How Russia tried to turn America against GMOs and agricultural biotechnology and sow ideological discord

How serious was secret Russian interventionism when it comes to creating public discord over US farming and agricultural trade policy?

We may never know for sure, but a stream of recent revelations provide some context as to how Russia is trying to benefit from its recent rejection of Western biotechnology and embrace of organic farming.

For the modest sum of 45,000 rubles a month (about $800), an office in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2013 offered writers a unique opportunity: assume false identities and conduct social media posts to widen social and political fissures in the United States and Europe. Much of the work focused on the 2016 election. But another very big fissure was genetic engineering in food.

The details are embedded in a variety of documents including findings recently presented by two researchers at Iowa State University showing that Russian state news organizations, mainly Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, were the sources of more than half of all 2016 stories using the term “GMO,” with RT producing 34 percent of articles and Sputnik 19 percent. Among US news organizations, the Huffington Post GMO stories amounted to 18 percent of the total, followed by Fox News at 15 percent down to Breitbart and CNN in single digits, and MSNBC at below 1 percent.

Screen Shot at AMRT and Sputnik stories were nearly always negative on GMOs, and touched on concerns often expressed in reader comments of US news outlets: “opposition to multinational firms, skepticism of elected officials and regulatory agencies,” as well as “environmental concerns (cross-pollination, species loss, chemical pollution), health risks (a cause of cancer, Zika), nutritional deficiencies, political corruption, negative consequences for developing countries (suicide of Indian farmers), corporate malfeasance (manipulation of facts by Monsanto), and corruption.”

The researchers also noted that these stories “reflect a deep understanding of the psychological antecedents of public distrust in bioengineering and an intent to more firmly link these antecedents in public consciousness.”

Screen Shot at PMGetting anti-social with social media

Their efforts, of course, did not stop with RT and Sputnik (and continue to this day). The misinformation-generating office in St. Petersburg, headquarters of the Internet Research Agency, a massive troll farm that was the subject of an indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller against 13 Russians for their alleged efforts to conduct deliberate misinformation campaigns on a number of issues.

Mixed among the politically charged social media messages that came out of this agency came a few that addressed GMOs. One Russian character was “Jenna Abrams,” who has issued thousands of tweets and other social media missives, sometimes about GMOs, according to the details in the Mueller indictment.

Except that “Jenna Abrams” isn’t a real person. “She” is a Russian bot, fabricated by the Internet Research Agency, and a cover for issuing a wide range of messages on social media, all designed to exacerbate divisions among Americans based on a number of issues, including GMOs. Her fake persona was apparently started in 2014, according to The Daily Beast, and originally included social media posts both for and against GMOs in an apparent attempt to stir up controversy.

Meanwhile, anti-GMO activists in the US, such as US Right to Know’s Gary Ruskin, often share anti-GMO articles from Russia Today and Sputnik News on social media to promote their agenda. In addition, Organic Consumers Association head Ronnie Cummins has appeared on RT to spread his anti-GMO message.

A missive, not missile, crisis

Why are the Russians invading our computers, and what’s their problem with GMOs?

Money and populist politics, mostly.

In 2014, the US and Western European countries enacted sanctions on Russia in reaction to its military actions in Crimea.

In response, Russia banned agricultural and food imports from the US and EU in 2014. At the same time, oil prices worldwide began falling, which hit Russia hard because its export earnings came largely from energy exports. The ruble dropped, making imported goods even more expensive. By 2015, Russia was in a recession.

b e c b aa e

Recessions are not good for incumbent politicians, even ones who, like Vladimir Putin, prefer to run unopposed. Russia’s strategy then became a mix of populism and defenses against deepening economic woes.

In this context, Mr. Putin signed a law in 2016 that outlawed the import of GMO foods, and banned GMO crop development within Russian territory. This was a politically popular decision, since most GMOs are perceived (somewhat correctly) as produced by the United States. They are also very unpopular in Russia—about 80 percent of the Russian people are opposed to genetic engineering in food.

According to the US Foreign Agriculture Service,

These amendments prohibit cultivation of genetically engineered plants and breeding of genetically engineered animals on the territory of the Russian Federation, except for cultivation and breeding of plants and animals required for scientific expertise or research.

That last line, “except for cultivation and breeding of plants and animals required for scientific expertise or research,” is important. According to Pavel Volchkov, Head of Laboratory at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, in a 2016 interview with the Genetic Literacy Project, scientific research on GMOs is very important to Russia:

It’s very important to do research and development related to GMO in Russia. There are not restrictions on research and development. It’s even fully supported. Government supports this work with funds, grants, and some venture capital.

