Is there a Russian accent to the opposition to GMOs?

Is there a Russian accent to the opposition to GMOs?

The protests by activists against foods made with genetically-modified or GMO crop have always been a bit of a mystery to me. Why are activists so adamantly against crops developed through genetic modification which are proven to provide true benefits to consumers and the planet? It didn’t seem to matter that GMOs have been proven safe by wide range of esteemed health organizations, from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization. The fact that consumers worldwide have eaten millions of meals over decades that contain GMO crops without a single documented adverse health issue also didn’t make the activists think twice. They kept up their actions to demonize GMOs and working to turn consumers against the technology.

Sometimes you find answers in the most unlikely places. A new study by Iowa State University (ISU) researchers shows that Russia’s English-language news outlets have been working hard to gin up opposition to GMOs. Yes, the same folks who national security officials say have been meddling in U.S. elections have employed the internet to consistently post criticism and misinformation on GMOs.

The study, by Shawn Dorius of the ISU Department of Sociology, and Carolyn Lawrence-Dill of the ISU Department of Genetics, found that the English-language Russian media generated a steady stream of online articles that questioned the safety of GMOs. The articles raised skepticism of regulatory agencies and skewered the crop genetics companies that developed the technology.

The outlets ran a lot of anti-GMO articles. The ISU researchers found that Russian outlets also ran significantly more articles about GMOs than other big media organizations, such as Fox News and CNN. And, invariably, the articles in the Russian outlets were negative.

The ISU researchers also discovered that Russian outlets often embedded criticism of GMOs in articles that had little to do with genetic engineering. Links to anti-GMO articles were often embedded in articles that the readers would likely consider "negative or distasteful" to create an intentional negative reaction, the study authors said.

So, why are the Russians so determined to ramp up opposition to GMOs?

Part of the reason, Dorius and Lawrence-Dill say, is that anti-GMO news appears to serve Russia’s political and economic interests. Agriculture is a big part of the Russian economy, and the country wants to reduce food import and build exports. Russia’s GMO bashing coincided with that country’s ban on production and import of GMOs, as well as a rebranding of Russian agriculture as “ecologically clean.”

“In these ways, Russia appears intent on presenting itself as the healthier and more environmentally responsible alternative to genetically modified U.S. agriculture,” Dorius and Lawrence-Dill wrote. “Stirring the anti-GMO pot would serve a great many of Russia’s political, economic, and military objectives.”

In addition, the ISU researchers said that the anti-GMO rhetoric is just another tool that Russian English language media used to promote divisive issues in the United States and other countries that Russia sees as rivals.

The effect of the Russian campaign against GMOs, the authors of the ISU study conclude, is not limited to sowing seeds of division in the United States and Europe and bolstering Russian economic power. It could really go deeper and be far more destructive by questioning all science, not just GMOs, they said.

And questioning science is, of course, is a very dangerous path to follow.

By Dirck Steimel. Dirck is new services manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau and editor of the Spokesman.

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