Russia bans cultivation, breeding of GMOs

In this image, field corn is delivered to the Green Plains ethanol plant in Shenandoah, Iowa. Much of the U.S. crop of field corn, which is used for animal feed, sweeteners and ethanol, is genetically modified. Russia has decided to ban most GMO crops.

Russia has banned the cultivation and breeding of genetically engineered crops, which may have long-term consequences for biotechnology in global agriculture, experts say.

Biotech critics and supporters agree that the prohibition won’t have an immediate impact on U.S. farmers, since Russia doesn’t currently produce genetically engineered crops or import many of them.

However, the new law does close a potentially large market for U.S.-grown biotech crops in the future, said Mary Boote, executive director of the Global Farmer Network, a nonprofit that advocates for trade and technology in agriculture.

“Long term, we should all be concerned,” she said.

The ban applies to cultivation and breeding of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, within Russia, but doesn’t outright ban imports of them if they’re already approved in that country.

However, few GMOs have received such approval, so the law effectively prevents shipments of U.S. biotech crops from increasing, Boote said.

Russia’s government also has the power under the new law to ban GMO imports due to any perceived health or environmental threat without scientific proof of a hazard, which can lead to market disruptions, she said.

Apart from impeding global commerce in GMOs, the law is a public relations victory for opponents of biotechnology, Boote said. “It sets precedent.”

Biotech critics, meanwhile, say the ban could give Russian farmers a leg up with exports to the U.S. and Europe.

“Non-GMO markets are growing globally,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, director of sustainable agriculture for the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit critical of genetic engineering.

In the U.S., the recently passed federal GMO labeling bill — which biotech critics opposed as being too lax — will likely spur demand for non-GMO foods, he said. “If anything, it’s likely to make consumers more suspicious.”

Russia’s agricultural productivity isn’t likely to suffer due to the ban on GMO breeding and cultivation, as traditional breeding and improved agronomy have been shown to offer better yield gains than biotechnology, Gurian-Sherman said.

If the GMO ban frees up resources for improving drought tolerance and fertilizer efficiency through conventional means, for example, Russia’s productivity is unlikely to suffer, he said.

While Russia’s new law does contain an exemption for using GMOs in research, the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service nonetheless expects such studies to stop “because the scientific community will not be interested in conducting expensive research without prospects for commercialization,” according to an agency report.

In 2013, Russia passed a law that would allow GMOs to be registered for release into the environment, but public backlash against these crops caused authorities to delay its implementation and eventually to enact the recent ban, the FAS report said.

Recommended for you