So, why not have a research and development pipeline to produce Russian-only GMOs? Because Russia doesn’t have a scientific agency that’s the equivalent of the US Food and Drug Administration or European Medicines Agency, said Volchkov:

In general, it’s better to create better registration guidelines with a pipeline rather than to prohibit it. If you can’t create an FDA, it’s really difficult. So, it’s easier to prohibit. You don’t have to create an agency.

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Not just an ag superpower, an organic superpower

Related article:  Talking Biotech: From non-GMO to organic, has food labeling gone too far?

But there’s yet another reason for Russia’s antagonism toward GMOs that extends beyond antagonism for its traditional western enemies, and need for harder currency. It’s now a major agricultural power, and wants more. Putin and his countrymen (and a few women) believe that large-scale organic farming might provide them economic advantages in trade with Europe and other countries where GMO food (but not GMO animal feed) is banned.

Russia has one-sixth of the world’s arable land. After the fall of the USSR, Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine switched from being major grain importers to, today, replacing the United States as the largest wheat exporter on the planet. It still, however, imports high-value crops like meat, fruit, vegetables and processed foods, which puts a serious dent in its overall exporter status.

Partly because of its land mass, but largely because of its self-imposed (but popular) import standoff, Russia is increasing agricultural production. And not just any kind. The country is investing in all kinds of agricultural technology in attempts to modernize farming practices that still bear the signs of a Soviet, centralized management. President Putin also claimed that Russia could “go organic,” and become the world’s largest supplier of “healthy, ecologically clean, high-quality food,” and become self-sufficient by 2020.

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Organic farming, which rejects all forms of genetic engineering and many aspects of conventional western farming, is seen as supportive of this goal. As in many countries that restrict GMO imports, sensational news coverage and rabidly anti-science social media have soured a large portion of the public against biotechnology. Recent polls show more than 80 percent of Russians believe GMOs are harmful in some way.

And Russia still has a romanticized view of farming. In an article in the Financial Times, Daniel Tolstoy, grand-grandson of famed novelist Leo Tolstoy, envisioned what he called Russia’s first “true” organic farm. And he’s thinking big: much larger than typical European or American organic acreage. He’s not the only one—82 Russian producers were recognized as organic by foreign certifiers, and the Russian government is encouraging large-scale farms through financing schemes. Russian conversion to organic farms doubled in 2014 and grew 57 percent in 2015. However, there is no Russian authority certifying and regulating organic agriculture, so there is really no way to know what techniques these farms are using.

While Russia’s import prohibition has encouraged this growth, its propaganda programs serve as a way to bolster domestic support for the country’s policies, and–more importantly–drive serious cracks and fissures into US and European support of conventional agriculture, especially that which relies heavily on genetic engineering or extensively uses synthetic herbicides or fertilizers.

And state-run media outlets have fertile ground to sow with social media, click-bait and other outlets of communication that are uninhibited by editors. According to Steven Novella, Yale University neurologist and author of Neurologica blog, this is the scary part:

Specifically it removes the traditional mechanisms of quality control and fact-checking from information outlets. There is also the problem of algorithm-based curation of information that leads to progressively more isolated echo chambers and greater polarization and extremism. Additionally there is the click-bait problem, which is really a new manifestation of an old problem – market forces will tend to favor catering to the lowest common denominator. Sensational news will tend to predominate over sober but high-quality news.

And Henry Miller, Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA, said this all fits neatly into Russia’s anti-GMO syllogism (which is also in tune with US and European anti-GMO activism):

  • 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.

Russian disinformation campaigns are not new. In fact, the very word comes from Russian, “Dezinformatsiya,” which was adopted in the early 1960s, and supposedly invented by Josef Stalin just after World War II. Russia has always been involved in this particular manipulation of innovative technologies. The famous “Potemkin Village,” an alleged cardboard village erected in the 1700s to impress the Empress Catherine the Great, probably never happened, making the story a falsehood based upon a falsehood.

Modern communications has come a long way from Catherine’s time. But, like many things Russian, there are often layers of hidden truth inside the Russian babushka.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer and editor, and has worked with numerous academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @AMPorterfield.

35 thoughts on “How Russia tried to turn America against GMOs and agricultural biotechnology and sow ideological discord”

  1. And not only that, SONY of Japan is working to quash Monsanto by its entry into “sustainable” agricultural practices. When is the American government going to act to protect America’s interests? Our dominance in the production of High Fructose Corn Syrup is threatened by the hostility and attacks against Monsanto’s scientific methods of agriculture.
    Corn and Soy and Canola, it is all we need. Sterilize the soil, plant inoculated GMO, kill competing plants with herbicides, pests with pesticides, dry the crop for harvest with a desiccant herbicide, preserve the harvest with super fungicides and moldicides. Shatter all the crop debris to leave in place.

  2. And then there are all the Anti American propaganda platforms hosted by RT. Platforms that incite the misinformed and agitate people against their own best interests and the progress of the American System.

