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Russia Launches Attack on GMOs

New research from Iowa State University has revealed that Russia is funding online articles that question the safety of GMOs.

Conducted by Shawn Dorius, ISU assistant professor of sociology, and Carolyn Lawrence-Dill, an associate professor in ISU’s departments of agronomy and genetics, development and cell biology, the research was initially designed to delve into public perception of genetically engineered food by assessing the comments section on five U.S. news sites (Huffington Post, FOX news, CNN, Breitbart News, and MSNBC).

Nearly 90% of U.S. farmers grow GMO crops, such as corn and soybeans that are genetically engineered to tolerate herbicides and pesticides. Yet, despite the federal government’s declaration nearly two decades ago that GMO crops are safe for public consumption, opponents continue to raise questions about GMO food safety.

According to Dorius and Lawrence-Dill, even with prolific debate public knowledge of the subject remains low, with national opinion polls showing 46% of adults care little or not at all about GMOs and less than 20% feel well-informed.

Russia Meddling

At the time they were conducting their research, reports of Russian troll farms and meddling in the U.S. election were making the news.

So, Dorius and Lawrence-Dill decided to include two English-language sites funded by the Russian government (RT and Sputnik), and they made a startling discovery: RT and Sputnik produced more articles containing the word “GMO” than the five U.S. sites combined. In fact, of the GMO-related articles found on the seven sites, 34% were published by RT and 19% by Sputnik.

Among the U.S. sites studied, Huffington Post produced the most anti-GMO articles, followed by CNN. Fox News produced the most mixed coverage of GMOs.

RT and Sputnik also made ample use of clickbait, content designed to encourage readers to click on a link to another web page. For instance, clickbait in an article on the Zika virus linked to another article claiming GMO mosquitoes could be the cause of the Zika outbreak.

Nearly all articles in which the term GMO appeared as clickbait were published by RT, and RT and Sputnik overwhelmingly portrayed genetic modification in a negative light.

“There was this weird thing where you would see the GMO issue purposely inserted into articles that had nothing to do with the topic,” says Lawrence-Dill. “The article would be about something most people would find abhorrent, like child pornography, or at least controversial, like abortion, and then you’d get to the bottom of them and see a link about GMOs. By then, the reader’s mind is already in this very negative place and so by extension, GMOs must be negative, too.”

Although the anti-GMO content of RT and Sputnik often closely mirrored the messages of well-known anti-GMO groups, Dorius is quick to say they found nothing to indicate those groups are in any way linked to the Russian campaign. “Many of the arguments, news articles, and common tropes that have been circulated among anti-GMO organizations also appear in Russian news coverage. In that respect, we are seeing a consistent portrayal of GMOs in English-language Russian news that broadly agrees with those of organizations that oppose GMOs.”

What Is Russia’s Motive?

The research does not address Russia’s motives, but two theories rise to the top. One enhances Russia’s status in world trade.

The researchers believe Russia is funding articles shared online that question 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. Russia wants to be the leading exporter of organic food, and GMOs are already divisive.

Worldwide, the U.S. is the largest producer of GMO crops, but their reception by trade partners is shaky. Growing genetically engineered crops is banned in about three dozen countries, including Russia. In China, where the U.S. is one of the top suppliers of soybeans, the planting of genetically modified varieties of staple food crops is not allowed, but the import of GMO crops is, such as soybeans for use in China’s animal feed industry.

Disrupting trade by turning the world against GMOs “would have a clear negative effect on an industry in the U.S. and could advantage Russia,” says Dorius.

It is also likely that Russia is working to drive a wedge between various factions within the U.S., an approach that fits the pattern of Russia’s interference in other areas. The U.S. Justice Department has charged 13 Russian nationals and three entities for interference in U.S. politics, including the 2016 presidential election.

“Certainly the ‘wedge issue’ hypothesis is one that lines up with related findings about the kinds of social and political issues that can be exploited to inflame passions and divide the electorate,” says Dorius. “Stirring the anti-GMO pot would serve a great many of Russia’s political, economic, and military objectives.”

The research also doesn’t address Russia’s success at swaying opinions about genetically engineered crops, nor the affect of those opinions on agriculture’s ability to meet future food demands.

“There are many ways to improve our food system,” says Lawrence-Dill. “Biotechnology is one of the tools that we have. It doesn’t make sense to take any of the tools off the table. It’s not an ‘either or’ issue.”

The ISU research was funded by the ISU Crop Bioengineering Center and the ISU Plant Sciences Institute Faculty Scholars.

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