The taste of the future: Are there GMO products in Russia ?

ACCORDING TO VTsIOM , ALMOST 80% OF RUSSIANS CONSIDER genetically modified organisms ( GMOs ) dangerous and harmful to health. Such popular sentiments agree with the policy of the state: in Russia it is forbidden to grow and breed genetically modified plants and animals ( except for situations when this is done for the purpose of scientific research). The government also plans to gradually abandon the import of such products. “We definitely don’t need GMOs ” – this is the official position of the Ministry of Agriculture.             

But while there are GMOs in Russia, they are more than actively used in animal feed at dairy and meat processing plants, and on the shelves you can also find products with traces of genetically modified plants – mostly semi-finished meat products, cookies, muffins and other confectionery products, and also all kinds of junk food: crackers, chips, frozen pizza and pasties, ready-made cakes and cakes. True, it is not always possible to find these traces , and by and large it is not necessary.                      

How food is grown

Genetically modified organisms are organisms whose DNA has been genetically engineered. Long before humans, bacteria and viruses learned how to edit foreign genomes : the former can transfer part of their genes into plants and have been successfully doing this for millions of years, while the latter, in order to reproduce, needs to integrate into the genetic material of the host cell. For example, in any sweet potatoes have genes once it migrated into the bacteria, but from this it does not become less natural. All insulin to people with diabetes produce with using genetically modified bacteria, and particularly E. coli. By modifying the genome of a person’s own cells, some types of malignant tumors are now being treated – the method is called CAR-T . They are trying to use genome modification technologies to develop new vaccines, including those against cholera .                        

In the food industry, plant genomes are edited to solve specific problems: to increase resistance to insects, fungi and viruses, reduce allergenicity, and sometimes add useful properties to the plant. With such a noble goal, for example, they created antioxidant-rich black tomatoes and the famous golden rice with beta-carotene, which should help overcome vitamin A deficiency in the regions of Asia and Africa. Changing the properties of plants using genetic engineering is called directional mutagenesis – in this case, we know exactly where in the DNA a specific change needs to be made.                

Before the advent of this technology, people for millennia changed the genomes of plants in an undirected manner: what is today called traditional breeding appeared at the dawn of agriculture. At first, farmers simply selected the best fruits from the crop to plant a new one, then they began to cross crops and varieties, and in the 20th century they learned to use radiation and chemicals to change the DNA of plants and get products with new, improved properties. But not a single variety bred by such an aggressive and poorly controlled method was and is not considered GMO. The advocates of all natural are afraid only of products created with the help of modern and more precise genetic engineering.

Who opposes GMOs 

Any initiatives related to the development of genetic technologies in agriculture are met with stiff opposition from supporters of the anti-GMO movement. In Russia, for example, there is a National Association for Genetic Safety, which is explicitly involved in promoting the harm of GMOs. At one time, biologist Irina Ermakova was the vice-president of the OASGB, who claims that genetically modified soy disrupts reproductive functions, leads to infertility and the formation of tumors. Her research has been criticized many times – both in Russia and abroad.   

There are also opponents of GMOs in Europe and the United States . Perhaps, on a global scale, Greenpeace has become the main opponent of new technologies – the organization publishes articles and conducts lectures on the dangers of GMOs, gathers rallies and protests. Moreover, green activists have repeatedly attacked golden rice fields in Asia. According to Greenpeace employees, GMOs are not so effective and are too little studied to launch their mass production – they can cause irreparable damage to human health and the ecology of the planet. Most importantly, genetically modified seed corporations (the largest being Monsanto, which was bought by the pharmaceutical giant Bayer last year ) are taking over and virtually monopolizing agriculture, ruining traditional farmers.           

Why science is on the side of GMOs 

The GMO defenders have nothing to answer the last claim, but there is definitely something to say about health and the environment. In 2016, over a hundred Nobel laureates wrote an open letter to Greenpeace asking them to reconsider their negative attitude towards the new technology. According to scientists, GMOs are the future of agriculture and the food industry. In the same 2016, the US National Academy of Sciences published the results of a large-scale study: fifty scientists in two years analyzed nine hundred scientific papers on the effect of GMOs on human health, published over the past thirty years; They did not reveal any harm of genetically modified organisms to human health , and the results were later confirmed by twenty-six more independent experts.    

