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No evidence Russian president Vladimir Putin passed a law making those who grow or sell genetically modified foods terrorists

IN SHORT: Although Russia has largely outlawed foods made from genetically modified organisms, they are still allowed in research, and there are some exceptions for imports. There is also no evidence that those who grow or sell GMOs are treated as terrorists, as claimed in spurious social media posts.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has “passed a law that any Russian who grows or sells genetically modified foods is to be considered a terrorist”, says infamous naturopath Barbara O’Neill.

She can be seen in a clip circulating on social media in October 2023 encouraging people to avoid genetically modified foods in favour of “organic” products. 

In 2019, O’Neill was banned for life from offering health advice or services in Australia after spreading dangerous false stories for profit. Africa Check has also debunked a number of her health claims in the past. But O’Neill’s videos continue to circulate on social media. 

Now posts containing the clip have received thousands of views here, and likes here, here and here on different platforms. The claim has also found its way to Facebook here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here

But is there any truth to this claim from O’Neill? We checked. 


What is genetic modification and is it dangerous?

Plants or animals that have had their genetic material changed are called genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But this is nothing new. 

“Ever since humans have grown plants and raised animals for food, they have selected plants and animals with beneficial traits for further breeding,” says the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Examples of this include selecting the crops that had the highest yield or were more resistant to disease, taking advantage of naturally occurring genetic differences between crops.

With modern technology it is now possible to create those genetic differences in laboratories. This is to introduce traits that are desirable for people growing crops or breeding animals. 

Genetic modification, or genetic engineering, is used all over the world for important purposes beyond increasing yields and reducing diseases. The US Food and Drug Administration points out that genetic engineering has been used to make staple foods more nutritious, as well as to create human insulin and in a variety of other medical applications.

Trusted health organisations have not found any safety issues in genetically modified foods available to the public.

Russian genetic modification laws

In 2016, the Russian government adopted a law that banned foods produced using genetic modification of plants or animals. 

The law specifically prohibits using seeds derived through genetic modification, even when those seeds cannot reproduce or transfer their inherited genetic material, and prohibits breeding animals that have undergone genetic engineering. 

However, the law still allows for research into genetic engineering, and for the import of some GM foods, like soybeans. In 2019, Russia also reportedly launched a large federal campaign to develop new varieties of gene-edited crops and animals.  

Russian law stipulates prison sentences for people considered terrorists. But Africa Check could find no evidence that people growing or selling GMOs would be considered terrorists. According to available evidence and news reporting, the punishment for individuals or companies in violation of the GMO law would be a fine of “10,000-50,000 rubles for individuals and 100,000-500,000 rubles for legal entities”. 

Russia’s anti-GMO media

According to the US-based Library of Congress, supporters of the Russian ban claim that its implementation would “allow Russia to produce the cleanest agricultural products in the world”. That’s despite the lack of evidence for health risks associated with approved GMOs. 

Opponents argued that the ban “favours the current Russian agricultural lobby, which is not interested in the development of new technologies and is afraid of competition in world markets”.

Some researchers have gone further, writing that Russia has executed a concerted anti-GMO media campaign. The researchers from Iowa State University, in the US, studied news coverage of GMOs in English-language Russian media and found “distinctive patterns” in Russian news that “provide evidence of a coordinated information campaign that could turn public opinion against genetic engineering”.

However, it is not accurate that the Russian government has banned anyone from growing GMOs or labelled them terrorists.

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