WTO policy on GMO food fuels fears in Russia

Bulgarians attend a protest against genetically modified foods, in the capital Sofia. Source: AP

Bulgarians attend a protest against genetically modified foods, in the capital Sofia. Source: AP

Protests against genetically modified food grow in Russia after WTO ascension. Yet some scientists insist there are no large health risks.

Russia is gradually starting to fulfil its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). One of these obligations is a more lenient attitude towards products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMO).

In line with WTO regulations, it will soon be possible to import GMO seeds into the country. This will enable producers to sell and label the resulting genetically modified products as any other product – that is, marking the food as containing genetically modified organisms will be made optional. Environmentalists are in an uproar, repeatedly taking to the streets with anti-GMO rallies in late May to get their voices heard.

The "Russia without GMO" movement is gaining momentum, with organisers collecting signatures from Russian citizens in support of their proposal to make the country a GMO-free zone.

“People should be allowed to choose what products they can buy. We believe it is necessary to label products that contain GMO accordingly,” says Yelena Sharoikina, director of the National Association for Genetic Safety (NAGS).

“About 50 people turned up for our rally. The Moscow authorities only gave permission for us to picket and not march, as we had initially planned. But several million people in more than 400 cities and 58 countries around the world took to the streets that day in protest,” she added.

Environmentalists are now planning to take the campaign a step further by collecting one million signatures before approaching President Vladimir Putin with the request to keep GMO out of Russia and continue labelling genetically modified products as such.

“We want to take every possible precaution. The experiments on hamsters, for example, are particularly troubling. Animals that have been fed with genetically modified foods stop reproducing after the second generation. Of course, you can’t directly apply these results to humans, but it’s definitely food for thought,” explains Sharoikina.

There are currently over 150 GMO-free territories in the world, including Switzerland, Serbia and Bulgaria. Sharoikina is confident that the government will not be able ignore the opinion of millions of Russians.

The main problem, however, lies in the fact that environmentalists cannot prove unequivocally the dangers of GMO. They can only talk about their possible but unverified effects, since experiments have thus far only been conducted on rats, mice and hamsters.

Despite the fact that the results of these experiments cannot be fully applied to humans, they still evoke a sense of fear. However, as the Ministry of Agriculture’s Public Council representative and head of Russian Farms Group Andrei Danilenko said, the average Russian consumers are often uninformed on the matter. What is more, they often buy products without reading the label.

People look at the "best before" date more than they look at the ingredients.

The results of a quick pool among we ran among a few regular Russian consumers seems to confirm a growing yet not overarching concern in relation to GMO. Yelena, for example, believes that if a product has made it to the shelf of a shop, then it has passed all the necessary checks and you can buy it with confidence. Yevgeny and Olga, on the other hand, read the labels and steer well clear of anything containing the letters GMO.

“Who knows what it’s made from? It’s particularly difficult to find real milk – how is it that milk can last for eight months without going off?” says Olga. “I’m very picky when it comes to buying food.” Yevgeny also avoids GMO foods, although he usually looks at the label to check the "best before" date.

Well-known Russian author Leonid Kaganov, on the contrary, says he is keen to try the new generation of food products, primarily because they break down completely in the stomach into the necessary nutrients – and the body does not distinguish between an orange that has been grown using the gene of a salmon and an orange that has been eaten after salmon.

Danilenko says that people are afraid of genetically modified products because there is still no conclusive evidence either way to prove that they are safe or dangerous. GMO cross breeding produces things that could never have emerged using natural methods.

“Businesses use GMO because it is extremely convenient. GMO cultures are resistant to pests and provide higher yields under the same conditions,” Danilenko says. “In the United States, Latin America and Ukraine, it is the norm. And no doubt there’s illegal GMO seeds in Russia as well.”

Danilenko is certain that once the GMO restrictions are lifted, nobody will be able to stop businesses from growing next generation plants.

But the expert notes that Russia and its territories are in a position to reject GMO and grow everything in the tried-and-tested way: “Russia has more than 20 percent of the world’s arable land – it’s not like we have a shortage of land.”

To do this, however, it is imperative that greater attention be paid to the development of homegrown agriculture. At the present time, the overwhelming majority of seeds in Russia are imported from overseas.

“In addition to developing agriculture at home, we need to establish a clear GMO checking system for food products. Right now, we’ve got pretty good ways for determining this,” Danilenko explained. “We are in a position where we can grow and consume products that are entirely free of genetically modified organisms.”

Meanwhile, scientists seem to much more positive about the potential and benefits of using GMO. Valery Glazko, who is in charge of Centre for Nanobiotechnology at the Russian State Agrarian University, says that thanks to GMO technology, we will finally be able to feed the world and a new generation of more intelligent people will appear.

“If a pregnant woman is not getting enough food, then her haemoglobin levels will drop. Her baby will be born and have every chance of living a full life, but he or she will not be able to make decisions. The baby will adapt, but its brain will not develop in the correct manner,” he says. “GMO is our saviour.”

Glazko explains that up to 5 percent of our organisms is made up of genetic defects, although this does not prevent us from going about our everyday lives. The herpes virus, for example, is hereditary and therefore embedded in one’s DNA. “Hunger is the flip side of terrorism. We are faced with a choice: cannibalism or GMO.”

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