That’s not all: a meta-analysis of 6,000 scientific articles published last year showed that GM crops are even less harmful to the environment than traditional breeding crops. It seems that such an evidence base should have convinced even the most ardent opponents of genetic engineering. But attacks on technology continue, and in Russia they are even gaining momentum. Therefore, in order to find GMOs in our stores, you will have to try.  

How modifications are determined

Currently , only GM crops that have passed the state registration procedure can be imported into Russia and used in food production . The modest list includes some lines of soybeans, corn, rice, beets and canola. Most of the imported GM raw materials are used in animal husbandry for the preparation of feed ( there is no need to fear that the “altered genes” will remain in the finished meat – this is physically impossible). Something also ends up on supermarket shelves – of course, not in its original form, but as part of cutlets or chocolate bars. “Traces of genetically modified crops can be found in some herbal products. For example, there is definitely no GMO in minced meat, which, according to the law, must contain only meat . But in meat semi-finished products, starch, sugar and vegetable protein are often used . They can be obtained from GM corn, beets and soybeans. The same applies to confectionery and bakery products “, – explains Mikhail Minaev, head of the laboratory” Molecular biology and bioinformatics “of the Federal Scientific Center for Food Systems named after. V. M. Gorbatov.                                  

Minaev explains that even the producers themselves, buying foreign raw materials, can not be sure that there are no traces of GMOs in them. Therefore, they submit it for inspection: “Let’s say our producer buys processed soybeans from a foreign company. In this company there are genetically modified soybeans and conventional, and sell it can mix, one of not this warning. We at the institute investigate it and find out how much GM components are in the mixture. If more than 0.9 %, it will be considered GMO. Less is not. These are common European standards ”.                

Rospotrebnadzor is involved in mandatory testing of products for the presence of GMOs – they are checked randomly, but regularly, so it is more profitable for manufacturers to find out the composition of their product themselves in advance than to be responsible before the law. But precedents do happen. The freshest and loudest is the scandal with the quick-dissolving porridge “Bystrov”, in which an unregistered GM papaya was found in May this year . The porridge company Nestlé immediately announced that they do not use GMOs in their products , that GM papaya got there by accident and this will not happen again.               

How products are labeled

At the end of 2018, changes in the technical regulation “Food products in terms of their labeling” came into force – now on any products containing more than 0.9 % of genetically modified components, you need to write “GMO” in capital letters. The new mark must be on the packaging next to the mark of the Eurasian Economic Union and be of the same size. Russian manufacturers were given a year and a half to adapt to the new requirements, so for now it is not possible to find the label on all products. But you can find out if they contain at least some hint of the use of gene modification technologies.                      

If this is important to you, look for microscopic inscriptions on the packaging “genetically modified products”, “products obtained from genetically modified organisms” or “products contain components of genetically modified organisms”. It is important to know that the state obliges to put such labeling even on products with components that do not contain genes. For example, there are no genes in starch from GM corn or sugar from GM beets, but cookies with such sugar or starch may say “GMO” on the packaging . But the phrase “modified starch” has nothing to do with genetics – we are talking about the processing of ready-made starch, for example, by heating. There are also mandatory labeling elements for products obtained from genetically modified microorganisms (bacteria, yeast and fungi) – but you are unlikely to be able to find yogurt or kefir with GM probiotics: large producers will not risk their reputation, and small farms simply will not come in the head.                           

But the conscription markings “Without GMOs” manufacturers put on their own, for marketing purposes. That is why such an inscription can be found even on packs of salt or bottles of water, although there are no genes there and cannot be (salt and water are not living organisms). There is an opinion that the label “Without GMOs” is completely meaningless , because all the cultures we eat have gone through genetic modifications. For centuries, agronomists have changed the DNA of plants and created mutant species almost blindly – by selection and crossing, using radiation, ultraviolet radiation and chemicals. Genetic engineering, one might say, opened the eyes of scientists. And it would be strange not to use this discovery .

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