyptian farmers to the backburner of production, so when they announced, even wrongly, that they would ban the import of genetically modified foods, I was elated because it meant Egyptian farmers would have better access to the market,” he says.

This may be the crux of the matter, he argues. He says it is not about other nations’ food products, it is about “creating a market for the local farmers to work and get paid for their hard effort. If the ministry isn’t going to help them, how will they compete with other countries where food production is often subsidized?”

He says that farmers in Egypt have been forced to fight an uphill battle with the increasing cheap prices of exporting food from one part of the world to another, but that with growing concerns over global warming, it is “time to change our perspective.

“There needs to be a better effort to help local farmers out because in the long run this will give us a better world where people participate in their daily lives to a much more direct way. Egyptians should buy Egyptian and Americans should buy American.”

For Sayyid and his family, life continues without much of a change. He says that the corn produced in his farm are bought by local companies and distributed in major supermarkets.

“We do all right and are not worrying about money, but I know a lot of farmers who do, so I hope the government and people here will understand the importance of eating local food,” he adds.

For now, Sayyid’s farm is safe, selling its products locally with the ministry’s assistance as the government appears ready to buttress the local genetically modified industry


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