The GMO sector in Ukraine requires comprehensive reform. Currently, there is no system of control over GMOs, and the rules for handling them are formal, leading to large ‘grey markets’ for GM products.

We don't always know what we are consuming, even when products are labelled GMO-free.

In addition, despite the ongoing war in Ukraine, we are striving to develop and integrate into the European Union. To do this, we need to put our legislation in order and harmonise it with the European one, including the GMO sector.

A bill on GMO regulation recently adopted in Ukraine is a step forward. However, one must understand that this is only the beginning of a long journey.

How is GMO regulated in Ukraine now?

In the EU, consumers know everything about the quality of the products they need thanks to the European Farm to Fork strategy. It implements the idea of a person’s conscious choice of healthy food, meaning effective control of GMOs throughout the entire food supply chain — from sowing and feeding animals to getting into the consumer basket.

Suppose you eat chicken. Farm-to-table compliance by producers should ensure that all elements of production — from feed to chickens — meet the above conditions. In this case, one must ensure that feed does not contain GMOs and there should be checks in place to exclude so-called ‘grey areas’ along the entire chain, where GMOs might have been added at any stage.

The regulation of GMOs and their use in Ukraine is fragmented, and the rules are ineffective. A bill adopted by the parliament on 23 August is meant to change that.

The bill intends to overcome such phenomena as illegal GMOs, losses of producers engaged in traditional cultivation and production, but at risk of accidental contamination of their fields by GMOs from neighbours.

Genetic engineering emerged in 1972 because of climate change and the need to provide food for the world’s growing population. The impact of GMOs on the human body has not been thoroughly studied, and no one knows the consequences of their consumption.

However, we know for sure that people have the right to know and choose what to eat — and to that end, they need legislation with clearly defined rules.

Why do we need a new law on GMOs?

The newly adopted bill, which aims to regulate relations in the field of GMOs and establish clear rules and sanctions, is the first step towards streamlining the regulation that brings Ukraine’s legislation closer to the EU.

If entered into force, the law will be implemented in three years. By that time, Ukraine will have had effective tools to regulate the GMO industry, including requirements for the subject and risk assessment of GMO objects and sources, open dossiers, a procedure for public consultation, and post-registration monitoring.

As for the registration of GMOs, this will be handled by the interagency state commission for GMO risk assessment. Separately, the rules for state supervision and control in closed and open systems are being established. And, as in any high-risk activity, there will be a system of fines, scheduled and unscheduled inspections, an open list of entities involved in the GMO sector, and the creation of open and accessible field registers so that every farmer knows where and what is grown.

The bill clarifies the terms ‘genetically modified organism’, ‘genetically modified source’, ‘genetically modified products’, and ‘GM products as food’. It also sets out the controls and rules that will guide users after the development of bylaws and the introduction of registers. They will have the opportunity to review what is allowed to be used in Ukraine, what conditions are required, what are the requirements and rules for placing crops in trials and then in open systems, and what risks to take into account.

The bill also includes proposals for the disposal of illegal products and the principles of mandatory permits to be issued for research in closed and open systems. Importantly, registration and testing of GM corn in open systems will be prohibited.

In three years, a system should be in place to detect all illegal GMOs and bring unscrupulous producers to justice. When Ukraine is officially allowed to join the EU, all registrations of GMO varieties that are not listed in European databases will be cancelled.

The Ukrainian government has taken into account the proposals of agricultural associations, and as a result, we have regulations that bring us closer to joining the EU.

The new bill has laid the groundwork for further work on bylaws, structural changes, institutions and control methods. This is how the system should work to eradicate grey markets for GMO products and, in the long run, make this area transparent and understandable not only to the producer but also to the end consumer, like you and me.

How different is GMO regulation in the EU and beyond?

Most GMOs in the world are grown in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, India, and Canada.

The US is the world leader, where the officially permitted GMO content in food is up to 10 percent. Moreover, in 2019, the US allowed the breeding of GM fish. Its regulatory authorities consider the product safe until evidence and information about its harm is provided. In the event of harm, all permits are cancelled and damages are compensated in full.

The cultivation or export of GMOs is almost completely banned in Turkiye, Algeria, Madagascar, Kyrgyzstan, Bhutan, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, Peru, Belize, and Venezuela; in China, GMO regulations are frequently changed.

GMO labelling is mandatory in 64 countries, including EU states, Australia, and Japan. In the US and Canada, however, GMOs are not labelled.

The European Union has a more constructive approach to this issue. All but two countries have banned the cultivation of GM plants. Only in Spain and Portugal GM corn is grown, albeit on a total area of no more than 100,000 hectares. Currently, this permit may be cancelled, and it is under review.  

Instead, GMOs are allowed to be imported for biofuel production and use as animal feed. However, it also has its own clear rules and restrictions: Only registered GMO lines are allowed to be imported, and if a GMO line is found to be harmful to health or biohazardous, it will be immediately banned.

In EU countries, the issue of GMOs is given a lot of attention; it is carefully studied, and legislation is analysed and improved.

In July 2023, the European commission proposed to revise the definition of GMOs and separate NGT plants, which are developed using a new genomic technique. Their main difference is that their genomes can be crossed naturally or through conventional breeding. Therefore, NGT plants are proposed to be exempt from the need to label them as GMOs.