Why does Russia Plan to Stop GMO Cultivation and Imports?

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Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev

Russia has said a loud and resounding no to GMOs this spring. The country banned the import of GMO food and food products a few months ago. It has also postponed Decree 839 from coming into effect. Currently, no GMO crops are allowed to be grown on Russian soil, excluding those used for research purposes; GMO foods and ingredients can only be imported. Decree 839 would have allowed Russian farmers to cultivate and sell GMOs as long as proper registration procedures were followed. However, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev recently announced that the decree’s original effective date—July 1, 2014—has been pushed back by three years due to necessary infrastructure not being ready in time. Medvedev explained that Decree 839 is being delayed “not because it [is] wrong, but because the deadline stipulated in it was too optimistic.”

These recent decisions have sparked Russian policy envy from anti-GMO advocates from across the world.

Russia policy envy on twitter.

The Russian government’s stance on GMOs seems to reflect, at least on the surface, the general attitude of the public. For example, Russian scientists demanded the ban extend for 10 years to allow for thorough research on the effects of GMOs, and 80% of Russian people are squarely in the anti-GMO camp, according to polls. And President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated his support for protecting citizens from GMOs.

The people want it, the scientists want it, the legislators want it, Putin wants it.

But not everyone has been so strongly against GMOs. Over the past couple years, the Russian government has had mixed feelings about them.

For example, there is disagreement among government officials on the supposed threat of GM foods. Irina Ermakova, the vice president of the National Association for Genetic Safety, an anti-GMO NGO, spoke of how “all GMOs are dangerous”, but a spokesperson for the Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance (which is responsible for the safety and registration of GM animal feeds and feed additives) said there was no evidence, either way, on the safety of GMOs. Dr. Gennadiy Onishchenko, the head of the Rospotrebnadzor (which is responsible for testing, registering, and developing legislation on GM foods and ingredients), expressed positive views of GM crops at an environmental forum in 2013. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture (which is responsible for agricultural biotechnology policy) has stated it is “conservative” about GMOs. There is no unified opinion on GMOs among the three government bodies that make up the Russian GMO regulatory framework—the Federal Service for Veterinary Surveillance and Phytosanitary Surveillance, the Rospotrebnadzor, and the Ministry of Agriculture.

In April 2012, the Comprehensive Program on Development of Biotechnology through 2020 (BIO 2020) was created with the specific aim of bringing Russia to the forefront of global biotechnology development. Agricultural biotechnology is one of the priorities of the BIO 2020 program, but no funding has yet been provided to support crop biotech research.

Russia Today is a Russian government-run news site that frequently claims that GMOs are dangerous, often bringing activists like Jeffrey Smith on their programming.

In September 2013, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed Decree 839, mentioned earlier, that would have allowed the cultivation of GMOs starting this summer. Originally proposed in October 2010, it took nearly three years for it to gain enough momentum and support to be signed into law. Now, only months before its effective date, the decree has been postponed by three years.

The Russian government’s most public reason for banning GMOs—its citizens’ health—may not be its primary reason. During President Putin’s recent meeting with the Board of the Russian Federation Council, a senator pointed out that, to date, worldwide sales of GM seeds come to $50 million and the owner of the rights to the majority of those seeds is the United States. The increasing presence of foreign agricultural biotechnology in Russian grocery stores is viewed not only as a threat to people’s health, but also as a threat to the country’s domestic agricultural production. Banning GMO imports, restricting GMO cultivation to research endeavors only, and allowing farmers to only plant GMO-free crops may be Russia’s new strategy to increase agricultural profits. The Deputy Agriculture Minister, Aleksandr Petrikov, stated that the ban could afford Russia large economic gains if the country chooses to become a major global producer of GMO-free products. With anti-GMO sentiments sweeping multiple continents, Russia could be looking to position itself to meet international demands as a major supplier of organic foods and ingredients.

Follow Caroline Coatney:
Caroline is currently a graduate student in the Plant Biology department at the University of Georgia. She is working in the Dawe Lab and studies the genetics responsible for perenniality in species closely related to corn. Before starting graduate school, Caroline worked for a year as a science writer for the Illinois State Legislature.