    The plug needs to be pulled. But will Trump do it? This is why Hillary lost. Support Hillary! Consume! Show your patriotic support for American Industrial Agriculture by consuming more High Fructose Corn Syrup products. Products grown by the science of Monsanto!!!
    Rebuke Russian interference within the American Economy and American Political System!!

      • The Monsanto method of Industrial Agriculture is used to produce the monoculture crop of corn used to produce HCFS, a method of agriculture which depends upon the use of Monsanto products, herbicides, pesticides, GMO seeds. A form of marketing and market control which does not tolerate other forms of agriculture.

        • Monsanto had very little to do with the way corn belt agriculture evolved over the past hundred years or so. For that you may want to direct your attention to such companies as Cargill, ADM, Smithfield and Tyson to name just a few. Monsanto produces seeds and one or two herbicides which make farmers lives easier and more profitable. Farmers seem to like their products and I don’t think anyone is forcing them to use them. Were you ranting as vociferously (and incoherently) when Pioneer and Ciba Geigy exerted just as much if not more dominance before GM seeds were introduced? I doubt it.

          • Pioneer was acquired by DuPont and Ciba Geigy formed the basis of Syngenta which is now owned by Chem China. Again, what does that have to do with Monsanto?

          • They inhabit the same economic space as Monsanto but you did post a bit of information about the economic powers which control our agricultural policy. And yes, I was being over the top.
            Thank You.

          • How is the weather over there in St. Petersburg? Is spring in the air yet? Oh, nyet? That’s too bad. What have you been “researching” on the Internet recently? I see they gave you the GMO beat. Must be a little boring when you could be messing with the American midterm elections instead. Say, I’ve got the perfect investment for all those rubles you must be earning: St. Petersburg Metro tokens! They will keep their value when nothing else will! You’re welcome. Хорошего дня!

          • Really. What is your problem. Deserted family farms, fence lines torn away, tree lots mowed down, topography re-contoured by D9s, black soil eroded into the sewerized Mississippi Missouri basin, down to the sub soil, three feet of black soil gone forever, dead birds, monoculture, constant herbicide, pesticide, fungicide application, anhydrous ammonia soil injection, liquid manure spraying by the millions of gallons to produce what?

          • Have you actually traveled to/through that area? It’s actually quite productive, prosperous, and bountiful in terms of the food that it provides to YOU. It has become more sustainable because of the use of precision biotech and thrown aside many of the destructive practices that you envision. You should actually go there & learn from actual agriculturally involved people so that your future posts would be better informed.

          • I lived there from 1955 to 2014 with interruption from 1969 to 1972 in a place where Rush Limbaugh and Ted Nugent opted to not participate, although if they had, we undoubtedly would have then prevailed.

            But it will all work out, the restored wet land pot hole next to the fields being tiled so that all may drain faster and the Ag Supply trucks dropping off the bank loan required scheduled deliveries of chemicals., chemicals to all be applied with laser GPS satellite mapping precision and quaint little waterways channelized for more efficient drainage flow. It is scientific, it is modern, but the soil is dead. But then the soil is only there to hold the plants in place, that is all. We shall make the soil a more efficient plant holder in the pursuit of more efficient industrial agricultural methods to produce a uniform product from all areas.

          • totally totally totally true, why think when you have parrot function? Such discussion channels the mind to stay on the track of the consumption propaganda put out by the market driver, drowning out, stifling, opposing or diverging thought.

      • Why thank you. I will take that compliment. Yes, just munching on my fresh boiled bowl of yummy soybeans and field corn, just freshly combined and triple washed to remove the maximum of the desiccant herbicide.

  3. This article and a recent one entitled “Russia funds articles questioning GMO safety in bid to hurt US ag industry, research shows” by Donnelle Eller show us the extent to which anti-GE propaganda originates in Russia. I find it amusing to hear Russia touted as the “world’s largest supplier of healthy, ecologically clean, high-quality food.” This is the country, or more accurately the plutocracy, that has repeatedly reneged on treaties it signed like the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 to respect Ukrainian territorial integrity, that has a completely corrupt judicial system that routinely confiscates property from and imprisons dissidents, that lies through its teeth about its role in the shoot-down of that Malaysian airliner and its participation in the Ukrainian and Syrian civil wars, and that has been caught cheating at the governmental level in efforts to thwart Olympic doping inspections! This is the entity which we are supposed to trust with adherence to the convoluted requirements of organic agriculture??? This is the country we should trust as a food source? Who can forget the scandal in China when phony milk caused 100s of thousands of infants to have health problems? Nope, I am not buying anything from Russia until it becomes a non-criminal, “normal” country.

  4. HAHAHAHA I had to laugh. The nutballs see Russians everywhere. I swear Russia has brought these leftist morons to insanity. Its like the McCarthy era again, only funnier and with SJW and now anti-anti GMO idiots

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