BIOTECHNOLOGY IN THE SOVIET UNION

by Vincent Lucassen | 15 Oct 1990

Vincent Lucassen

With the breaking down of the Iron Curtain and widespread talk of "perestroika" and "glasnost", the political system in the Soviet Union is presently undergoing profound transformations. A search for the cause of fatal mistakes during the production of biotechnologically produced artificial proteins show some indications of what can happen if decisions on science and technology are left to a central bureaucratic apparatus only. However, the new winds blowing in the USSR do not only bring a more open discussion on these matters, but also revive interest of Western biotech companies to tap part of a huge unexploited market. The development of biotechnology in the flux of "perestroika" has its own dynamics. Vincent Lucassen of the Dutch Contact Group on Biotechnology and Society, and member of the GRAIN Board, went to the Soviet Union and reports on his findings.

Since the beginning of the 1970s, the Soviet Union produces single cell proteins based on paraffin (derived from crude oil) on a large scale. Bacteria transfer this paraffin into protein. After drying, the protein is added to animal feed. In the beginning of the 1960s, there was an acute shortage of protein because of the fast growing population. Agriculture did not produce enough to meet the needs. In order to counteract a structural dependency on imports of American grain, the Soviet Council of Ministers decided to produce bacterial protein based on widely available crude oil. By decree, a special Ministry for Medical and Microbiological Industry, MEDBIOPROM, was founded. Within this ministry, scientists were given the mission to develop a suitable production process. The system was tested out in plots in Krasnodar and Ufa. In the eyes of the Council of Ministers, the results were satisfactory enough to go for large scale production. Engaged scientists were decorated and invited to pilot further construction.

Bronchial Backfire

After the start up of the first factories, many problem arose. Bacterium cells contaminated the open air as protein dust because the manufacturing process in not enclosed. The dust not only disturbs the local environment but it also attacks people's immune systems and causes allergic reactions. The result was a striking rise in the number of bronchial asthma patients in the neighbourhoods of the production sites. The degradation of people's immune system has indirectly affected the problem of cancer, liver and heart diseases. Factory workers, in direct contact with the protein, are also susceptible to derivative skin diseases and mould infections.

In Kirishi and Volgograd, two of the eight industrial cities where production sites are located, these problems have given rise to strong public reactions. Demonstrations of tens of thousands of people pleaded for immediate closure of the plants. In Kirishi, this resulted in the reconstruction of the factory into an enclosed unit in 1987. It failed. Although the outburst of protein dust was reduced drastically, cells still come into the air and trouble people. The same sort of problems occur in other cities. In 1988 in Angarsk, an outburst of a cloud of protein dust took place and as a result more than a thousand people fell ill and one person died. Medicines to treat these diseases have never been developed.

Genetic Deformity

Not only during the production process but also with the application of the protein as an animal feed additive do problems arise. For the first time when the protein, named Paprin, was added to the feed it turned out to have deleterious effects. A sovkhoz (state farm) near Leningrad is dependent on a special feed mix factory which uses Paprin. The amounts of feed delivered to the sovkhozes is regulated by the Ministry of Agriculture, AGRIPROM.

After the first alarming data, the doses of Paprin were reduced. AGRIPROM from the Leningrad sector decided to no longer add the product to pig feed. Instead, it will be given to fur animals. But this change might not last for long. The ongoing acute shortage of proteins is forcing the authorities to turn to Paprin again, this time perhaps in smaller amounts. The number of complaints about fertility problems, disturbed pregnancies and genetic deformities is increasing for cows as well as for pigs. Corrective measures have failed to come while the protest grows.

Safety Norms

An essential point of the whole problem is the way in which new technology is developed in the Soviet Union. On the basis of a political decision, scientific knowledge was built up in order to exploit a new resource for the production of food. Hardly any attention was paid to the safe application of this knowledge. No requirements for the use of sterile equipment in order to prevent infection from the bacterial strains were elaborated. No scientific theory to judge the ecological effects of protein dust in the air was called upon. No research data about possible allergic, mutagenic and toxic effects from this protein on people and animals was produced. This side of the scientific field is severely underdeveloped in the USSR. MEDBIOPROM seems to consider every form of control as superfluous. Now and then, reports from the State Nature Defense Fund and the Sanitary Institute led to a temporarily close down of a factory. Nevertheless, often after a short period production was resumed without essential adaptations.

