Russia’s GMO debate looks a lot like America’s – with more geopolitics

Why We Wrote This

Russians tend to be just as concerned as their Western peers about how genetic modification might affect food products. But Russia's bans on GMOs have become a bone of East-West ideological contention.

Ilya Naymushin/Reuters
Combines harvest barley in Russa’s Krasnoyarsk Region. Though the debate over GMOs rages on in Russia and elsewhere, some in the US see anti-GMO sentiment as part of a Russian propaganda effort to disadvantage the US and benefit Russia.

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When it comes to public attitudes toward genetically modified organisms (GMOs), there’s not much difference between Russians and Americans. Roughly a quarter of the Russian public trusts GMOs, about the same as the 30 percent of US citizens with a similar attitude. But the two countries have taken very different legislative paths toward GMOs. Russia has barred “cultivation of genetically engineered plants and breeding of genetically engineered animals on the territory of the Russian Federation,” mainly to protect Russia’s slowly reviving agricultural sector from becoming dependent on seeds produced legally in the US by big biotechnology firms like Monsanto. But the anti-GMO measures have also ended up framed as a rejection of “degenerate” Western practices and an upholding of Russian values, bringing a political dimension to what should be a purely scientific issue. “There have been a lot of pseudo-documentary films shown on Russian TV that give the idea GMOs are bad, that they cause disease or something like that,” says Alexander Panchin, a computational biologist. “Maybe part of the idea is that GMOs come from the West, and they are our enemies.”

When faced with something new, Russian lawmakers have generally found it easier to ban it than to debate it, even if such prohibitions often prove dysfunctional in the long run.

A case in point: Russia’s legislation banning any production of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which was nominally implemented in order to keep Russia's food supply “pure.”

The passage two years ago of the law, which prohibits “cultivation of genetically engineered plants and breeding of genetically engineered animals on the territory of the Russian Federation,” had a practical side, mainly to protect Russia’s slowly reviving agricultural sector from becoming dependent on seeds produced by big US biotechnology firms like Monsanto. And in follow-up legislation in late 2018, Russia’s parliament ordered detailed labeling for any products containing GMOs – as many foreign imports still do – in the name of consumer transparency.

The law has strong public support, even if opposition to it is rife in Russia’s scientific community. But, as in other cases where Russia has taken a vocal, single-minded official stand, the anti-GMO measures have been framed as a rejection of “degenerate” Western practices and an upholding of Russian values. Inevitably, they have become a bone of East-West ideological contention, with some in the US accusing Russia of anti-GMO “disinformation” meant to undermine confidence in American farming, which is the world’s leading producer of genetically engineered crops.

“There have been a lot of pseudo-documentary films shown on Russian TV that give the idea GMOs are bad, that they cause disease or something like that,” says Alexander Panchin, a computational biologist at the official Institute of Information Transmission Problems, which studies the way information is passed – or fails to pass – through systems. “Anti-GMO advocates do get a lot of media attention in Russia.... Maybe part of the idea is that GMOs come from the West, and they are our enemies.”

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters/File
A man looks out from a refrigerator while holding a one-person picket outside the State Duma in Moscow in March 2015. The man was protesting against the import of foreign food products containing GMOs.

Scientists’ trust, public doubt

Crossbreeding of plants and animals is as old as humanity, and most modern crops, barnyard animals, and household pets are the result of thousands of years of tinkering. But the science of gene-editing is something quite new, because it actually alters DNA, sometimes by introducing genetic material from a completely different species.

As a result, how to regulate GMOs is a complicated issue, with no simple answers. Many of the surrounding debates have yet to be settled. Several European countries have laws as stringent as Russia’s limiting use of GMOs.

“Polls show about 75 percent of Russians are suspicious of GMOs, so it’s easy for politicians to take this step,” says Pavel Volchkov, head of the genome engineering laboratory at the state-funded Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. “But not many people are actively against GMOs; it’s just that most don’t know anything about the subject. There has been a lot of negative media attention, which influences the public mood. But work continues in scientific institutes, and eventually the economic need for this will become overwhelming.”

Even in the United States, where GMO products are most prevalent, suspicions remain high. Two years ago, the US enacted a GMO-transparency law similar to Russia’s under public pressure.

Indeed, despite very different legislation and official attitudes toward GMOs, the public profiles of the US and Russia are not all that different. Polls show that while 90 percent of US scientists support GMOs, only 30 percent of Americans express “trust,” and there is a lot of vocal opposition to them.

Irina Ermakova, a biologist and vice president of the independent Academy of Geopolitical Problems, is one of Russia’s top GMO skeptics. She is a frequent guest on TV talk shows and has been an adviser to several deputies of the State Duma. She claims that it’s the introduction of alien genes, such as using genetic material from bacteria or fish to change the characteristics of grains or fruits, that is dangerous, unpredictable, and could be causing long-term health problems for unwitting human consumers.

“In Russia, our lawmakers do listen. They understand how important it is to have full control over our food supply,” she says. “I visited the US a few years ago, and I noticed how many shops are selling organic, non-GMO foods. It means that people want that, even if the big corporations prefer to make profits at any cost. In Europe they have the same worries, so it’s not just Russia where people feel this way.”

Strong anti-GMO voices like Ms. Ermakova’s do influence the public and produce an increasing chilling effect on development in various fields connected with agriculture and environmental management, says Konstantin Shestibratov, head of a forest-biotechnology group at the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

“So much negative media coverage, which reflects the inconsistent positions of our officials, has a dire impact,” he says. “In my area, which is forest management, people are afraid that we are creating ‘Franken-trees’ that will take over the forests around Moscow. It stymies our work. In the US, and China too, they are moving ahead. We read their work, and we can copy it in laboratory conditions, but we can’t legalize it for use.”

GMOs as geopolitics?

Unlike the US, Russia does not have any major biotechnology corporations that stand to gain from a more liberal approach to genetically engineered products. Hence, there is no well-funded lobby to promote pro-GMO legislation or counter public prejudices. And so far Russia, which has become a major grain exporter in recent years, has actually profited from its claim to be marketing “pure” products, even though they are not “organic” in the sense of having been grown without chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

“Russia has made a big point of this with our importers, and it works,” says Oleg Radin, a former department head of the Russian Grain Union. “So, why develop GMO products when we can profit by using a different strategy?”

Though the debate over GMOs clearly rages on in Russia and elsewhere, some in the US see anti-GMO sentiment as part of a Russian propaganda effort to disadvantage the US and benefit Russia. A study released by Iowa State University a year ago claimed that widely shared anti-GMO articles come disproportionately from Russia, and especially from the Kremlin-funded English-language TV station RT.

Pointing to an alleged rise in anti-GMO sentiment in the West, the study asserts that “Russian operatives leverage disinformation networks on social media to amplify existing anti-GMO messages.”

That is hotly disputed by RT, which claims it just covers stories from less-reported angles.

“The GMO debate has raged since long before RT even existed, and RT covers this issue as it does absolutely every other: through fact-based reporting and highlighting different, often overlooked, perspectives,” says Anna Belkina, RT’s director of communications. “Falsely ascribing sinister, political motivations where there are none does nothing but hurt the public by stifling an honest exchange of ideas.”

Despite the commercial ban on producing GMOs in Russia, scientists say that today’s politicians do not interfere with their studies into genetic engineering, and the work they are doing will eventually prove its worth.

“In Russia, we are a few years behind. There is a very conservative mood here, and that does create a drag on development,” says Mr. Volchkov. “But these days we seem to have mostly the same kinds of problems that they experience in other places, and our situation is not so different. Scientific progress is inevitable, and it will happen here.”

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