Russia’s Vladimir Putin has suggested that anyone who sells or grows genetically modified foods on his turf should face a few years farming in Siberia. He has proclaimed Russia will be GMO-free and he’d like to see his farmers raise their crops organically. He has declared war on Monsanto and its ilk, equating the company to an international terrorist organization. And you thought Putin was all bad.
I remember when George W. Bush met Putin for the first time, about 14 years ago, and Bush told us that he “looked into Putin’s eyes, and saw a trustworthy man.” Now we see it’s an organically fed, free-ranging trustworthy man. From Donald Trump, we are reminded “It’s never been proven Putin murdered anyone.” So, let’s see if we can glimpse the same good things. Let’s see what the news out of Russia is telling us.
“Russia,” said Putin, will become “the world’s largest producer of healthy, ecologically clean, high-quality food.” For now, he is just trying to make his country self-sufficient in food, a goal he hopes to achieve by 2020, according to Farmer’s Weekly. Russian has seven million full-time farmers (the USA has one million), yet the vast expanses of the steppes don’t currently feed Russia’s dwindling population. However, the 2020 goal will be easier to achieve if Russia’s population continues to fall. Russia had 148 million citizens in 1991, but dropped to 142 million by 2014. (Capturing Crimea in 2015 boosted the number by over two million – annexing is a clever way to reverse a country’s population decline.)
Population and agriculture have both been sliding in Russia, so rejecting western technology may be just the thing the politboro ordered. Back to basics could be the trick. It should go better than when Russia rejected Darwin during the Stalin years. Stalin trusted Trofim Lysenko with the nation’s crops. He was nominally a geneticist, but Lysenko rejected Darwin’s discovery of natural selection in favour of Lysenkoism. This contributed to Soviet crop failures. [You may find “When the Soviet Union Rejected Darwin” interesting.] Lysenko, a favourite of Stalin, believed that genes will change in one generation if the progenitor experiences environmental stimulation. In theory, this is similar to epigenetics, but in Stalin’s Russia, it was practiced quite differently.
According to Lysenko, chilling a wheat plant with ice would make its seeds create a trait that would make future wheat frost-proof. Chopping the tail off a cat would give rise to bob-tailed cats. Starving millions of Soviets would lead to a new, hardy, pro-Soviet generation of citizens. Though easily disproved, the anti-Darwinian notion that environment directly changes genes was appealing to Stalin’s interpretation of Communist doctrine. The results were disastrous. Even today, Russian scientists (who excel in physics, engineering, geology, and chemistry) are dismal in genetics. In that field, they rank amid third-world countries in contributions and innovations.
Russia may eventually feed its shrinking population while abhorring genetic modification. If the Russians can also go organic, it will be their biggest agricultural experiment since Lysenko’s day. For Russia’s honey producers, it should be a huge boon. True organic honey is scarce, mostly produced in remote jungles and on rocky mountainous slopes. Russia is huge, so creating a vast organic range would be fantastic for bees. Getting rid of agri-poisons should be an even greater benefit to bees and wildlife.
Back to Vlad ‘Granola Bar’ Putin. Is he sincere and trustworthy on his commitment to an organic, GMO-free Russia? Farmers will likely go along with his plan, considering prison could be the alternative. Russia’s Parliament is writing a bill for a full ban on GM crops by July 2017. Meanwhile, Russian agriculture minister Nikolai Fyodorov volunteered that his government will not “poison its citizens.” Always reassuring words from any autocratic government.
What is Putin’s real motivation? Healthy, happy citizens? After nearly two decades in power, he has done little to achieve that. In 2012, Russia approved and registered eighteen GM food lines (soybeans, maize/corn, potatoes, rice and sugarbeets) and fourteen GM feed lines (corn and soy for animal feed). Those 32 crop varieties were planted, distributed, and are somewhere in Russia’s ecosystem. Putin’s anti-GMO stance is intended to oppose the west (specifically the USA) which has placed targeted embargoes on Russia because of its actions in Ukraine and elsewhere. “Russia doesn’t need the west’s poisons” is part of the message. This is about power and politics, not the healthy lives of any poor saps toiling under the watchful eye of Moscow.
Maybe the result will inadvertently be positive. Beekeepers will definitely prosper if pesticides are banned. Russian organic honey should be much in demand when it hits grocery shelves in France and Britain in a few years. It will be interesting to see how this plays out – and whether Putin can be trusted after all.