Food for thought: Russia joins the battle over GM products

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Olga Sobolevskaya) - On July 1, the city of Moscow will introduce a voluntary system of food labels indicating that a product does not contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients.

Europe has recently been engaged in a battle with the World Trade Organization (WTO), which, taking its cue from the United States, Canada and Argentina, considers the European Union's moratorium on GM products illegal. Meanwhile, Europeans have been collecting signatures and protesting against GM foods. In the United States, a lawsuit was filed against the Department of Agriculture after it legalized the commercial production of genetically modified alfalfa sprouts. The court found the agency's actions illegal. All these events, which involve environmental, agricultural, social and political issues, unfolded during the month of February, highlighting the high profile taken on by the GM controversy. Nevertheless, it would be naive to expect the world to adopt a unified stance on the issue.

In 2000, 828 scientists from 84 countries signed an open letter to the world's governments warning them of the hazards of GM foods. Environmental organizations demanded that the UN declare a moratorium on GM products. Arguments in favor of GM foods - high crop yields, resistance to diseases, insects and harsh weather, and their low price (they tend to cost 20-30% less than traditional foods) - have also been widely challenged, though without hard evidence. Environmentalists say that GM foods will not solve the problem of world hunger, but they will bankrupt small farmers.

Some biologists believe that GM foods can have a negative effect on the gene pool and reduce biological diversity. Vladimir Kuznetsov, head of the Institute of Plant Physiology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that GM foods are dangerous because they are unpredictable. "Scientists do not know what effect they will have on the human body in the long term," he said.

Research is being conducted on GM foods' effects on human health, particularly those that may trigger allergic reactions, but not all of the results have been made public. There is much debate but few facts. One thing is certain: the GM industry will continue to grow. But by how much?

In January, at the Council on Human Rights Policy in the Kremlin, Natalya Olefirenko, a Greenpeace Russia representative, said that in most Russian regions GM products account for 10-20% of the market. In some cities without sufficient controls in place, the figure is 50%.

In recent years, imports of GM foods (Russia does not produce them) have increased by more than 100 times. The main GM crops are soy beans, potatoes, corn, sugar beets and oilseed rape. By law, products that contain more than 0.9% GM ingredients must be labeled, but in practice this rule is often ignored. Meanwhile, according to an All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center poll, 95% of Russians who have heard of GM foods would not buy them if the products were labeled as such. Consumers, however, are still not able to exercise their right to choose.

Russian bio-engineers, among them Konstantin Skryabin, director of the Bio-Engineering Center at the Russian Academy of Sciences, believe that GM foods "won't get out of the laboratory until they are thoroughly tested. Meanwhile, Russia, with its noncompetitive agricultural market, has to move faster to grow and popularize GM crops." He added that the GM issue has more to do with business than with science.

Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, holds a different view. "With our entry into the WTO, certain issues have to be addressed," he said in January. "American and Canadian products, which are, as a rule, genetically modified, are competing on the world agricultural market." He added that "...we can use Europe's experience" and "...we must inform people about the hazards of GM products." Putin proposed to set up a council to regulate GM food.

Europe uses diverse methods to combat GM products, including the destruction of genetically modified crop fields in France, passing laws that limit the possibilities of growing GM crops in Germany, banning GM versions of local and protected crops in Bulgaria, or banning all GM products in Poland. The end result of all this is the creation of GM-free zones.

Russia is following Europe's example. The city of Moscow and the Belgorod Region are leaders in this process. The idea of creating GM-free zones is being discussed in the Volgograd, Kostroma, Murmansk, Ryazan, Sverdlovsk and Ulyanovsk regions. Moscow's law stipulates that all agricultural raw materials or food that is brought to the city through an organized supply system must contain information about their GM ingredients. It is illegal to use budgetary funds to buy GM children's food.

Following an inspection of their food, producers will have the right, valid for one year, to put the label "This product does not contain genetically modified ingredients" on any kind of product. As much as 50 million rubles ($1.9 million) will be set aside to purchase special equipment. The media will inform the public about producers that sell GM products but do not tell consumers.

So while bio-engineers complain about a campaign to discredit GM foods, their opponents are demanding a moratorium to give researchers time to study their medical and biological effects. In the meantime, consumers are trying to make sense of all that is being said about GM foods.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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