Hired trolls and programmed bots loosed by Russian operatives have been stirring up dissent among an already divided public on such issues as immigration and gun safety.
That’s bad enough, but it now appears they have another target: genetic engineering, commonly referred to as GMOs.
As if that subject isn’t already stoking heated opinions on both sides of the debate.
According to reporting in the Des Moines Register, Russian-funded operatives are attempting to inflame American attitudes about genetically engineered crops and the applications of biotechnology.
Research conducted at Iowa State University indicated that Russia is funding and disseminating online articles “questioning the safety of GMOs in an effort to hurt U.S. agriculture interests and bolster its position as the ecologically clean alternative to genetically engineered food,” Shawn Dorius, ISU assistant sociology professor, told the newspaper.
Dorius led the research, along with Carolyn Lawrence-Dill, associate professor in ISU’s departments of agronomy and genetics, development and cell biology.
An estimated 90% of U.S. farmers are currently growing corn and soybeans, the vast majority of which are genetically engineered. As Dorius explained in the article, turning Americans and people elsewhere in the world against GMOs “would have a clear negative effect on an industry in the U.S. and could advantage Russia.”
The ISU research projected indicated that Russia is expanding its agricultural sector, which is now the country’s second-largest industry after oil and gas.
“[Agriculture] is a primary interest,” Lawrence-Dill said, “but there are multiple interests, one of which is to stir up division in the U.S.”
Newsflash: There already is enormous pushback in the USA over genetic engineering, much of which has been self-inflicted by seed suppliers and agricultural processors, who have funneled virtually all of the R&D and commercial applications toward production efficiency, to the near-total neglect of consumer benefits.
That has paved the road for activists to demonize what is without question some of the most sophisticated science ever developed, calling products made with GE ingredients Frankenfoods and leveraging consumers’ ignorance of biotech to gin up a campaign that has moved food processors to start labeling products as “GMO Free.”
Like genetic engineering is contaminating the food supply.
The ISU researchers reviewed GMO-related news articles published on U.S. versions of RT and Sputnik, two news sites funded by the Russian government. RT News, in particular, is filled with what initially appears to be a collection of topical stories. However, many of the articles are meant not to inform, but to foment controversy, such as these:
- A feature loaded with the testimony of the victims of ex-USA Gymnastic doctor Larry Nassar and his years of abuse of young, female gymnasts
- A political piece headlined, “85% of Americans are unhappy with Congress.”
- An article titled, “Fortress America” and the need to arm teachers with guns.
- A story gleefully headlined, “RT rates the top 10 Kremlin critics and their hilarious hate campaigns” (mentioning Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Rob Reiner, and of course, Hillary Clinton).
The ISU team found that RT and Sputnik produced more articles containing the word “GMO” than five other news organizations combined: Huffington Post, Fox News, CNN, Breitbart News and MSNBC. RT accounted for 34% of GMO-related articles among the seven sites; Sputnik articles made up 19%.
Both websites used “GMO click bait” embedded in articles that most people would consider critical or distasteful. For example, the researchers cited an RT article titled, “Complex abortion debate emerges over Zika virus-infected fetuses,” which contained a link to an article claiming that “GMO mosquitoes” could be causing the Zika outbreak.
By the way? Genetically engineered crops are banned in some 30-plus countries, including Russia.
Here at home, I’ve yet to find more than a handful of people among the dozens and dozens I’ve queried over the years who exhibited even a rudimentary understanding of what’s involved with genetic engineering, and not just for food crops but even broader applications of biotech in the development of life-saving drugs and medical interventions.
But that’s more the result of scientific ignorance, rather than passion over the (alleged) horrors of GMO foods. In fact, the ISU researchers noted that national opinion polls reveal that 46% of American adults care little or not at all about GMOs, while less than 20% consider themselves to be well-informed on the subject.
My own “research” indicates that last data point is even lower than 20%.
The Russians are able to exploit GMOs as an ideal wedge issue because it’s already a source of controversy among Americans, thanks to activist campaigning couched as anti-corporate messaging, as well the stark divisions between the United States and most Western European countries.
“Stirring the anti-GMO pot would serve a great many of Russia’s political, economic and military objectives,” Dorius told the Des Moines Register.
Unfortunately, that pot is already stirred — and shaken — thanks to a perfect storm of corporate self-interest abetted by activist opportunism.
What we don’t need is Russian bots adding more fuel to that volatile mix.
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator