Opinion | Putin’s ‘sock puppets’: How Russia ‘uses’ anti-GMO activists to undermine crop biotech and science

Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, are experienced at employing surrogates and agents of various stripes and abilities to further their agendas. An extreme example is the Russian spy agency’s “illegals” program, which places deep-cover agents in Western countries to carry out missions of espionage, sabotage and disinformation. In 2010, ten of these deep-cover agents were rounded up and deported.

TV “news channel” station RT (formerly Russia Today), the Kremlin’s English-language propaganda arm, is the mouthpiece for Russia President Vladimir Putin’s agenda. Fake news is its stock in trade, as illustrated by its blatant disinformation attacks on the reporting of news by respected media outlets like the BBC. Alex Berezow of the American Council on Science and Health has described how RT subtly undermines the United States’ technology and economy. One example:

The report released by the Director of National Intelligence on Russia’s interference in the U.S. election concluded that RT is spouting anti-fracking propaganda as a way to undermine the natural gas industry in the United States. Why? Because fracking lowers the prices of fossil fuels, which severely harms Russia’s economy.

In a report from the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, RT was implicated in Russian hacking during last year’s presidential election. The report found the network uses the internet and social media to conduct “strategic messaging for the Russian government” and that its programming is “aimed at undermining viewers’ trust of US democratic procedures.”

In addition, there is what a New York Times news article called “a particularly murky aspect of Russia’s influence strategy: freelance activists who promote its agenda abroad, but get their backing from Russian tycoons and others close to the Kremlin, not the Russian state itself.”

Genetic engineering in agriculture is a sector that holds intense interest for the Russians. Harkening back to the Lysenkoism catastrophe for Soviet agriculture in the Soviet Union, their expertise and R&D in that area are virtually nil, and there is a ban on genetically engineered organisms from abroad entering the country, so they’ve adopted a strategy of trying to stymie its development elsewhere.

As Berezow pointed out:

RT has never been fond of GMOs [genetically modified organisms], which are largely the result of American innovation. In a 2015 article, RT reported on Russia’s decision to ban GMO food production in Russia. Tellingly, one of the protesters shown in the report is holding a sign that reads, “Goodbye America!” The anti-GMO stance is not based on science or health concerns; instead, it’s based entirely on hurting U.S. agricultural companies.

And that brings us to the U.S. home-grown anti-genetic engineering movement, which is well-coordinated and well-financed. It’s unclear how or if it is directly supported by Russia; it may simply be that, as one of my colleagues, a prominent Russia expert, speculated, “Whatever stirs up trouble in the U.S., Russia is ready to help make it worse.”

This syllogism explains the strategy of all the bad actors, here and abroad:

  • The United States is by far the world’s leader in both the development and cultivation of genetically engineered plants
  • Genetic engineering applied to agriculture is the most rapidly adopted agricultural technology in history
  • Organic agriculture strictly bans GE plants, but only those produced with the most precise and predictable molecular techniques
  • Recent advances in GE plants–higher yields, pest- and disease resistance, drought- and flood-tolerance, improvements in sustainability, traits with appeal to consumers, etc.–are making conventional (i.e., non-organic) agriculture ever-more efficient and superior to organic’s pathetic performance
  • There is virtually no development or cultivation of genetically engineered plants in Russia, therefore, genetic engineering must be prevented from expanding and succeeding elsewhere.

“That’s why,” according to Berezow, USRTK, the most aggressive of the anti-genetic engineering NGOs, “receives more than $400,000 from the Organic Consumers Association, a group that spreads lies about [genetic engineering]. Ronnie Cummins, the International Director of OCA, is known to propagandize for RT.” (Cummins is another one of the trolls who promote organic agriculture and attack those in the scientific community who defend advances in science and technology, including genetic engineering.)  Another six-figure supporter of USRTK is Dr. Bronner’s Family Foundation; Dr. Bronner’s is a large purveyor of various “natural” and organic products, including the “iconic soap of the countercultural 60’s.”

Berezow further dissects the linkages:

USRTK and RT both share a common agenda: To undermine American science and technology for financial gain. Gary [Ruskin, the co-founder and co-director of USRTK] gets more money from organic activists, and Russia worries less about competing against America’s multinational agriculture companies. Everybody wins… except, well, Americans.

There’s more direct evidence of a Russian connection to trolling in the U.S. about genetic engineering. This story, which claims that Melania Trump has banned genetically engineered foods from the White House and favors organic products, ran on May 30 on Your News Wire, which is widely considered to be a fake news source linked to Russian interference with the 2016 presidential elections. The author of the article, “Baxter Dmitry,” has penned articles that allege that, among other things, “Sweden Bans Mandatory Vaccinations Over ‘Serious Health Concerns’,” (untrue) and the arrest for “treason” of a “former Hillary Clinton employee” (untrue).

Related article:  A Nutritionist Reflects on the Sad State of Health Education About GMOs and Farming at Schools and Universities

Moreover, much of the article, including some of the quotes attributed to the First Lady, are cribbed verbatim from a 2010 article in Yes! Magazine that had nothing whatever to do with her.

Overall, the organic industry’s propaganda campaign has achieved impressive gains, albeit at the expense of truth (as well as the wallets of consumers who purchase overpriced organic products). Academics Review, a science-oriented nonprofit organization of academic experts, performed a review of hundreds of published academic, industry, and government research reports concerned with consumers’ views of organic products. It also looked at more than 1,500 news reports, marketing materials, advocacy propaganda, speeches, etc., generated between 1988 and 2014 about organic foods. Their analysis found that “consumers have spent hundreds of billion dollars purchasing premium-priced organic food products based on false or misleading perceptions about comparative product food safety, nutrition and health attributes,” and that this is due to “a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally deceptive marketing and paid advocacy.”

Pursuing the Russian agenda, the activists regularly trot out a litany of false accusations about academics, and USRTK has filed harassing Freedom of Information requests for emails and documents of at least a hundred public university faculty and staff members, hoping to find embarrassing snippets that might imply conflicts of interest. Their efforts to undermine scientists and public policy scholars whose work threatens the Russians’ agenda follow a familiar pattern. In the words of University of Florida plant biologist Kevin Folta, who has been excoriated repeatedly for supposedly being a Monsanto “sock-puppet,” the activists “develop a narrative that suggests industry collusion or undue influence, especially with any attempt to connect the faculty member to Monsanto, a company that is the bogeyman favorite of activists.”

Every page of every email must be examined by attorneys to ascertain whether they are releasable.  Folta estimates that the USRTK fishing expedition may have cost his university as much as a million dollars of taxpayers’ money.

Folta has characterized the activists’ goal as leaving “these trusted professors, dietitians and physicians ‘Google Dead’, a state where their online reputation will always drag the anchor of activist derision.”

The most recent prominent victim was Peter Phillips, Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, whose supposed sin was (surprise!) too close a relationship with Monsanto and allowing the company to influence what he said and wrote.

Folta describes how these campaigns work:

In the case of Phillips, US-RTK acquired emails and used Jason Warick from CBC News as a complicit pipeline to media. This way it is not simply Gary Ruskin and his band of industry-financed lackeys slandering scientists on activist websites. Instead, it takes the patina of legitimate research, hard-core gumshoe reporting. It really is a reporter doing the bidding of US-RTK, who is doing the bidding of a handful of organizations, companies, and undisclosed donors paying for the hit.

These sorts of campaigns are pernicious because they further erode the ability of disinterested observers – the public — to judge what is true and what is not with respect to complex public policy issues. And it is distressing for those of us being attacked, to say nothing of our friends and families. As the fellow said in the Mark Twain story, after being tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail, “If it weren’t for the honor, I’d just as soon have walked.”

However, history is on the side of the scientists and science communicators. In the words of philosophy professor Crispin Sartwell in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The power of the Russian intelligence services. . . is considerable, but it does not include the ability to bend the fabric of reality.” On the other hand, even if we’re not found floating face-down in the Volga, it’s no fun being among the “Google Dead.”

Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA. Follow him on Twitter at @henryimiller

104 thoughts on “Opinion | Putin’s ‘sock puppets’: How Russia ‘uses’ anti-GMO activists to undermine crop biotech and science”

  1. Didn’t realize this but it makes sense. Still, you have the propaganda from big business on one side, and the propaganda from Russia on the other side. All of the above are longtime proven lying scumbags – and either side would benefit financially by persuading people to their cause. I’m sure the facts are out there but nobody cares about facts any more.

    • I suggest you look up the word “scientific consensus,” see where it stands on the safety of genetic engineering and THEN make up your mind. There are real facts, and real experts, out there staring you in the face, you only have to want to see them. I know a “moral equivalence” stance towards Russia and “big business” makes you feel more sophisticated and above the fray, but there is a big chance you are just making yourself a tool of the really bad side and hurting, if not the really good side, at least the better side.

  2. I heard a young preacher preaching against Monsanto; did not realize that Russian propaganda might be involved. But, as “Bumboclot” wrote below, American big business can be as greedy as the Russians. Someday both will stand at the bar of God, where only the blood and merits of Jesus Christ can do them any good.

  3. Improvements in technology can only delay the food crises. Why risk harming the ecosystem with GMO’s and related pesticides when they won’t solve the population growth problem.

  4. I was always amazed when I heard some anti-GMO kook joyously herald the fact that “RUSSIA HAS BANNED GMOs!” or “VENEZUELA HAS BANNED GMOs!” Who wants to be in the same company as those two? The Russian ban of GMOs was only economic retaliation for Western economic sanctions imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and shooting down of the Malaysian Airliner with 298 innocent people on board. The Russians also banned all non-GMO foods from the EU. Venezuela? What more needs to be said about that basket case? The government is so unpopular, there’s a civil war going on there. I think it is a bit of a stretch to say the Russians are working in cahoots with the organic food industry. But I do agree with the article that Vladimir Putin is very interested in dragging the West down to Russian levels of economic degradation and discrediting Western democracy. If harassing the American natural gas and agricultural industries serves this purpose, RT can be relied on to disseminate the Russian disinformation. The American “activists” who regularly appear on RT? There should be a special place in journalistic hell reserved just for them.

  5. Russia also funds the anti-fracking movement in the US. They and the middle east oil producing countries hate that the US has become petroleum independent and is beginning to export in competition with them and their embargos (remember the gas line in the 1970s) and price controls.

    • Russia also funds a massive nuclear arsenal that’s aimed right at us. While I share your disdain for Vladimir Putin’s anti-Americanism, I’m far more concerned that WE ourselves fund the anti-fracking and anti-GMO movements. Isn’t that more astonishing?

      • How wonderfully strident you are. GE is the more precise term? I wonder if the public’s valid concerns about science-gone-mad in the form of GE would really exist if, say, it wasn’t applied to actual living things, that is, no GMOs.

        But I applaud you and have now revised my own position. I think there is absolutely no basis for suspicion when it comes to corporate- and government-funded scientists – who incidentally also brought us atomic and hydrogen bombs, biological weapons, etc. etc. What could possibly go wrong?

          • The obvious point – which you miss – is that scientists are just as unscrupulous as the general population, and whenever scientists say ‘trust me’ about something risky on its face, especially when they use disingenuous arguments, then it’s time to call bullshit.

          • The obvious point is that the crops are as safe as any. You couldn’t answer my questions and thus tried to move the goalposts. No one said trust me. they have supplied plenty of evidence. Putin is scum. And you are wrong.

          • Monsanto is pleased with your performance in these comments. Expect a salary bonus in the coming months.

          • Quite an apropos use as a matter of fact. Cheerleading for reductionist science at this late date is not only stupid but harmful. The idea that ‘it’s safe in the laboratory, therefore nothing can go wrong’ doesn’t pass anything like intellectual muster. So that leaves us with two choices regarding your comments: either you’re an idiot or you’re not sincere, i.e. you’re a shill.

          • Well, the integrity and evidence free shill gambit user is back. Your reductionist attempt at discrediting The established safety of biotechnology is noted and laughed at. This late date means that the science has long left the laboratory and been proven correct in the real world. The insincere idiot is you.

          • When Monsanto one-off seeds and the like destroy agriculture, and bees are driven into extinction by your laboratory-safe pesticides, I wonder where you’ll buy tasty GMO foods for your family.

          • Let’s see, today the main gmo crops are corn and soybeans, neither requires bees for pollination. Couple that with the fact that bee opulations are increasing and it all adds up to you don’t have a clue comrade.

          • Oh, the ‘comrade’ gambit! Never claimed bees were needed for corn or soybeans. You sidestep the obvious implications of what was written because you have no answer for it.

          • You realize, don’t you, that only kooks and crazies would actively advocate for GMOs? And that with a name like ‘Gmo Roberts’ no one thinks you have any credibility?

          • Anybody who quotes HuffPo as if it’s an objective source on anything – and not just a high-priced political blog – clearly doesn’t have the discernment to form credible opinions on much.

          • To discredit something not because of facts only because of where it appears shows what a fool you are comrade.

          • that only kooks and crazies would actively advocate for GMOs?

            What? GMO is just modern plant breeding, who would be against that? Well besides uneducated city folks or people that have a marketing agenda.

          • The claim that genetically modifying organisms and breeding them are the same is hilarious. It’s like saying liposuction and exercise are the same.

          • Well you are right, Genetically modifying crops is far safer than conventional breeding methods.

          • Putin’s agenda. So at the same moment you claim to advocate for science – for clear, objective reasoning, an evidence-based approach, etc. – you push an Evil Putin/Putin is the bogeyman conspiracy theory. Har. Hilarious.

          • Destroy agriculture? Another fact free load of crap. We who actually grow stuff to eat aren’t stupid enough to buy products that will destroy our businesses. Only a nonfarmer would make that dumb comment. “one offs” What does that even mean? They produce many varieties and are looking into new products in order to keep up with the competition.

          • Sometime look up all the suicides of farmers in India. Then you won’t be quite as ‘fact-free’.

          • Utter nonsense. The ‘study’ referenced in your Guardian article concludes basically that it wasn’t the seeds per se, but the economics surrounding the seeds. This is laughable – tantamount to saying: it wasn’t I, your honor, who killed my wife but the bullet. No one has ever claimed to my knowledge that the genetically altered cotton seeds in India rose into the air, swarmed farmers, and killed them. Instead, what’s obvious, is that the introduction of these seeds for cynical corporate profit disrupted traditional agricultural practices in many Indian provinces, leading to the suicides of marginal Indian farmers. Farmers who can afford to pay for the grand new seeds or who can against odds secure legitimate loans are less likely to off themselves. Of course, cultural differences meant that in India many have committed suicide while in the US, when companies like Monsanto have gone to war against traditional farming, those farmers simply move their families in under the local bridge.

          • You are caught in a lie. So, you double down and make up more lies. As pointed out. The suicides started before the intro of GE crops. The study pointed out loan sharking. Traditional farming was resulting in famines. That is why they turned to the green revolution and improved seeds. “gone to war” Liar. They are simply marketing superior products. The lie regarding committing suicide in the US is particularly pathetic. If a farmer is so broke. He is considering suicide. Where did he get the money to travel to the US? You really need to improve your lies. http://www.acsh.org/news/2017/01/07/vandana-shivas-myth-busted-monsanto-didnt-cause-farmer-suicides-india-10696

          • Caught in a lie? How dramatic. My point was clearly made. The article doesn’t disprove a relationship between GMO-introduction and suicides. It merely shows suicides were happening before. Whether suicides increased or not as result of the new economics – marginal farmers having to borrow more now to buy these special seeds – is a question left open. As for farmers committing suicide in the US, I never said they did. You should learn to read before engaging in this sort of flamewar.

          • Your point was clearly a lie. The article proves that and you are lying again. I can post many more from different sources. But like shiva and other garbage. You will lie again. Read my comment again you got it wrong. The business judgment of the farmers is their business not yours. If they decide that the improved seeds are not in their best interests. they can return to the outdated ones. A possibility you forgot (?) to mention. http://io9.gizmodo.com/the-gmo-mass-suicides-are-a-myth-1565342067 and

          • You realize you have no intellectual integrity, and that makes you angry. Have you considered therapy?

          • Well, given that pro-GMO is such an unlikely position for anyone with common sense – yes, the likelihood increases sharply.

          • Hard to do a counter when you didn’t present one to start with comrade. Try again yourself.

          • My argument is clear, obvious, and irrefutable. And it’s been made clearly in these comments, comrade. The public is right to be suspicious of the latest assurances coming from ‘scientists’ that laboratory-safe means ecosystem-safe, biodiversity-safe, &c. The same scientists who for years said smoking was safe, asbestos was safe, and so on. Moreover, my second point very clearly made for anyone literate is that if the public is suspicious of GMOs – rightly or wrongly – it’s not because of Putin, for Christ’s sake. Now go back and review.

          • So you really don’t have a real argument now do you comrade. Maybe you should ask Putin how to handle the question.

          • But the public shouldn’t be suspicious of self-levitating gurus and ex-dance instructors posing as “experts” on genetic engineering and completely unqualified nincompoops like you, right?

          • No, the public should be suspicious of everybody. But the self-levitating gurus and ex-dance instructors aren’t making changes to the food supply.

          • OHHHHH YES THEY ARE! I was referring to Jeffrey Smith, the anti-GMO activist who wants to change our food supply.

          • Tut tut. It’s a bit much to call it a gambit, no? But maybe there’s an element of truth to it. Perhaps if you’re not paid by any organization per se, you’ve still whored yourself out for a nonsensical and counter-intuitive viewpoint.

          • With deliberately dishonest folks like you. Gambit just might be an under statement. “whored?” Try that one to my face someday.

  6. “Organic agriculture strictly bans GE plants,
    but only those produced with the most precise
    and predictable molecular techniques.”
    . organic allows genetic engineering that is
    not precise and predictable?
    does it allow gene guns?
    (do gene guns fire randomly
    and result in frameshift mutations?)

  7. Just heard a talk by a USDA official. He claims that USDA FDA and EPA are totally in the pockets of industry.

    Really, just keep the focus on NAZI Germany as the source of all evil.

    Then we can rest comfortably in corporate America la la land.

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