U.K government approved the growing of genetically modified maize on March 9 this year. The decision is viewed as an initial step aimed at lifting a moratorium on growing similar plants imposed by the EU in 1998. The British Medical Association called on the public to put an end to hysteria relating to genetically modified products (GMP) since they dont pose any threat to health. In this country the hysteria in respect to GMP is rising despite an apparent lack of grounds for such an attitude. People shouldnt forget that the registration and control system applicable to GMP in Russia is one of the toughest in the world.

What are the real reasons behind the fear of genetically modified products? Is it a matter of distrust to any control system or it stems from a real threat posed by GMP ? Why do scientists intervene to change the genetic material of plants, microorganisms, animals? Can scientists do without the technique today and tomorrow?

Academician Konstantin Scriabin, Director of Research Center Bioinzheneria of the Russian Academy of Sciences, answers to questions put by Tatiana Bateneva, an Izvestia columnist:

Q: Im not going to ask you about the mutants people are going to turn to after eating genetically modified food. Anybody who went to school should be theoretically aware of aminoacids and nucleotides in the human body. Any kind of genes, be it natural or genetically modified, are destined to transform into the above material. They cant change anything in the human genes anyway.

To you at least it looks clear, Im glad to see it. Regrettably, our opponents are cheating the public. Our organization has offered a $10,000 reward to anybody who could prove that potato capable of resisting to the Colorado potato beetle is dangerous to human health. Nobody showed up to pick up the cash. Im quite ready to debate this issue in public to prove that all the evidence spread by our opponents about the potato is false. People have been eating caviar and roe for ages which is a 100% fish genetic material and nobody has developed gills yet! Its just nonsense.

Q: How do you envisage our life without the genetically modified plants?

Well, if everybodys happy about the way our agriculture worked some 70 years ago, we shouldnt even bother to do anything.

Q: The level of concern is still high worldwide, anyway.

Lets take a look at the facts. It was back in 1992 when the first genetically modified plant (GMP) was commercialized or okayed for commercial use. Nowadays the plants cover more than 60 million hectares. Those opposed to the use of GMP in Russia dont want a single one around.

Q: But the EU is taking a very cautious approach regarding the growing of GMP...

Things are changing fast in the EU. This January the EU authorities licensed the imports of GMP for food purposes. Genetically modified maize was issued a certificate confirming its safety one month later. Much larger areas will be used for growing GM maize this year in Spain. We need to bear in mind that European agriculture is subsidized and sometimes subject to overproduction. Therefore a conception of coexistence between three types of agriculture has been adopted. The three types are: traditional, organic and genetically engineered.

Q: What is the situation in Asia?

Technology-oriented and economically strong Asian nations are stepping up their efforts. More than 10 basic genetically engineered varieties were approved by the Chinese government: soy, maize, rape, potato, rice, tomato. China will grow transgenic plants on an area totaling 50 million hectares. The largest biotechnological centers are being set up in China at the moment. India also licensed the use of a few plants, another 14 grades were approved this week. The Philippines is catching up. The annual crops growth of GMP is 15 percent. Russia is still a blank spot on the map.

Q: Japan doesnt grow GMP yet it licensed the use of them. Why?

Its a different issue. The Japanese recognized the safety of the plants. Growing makes part of the internal regulation system. The same goes to consumption: those who dont want to eat genetically modified food – they wont eat it. Should the food items be labeled to show the GMP content in them? Its just necessary in todays circumstances though its stupid as far as Im concerned. U.S. produce dont carry any labeling because Americans trust their government. On the contrary, our people demand it be done. Its up to the people to make a final decision. Labeling any food item is necessary if were talking about a law on compulsory labeling.

Q: All right now. And who are against the commercialization of GMP in Russia?
Who orchestrates the public discontent of the people who barely understand what its all about?

Russia is a country divided between the producers of pesticides and the producers of seeds. Such large transnational companies as Bayer, Dupont, Singenta, Monsanto, Dow manufacture pesticides and seeds alike. Were the only country where the environmentalists opposing genetically modified food are backed by the pesticides producers. They even hold the joint press conferences. The whole world are making fun of the show.

Q: In other words, the manufacturers of chemicals for crop protection and other agricultural purposes are the opponents of yours?

Theres one more paradox. European countries import 20 million tons of transgenic soy from the U.S. and Argentina to feed their cattle and chickens. We then buy that meat and chicken in Europe. But we still cant import the same soy to feed our own cattle and chickens. Theres a great shortage of fodder in Russia. Some people want to import meat into Russia, and others want to produce meat here. Their interests are in a clash. Take sugar, for example. Our sugar imports total 70%. Can you tell me why? Russia always grew its own sugar-beet and made its own sugar. But Russian farmlands are the worst in the world when it comes to weeds and plant diseases. Growing a genetically modified sugar-beet is a radical solution to the problem. The crops will be resistant to herbicide. The method could increase a crop capacity to 20-30%; it could also boost the beet saccharinity and supersede imports; new jobs could be created etc.

Q: What about payoffs to officials who cut the import deals?

You said it yourself, Ok? And dont forget about a commission on awarding quotas for the purchase of chemicals. Can you imagine people like that offering their support to our projects in genetic engineering? Its good that some of our bureaucrats are quite sensible people. They approved the soy and fodder maize imports after the scrutiny. The products are absolutely safe, I can guarantee that.

Q: No matter what you say, food was tastier in the past!

Sure thing. And grass was greener. Maybe youre right, though GMP have nothing to do with it. No food items in Russia are made from genetically modified materials, save a few things containing additives of a soy protein. Hopefully, maize and potato will be coming soon. So far 13 plants have been approved for food processing purposes. I dont have fear whatsoever as I watch my children and my granddaughter eat foodstuff containing GMP. Weve been using genetically modified medicines, vitamins and vaccines for a long time, we drink beer and wine fermented by genetically modified yeast, we eat yogurts soured by lactobacteria that were genetically modified too. Nobodys protesting against it. The thing is that the new technologies can now give agriculture a fresh turn, they can restore the soil fertility, reduce the cost and increase the quality of the products.

Q: It reminds me of an old Soviet movie... Nothing of the kind has ever happened in reality.

Nothing of the kind happened in this country while the agriculture in many countries of the world embraced the new ideas. Those whore raise their objections against the novelty just keep using the rhetoric shouted at that notorious session of the All-Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the one that banned the genetics in 1948.

Q: Wherere the domestic varieties youve been promising to make for so many years? A potato variety resistible to the Colorado beetle, for example?

We modified the four principal varieties of potato grown in Russia. They are as follows: Lugovskoi, Nevski and Elizaveta. They become beetle-resistant. Theyve been tested for three years now for food and biological safety. When we get a go-ahead, we pass them around to companies which produce seeds of the best quality in Russia. We also developed the varieties that can withstand the U virus attack. The virus causes a sharp decrease in crop capacity and impair the storage qualities of potato. Other modified grades can be resistant to the twisting of the leaves.

This is history repeating. When some people began eating canned food, other people called it the end of the human race. Automobiles, microwave ovens, refrigerators, cell phones – weve seen it all before. Today the Russian agriculture cant stand up to the world competition. The challenge is: where are we going to? We can either go forward with the others or lag behind and hit the bottom.

.. - NEKTO 2009.

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