The problem of the biological safety of the food market and the creation of a system capable of ensuring this safety has become a major issue not only in Russia, but also in other countries of the world. It is connected with the global character of the active physical, chemical, and now also genetic pollution of Mother Earth that results in an intensive accumulation of harmful substances in agricultural products at all stages of their production, and that later appears in the products we eat.
The contamination of the environment is not the only reason for the increase in the content of dangerous substances in food products. A lot of growth hormone stimulants, antibiotics and other agents are given to animals, birds and fish, and as organisms adapt to them, so the dose is increased. All these agents might appear on our plates. Nowadays there are many special technologies that help to prolong the life of a product and make it more attractive to the customer, and producers do not care much about the possible negative influence of these ‘convenient’ agents on people’s health. Meanwhile, the number of artificial chemically-synthesized coloring agents, preservatives, emulsifiers, flavorings, sweeteners and other additives is constantly growing.
The creation and the usage of GMOs have proved to be another problem that has already exerted a strong influence on the political, economic and social processes of the society, the food safety of many countries, the environment and biodiversity. Unfortunately, mankind is witnessing the hasty application of scientific achievements for commercial purposes: without necessary, thorough biological safety control they have been used in agriculture and in food production. We might say that nowadays transnational biotech and agri-food companies are carrying out a secret experiment on mankind.
International organizations such as the UNO, FАО, WHO, UNESCO, NATO, INTERPOL, the World Bank and others have realized the scale of the oncoming catastrophe. On April 15 2008, for the first time in its history, the UNO actually condemned the use of the genetically modified technologies in agriculture because, as it stated in its report, they do not solve the problem of hunger for millions of people, but at once pose a threat to human health and the future of the whole planet.
There is growing concern, moreover, that the development of GMOs will lead to a monopolization of agricultural resources, while, at the same time, it is necessary to make such resources available to various strata of the population to overcome famine. UNO representatives suggest development in other directions in so far as the world should not concentrate only on biotechnology and on GMOs. Experts are encouraging the world community to pay more attention to selection experiments and to ecological agriculture.
So what is the situation in Russia? As far as its attitude towards GMOs is concerned, Russia is no exception to common international processes, and is currently witnessing a struggle between supporters and opponents of GMOs. Supporters of GMOs are involved in different lobby activities, seeking to ease and to ‘blur’ the confines of the Russian bio-safety laws. Their actions aim to facilitate the promotion of the interests of transnational biotech, pharmaceutical and food companies at all levels of agricultural production and in adjacent sectors, including pharmaceutical production.
The other party is not against biotechnology if it is carried out at scientific level. The impossibility of cultivating or using GM-cultures in Russia is evident due to many factors, among which the present level of scientific development in general and genetic engineering in particular, the imperfection of GMOs themselves, the weak scientific and technological base of bio-safety control, the ambiguity of all potential and remote risks connected with the use of GMOs.
In Russian fields there are no GMOs although their cultivation is not prohibited by law. Not a single modified plant has passed the specific legal procedure for registration and permission to grow GM crops. But the use of GMOs is authorized, and there are 16 officially accepted plants and 5 microorganisms: transgenic soya, corn, sugar beet, potato and rice.
0.9 percent Limit
The legislative base for biological safety is developing fast. Non-governmental organizations participated in the formulation of the Biosafety Federal Law. In order to regulate the turnover, usage and control of transgenic raw material, GM food and forage on Russian territory, a number of technical protocols, national standards, specifications and rules have been created and, in some cases, already function.
The Russian Federation consumer protection law requires compulsory labeling of all products containing more than 0.9 percent of transgenic elements. The limit was introduced last November, while prior to that the same article envisaged compulsory labeling of all goods containing any measurable quantity of GM ingredients. The first version of the law was supported by practically all ecological and consumer non-governmental organizations. They now think that the introduction of the limit on quantity confuses the consumer and de fact has nothing to do with people’s health. As long as the question of the safety of GM products for people’s health remains open on a world scale and the GM ingredients in products are not subject to high-level research, non-governmental organizations and a group of scientists propose to undertake the following actions: to temporarily suspend the use of all permitted GMOs in Russia until the results of new state-managed and independent researches are received, and to invoke a temporary moratorium on the registration of new GMOs; to initiate a recheck of the biological safety of the 16 GM-cultures that have been already registered and permitted on the territory of the Russian Federation; to carry out a compulsory biosafety control on each GM-culture, testing it on five generations of mammals to establish the remote consequences of its influence.
The above-mentioned points were reflected in the joint motion of the non-governmental organizations and the scientists addressed to the chairman of the Russian Federation Government Office and the Chief Medical Sanitation Officer of Russia last November.
Worldwide discussion of the problem and the absence of a single government opinion about the problem of GMOs has caused public opinion and in some cases local authorities to have regional legislative acts and norms passed regulating the turnover and use of GMOs. The Moscow, Belgorod, Kurgan, Kostroma, Sverdlovsk and Murmansk regions, the Krasnoyarsk and Krasnodar territories and some others are now called GMO-free, with some of the regional legislative acts forbidding the use of state subsidies to purchase the GM raw materials and products for social needs (for children and school canteens, for hospitals and preventive treatment centers).
As a whole, Russia has not yet defined its attitude towards GMOs. According to the results of a survey, 86 percent of the population is against the cultivation of transgenic cultures, 73 percent against the use of GMOs in products and 98 percent against their use in baby food.
As a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Russia has not ratified the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety, though it has actively participated in its discussion. In the meantime, the lengthy talks and the government’s unclear position on the question, the imperfection of Russian biosafety legislation, the official disunity of the supervising bodies and their technical incompetence and the absence of customs barriers for GMOs are contributing to allow transgenic products easy access to the territory of the Russian Federation. All these factors and others besides are adding to the confusion reigning o the Russian food market, increasing the vulnerability of citizens and raising tension in society.
Recent research by domestic and foreign experts in the field of agricultural economics has proved that for the next 60 years Russia could become a potential leader and supplier of ecological products to the world food market. The positioning of Russia as a GMO-free country on the international agricultural market, combined with the development of ecological agriculture, might prove to be a strategically important step in securing Russian leadership of the international movement for the “ecologization” of food production. Such a role would certainly be widely supported by European countries and by the developing nations of Southeast Asia, Africa and South America.
Russia, geneticist and president of the National Association for Genetic Safety in Moscow
This article is published in the Slow Food Almanac. Click here to read the whole issue.