Russia’s war on GMOs

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According to a story in the Des Moines Register and reports elsewhere, it seems that a lot of the world’s anti-GMO propaganda is being spread by the same people who meddled in the 2016 U.S. election. Like, maybe most of it.

A couple of Iowa State University professors recently did a survey of GMO stories that appeared in the American press.

The study, which was done by Shawn Dorius, an assistant professor of sociology, and Carolyn Lawrence-Dill, an associate professor in ISU’s department of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology, found that the English-language, Russian-government-funded news sites RT and Sputnik, carried more GMO-related stories than the next five U.S. news sites combined — and that virtually all of those stories were anti-GMO.

RT accounted for 34 percent of the articles, followed by Sputnik (19 percent), Huffington Post (18 percent), Fox News (15 percent), CNN (8 percent), Breitbart (6 percent) and MSNBC ( less than 1 percent), according to the study.

“Compared to a wide range of American news media, two Russian news agencies — RT and Sputnik — were more likely to report on GMOs and to cast GMOs in an explicitly or implicitly negative light,” Dorius told the technology news site Gizmodo. “The evidence suggests that the difference between Russian news concerning GMOs and U.S. news on the same topic is not random.”

Most of the stories were loaded with click-bait, which further reinforced the anti-GMO narrative and drove a broader anti-biotechnology narrative as well.

The coverage “fits the profile of the Russian information strategy described in recent military reports,” the researchers wrote.

So what are the Russians after here?

Several things. One is that they see GMOs as a wedge issue that can be used to further polarize and fracture  American politics and American society generally. No surprise there.

However, unlike other wedge issues — the presidential election, Black Lives Matter, gun control — where Russian trolls worked both sides of the street, with GMOs their meddling was entirely anti-GMO.

This may be because the Russians’ anti-GMO campaign has broader strategic and economic objectives as well.

Russia enacted a sweeping ban on GMO crops and the import of GMO agricultural products in 2016 and has been trying to rebrand Russian agricultural commodities as “clean food,” “GMO-free” and “organic.”

“If the Americans like to eat GMO products, let them eat it then,” said Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in 2014. “We don’t need to do that; we have enough space and opportunities to produce organic food.”

(Uh, “non-GMO” is not the same as “organic;” most of the world’s non-GMO agricultural output is grown with synthetic fertilizers, repeatedly sprayed with synthetic pesticides and treated with anti-fungal agents. It’s a distinction Medvedev may have been deliberately blurring.)

But the Russians’ anti-GMO campaign’s goals extend beyond portraying Russian agriculture as God’s gift to Whole Foods. An equally important goal is attacking American dominance in global agricultural commodities markets and in biotechnology, a field which along with computer technology is expected to be one of the pillars of the 21st-century economy, and is one in which Russia lags far behind.

“Biotechnology is an area of real global — not just strength, but global dominance for the U.S.,” Dorius said. “Stirring the anti-GMO pot would serve a great many of Russia’s political, economic and military objectives.”

Determining Russian motivations was beyond the scope of the study, he told Gizmodo, but that “prior research that has looked at Russian information warfare and computational propaganda efforts assert that a primary motive is to divide the U.S. electorate and erode trust in the foundational institutions of Western societies.”

“Nothing we have seen in our data would lead us to reject such an interpretation,” he said. “On the contrary, we are seeing some emerging patterns in our data, including negative portrayals of science, biotech industries, international trade agreements and U.S. governance and regulatory agencies.”

“Some of the reports that we cite describe oil and agriculture as the two top industries in Russia,” Lawrence-Dill said. “If you look at quotes from what Putin is saying about clean food, clean agriculture, it’s pretty clear that it would be to their benefit.”

Speaking of oil, the Russians have been running similar disinformation campaigns against fracking for years.

In early January 2017, a couple weeks before Trump’s inauguration, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, still under the Obama administration, cited the Russians’ anti-fracking campaign in its report on Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election.

“RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health,” the report said. “This is likely reflective of the Russian Government’s concern about the impact of fracking and U.S. natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to Gazprom’s profitability.”

Chances are none of this is going to have any effect on the opinions and actions of Boulder County’s anti-GMO and anti-fracking crowd. Still, it would be nice if those worthies took the time to ask themselves exactly whose song they’re singing and whose flag they’re saluting. Maybe the rest of us should ask them that too.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.