In the European Community, the deficiency of fundamental knowledge about the biological safety of the production of bacterial protein was reason enough to prohibit the use of it by Community directive in 1985. This fact and the ongoing stream of protest in the Soviet Union forced the Upper Soviet in 1989 to cancel the production of these proteins by 1991. Since then, the MEDBIOPROM started a hectic lobby to extend the market for Paprin. The ministry was successful in concluding export contracts with China, Syria, (then) East Germany, South Korea, Cuba, Finland, Norway, Rumania and Bulgaria. At the end of this year, the Council of Ministers will take its final decision about the artificial production of proteins.

Soviet Agriculture

In the meantime, it has become clear that a biologically safe manifacture of artificial proteins is comparatively too expensive to be considered. It is more profitable to produce the much needed proteins by means of traditional agricultural methods. With this conclusion, the discussion falls back on the original and underlying problem for which, in the 1960s, a solution was originally sought: the failing system of Soviet agriculture.

The driving power behind the bureaucratic centralism in the USSR is weakened by the diminishing strength of the Communist Party. Agriculture is no longer run by five-year plans. However, while awaiting "The Great Turnaround", the food supply has stagnated. Although enough food is produced, harvesting and distribution suffer great drawbacks, resulting in agricultural products reaching their destination in small amounts.

While the political debate about privatisation of Soviet farms continues, ideas about "modern agriculture" are already taking their place among the leaders of AGRIPROM and the scientific institutes -- ideas in which plenty of place is reserved for new biotechnological applications.

AGRIPROM has made contact with Euribrid, a subsidiary of British Petroleum, specialised in growth promoters and genetic manipulation of pigs and chickens. Also, in the Centre of Bio-Engineering of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, researchers have high expectations about this new technology. They work on virus-, insect- and herbicide-resistance plants. In order to make up arrears on the U.S, the institute passed contracts with some large Western biotechnology firms like Missouri-based Monsanto. Next year, the institute hopes to carry out their first field release with transgenic plants.

In the stable of the Institute of Agricultural Biotechnology, transgenic pigs, sheep and rabbits walk around freely. Researchers here are trying to improve production and quality by means of genetic manipulation. This institute also entered into contracts with several American firms in particular. Under their auspices, Monsanto and Eli Lilly are testing bovine growth hormone. This hormone, biotechnologically produced in Austria and Great Britain, is now tested on 5000 cows divided over several sovkhozes. The test milk is put into the regular milk supply without restriction.

Test plot?

These are just examples of the new enthusiasm which is building up among Soviet scientists toward the new biotechnologies. Privatisation of parts of academic research is generally thought to be useful to improve efficiency. Agreements with Western companies are seen as essential to get hold of the technology and buy more equipment. From the side of Western firms and researchers, there is a great interest to gain entry into the Soviet Union: besides the gigantic agricultural consumer market, there is a substantial scientific knowledge base and a huge supply of genetic resources. For that reason the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) has recently signed an agreement with the USSR to collaborate in this area (see box).

At the same time, other ideas are developing in order to transform the Soviet agricultural system. As a reaction toward the great difficulties caused by the intense use of herbicides and pesticides, scientists together with non-governmental organisations are working on biological alternatives. They are looking for a farming structure which is in tune with existing climate and soil conditions and traditional circumstances. There is a clear danger that these sorts of projects will be dashed to pieces if Western firms come in with their hard currency and large scale technology.

Due to the growing openness of the media in the Soviet Union, it becomes clear that in the past there was no control on technology development. The example of artificial proteins shows how this can result in harmful effects on people, animals and the environment. At this moment, there is still a lack of sufficient democratic control. There is no clear law-making procedure nor a possibility to influence research priorities. In this respect, it is a tense time to see what the reform of the Soviet system will bring. The question which is put forward is whether the Soviet people get an opportunity to design their system of food production or whether their country turns into the first uncontrolled, large scale biotechnological test plot.

IBPGR - SOVIET AGREEMENT

Western interests for Soviet-Russian genetic resources is illustrated by a recent agreement which was concluded between the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) and the Soviet N.I. Vavilov Institute for Plant Industry. The agreement establishes cooperation in the field of research, documentation and evaluation of plant genetic materials. With this, the Vavilov Institute automatically became part of the European Cooperative Programme on Crop Genetic Resources Networks. IBPGR Acting Director Dick van Sloten was elated, "The USSR with it enormous history in the science of plant genetic resources and with a wealth of these resources within its boundaries has fully opened its doors for international collaboration." Almost at the same time, the U.S. entered into their own agreement with the Vavilov Institute with the aim of reciprocal exchange of germplasm.

Source: "Diversity", Vol. 6, Nº 2.

 

Author: Vincent Lucassen