Anti-GMO Articles Tied to Russian Sites, ISU Research Shows02/27/2018
Politics isn’t the only issue where Russia seeks to sway U.S. opinion.
The former communist country is trying to influence American’s attitudes about genetically engineered crops and biotechnology, according to new Iowa State University research.
Russia is funding articles shared online that question the safety of GMOs in an effort hurt U.S. agriculture interests and bolster its position as the “ecologically clean alternative” to genetically engineered food, said Shawn Dorius, an ISU assistant sociology professor.
Dorius led the research with Carolyn Lawrence-Dill, an associate professor in ISU’s departments of agronomy and genetics, development and cell biology.
Several U.S. crops are genetically engineered. About 90 percent of Iowa and U.S. farmers grow corn and soybeans, for example, that are genetically engineered to tolerate herbicides and pesticides.
Turning the U.S. or world against GMOs “would have a clear negative effect on an industry in the U.S. and could advantage Russia,” Dorius said.
Their research says Russia seeks to expand its economy’s agricultural sector, which is now its second-largest industry after oil and gas.
“That’s a primary interest, but there are multiple interests. One of which is to stir up division in the U.S.,” Lawrence-Dill said.
Just over one week ago, 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies were indicted for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The ISU researchers, already looking at how U.S. media portrayed genetic engineering and biotechnology, decided to include GMO news articles published on the U.S. versions of RT and Sputnik, news sites funded by the Russian government.
They found 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 percent of GMO-related articles among the seven sites; Sputnik articles made up 19 percent.
The researchers also found RT and Sputnik used “GMO click bait” embedded in articles that most people would consider “negative or distasteful” to create an intentional negative reaction.
For example, the researchers pointed to an RT article titled, “Complex abortion debate emerges over Zika virus-infected fetuses” that included a link to another article, titled “GMO mosquitoes could be cause of Zika outbreak, critics say.”
“RT and Sputnik overwhelmingly portrayed genetic modification in a negative light,” the researchers wrote. “Among U.S. news organizations, the left-leaning Huffington Post produced the most ‘anti’ articles, followed by CNN. Fox News produced the most neutral or mixed coverage of GMOs.
“Nearly all articles in which the term GMO appeared as ‘click bait’ were published by RT,” the researchers said.
Even though the federal government declared GMO crops safe for public consumption two decades ago, high-profile individuals, such as TV personality Dr. Oz, and groups, such as the Center for Food Safety, Right to Know and Organic Consumers Association, have raised questions about GMO food safety, calling for mandatory labeling laws and outright bans.
GMO — or genetically modified organism — refers to scientists adding a small amount of genetic material to plants or animals from another organism to introduce traits, such as herbicide resistance, to increase crop yields or make food more nutritious.
ISU professors said they started the research because they wanted to better understand the controversy around genetically engineered food.
The researchers said public understanding or awareness is low, with “national opinion polls in the U.S. showing that 46 percent of adults care little or not at all about GMOs and less than 20 percent feel well-informed.”
Even with the scientific consensus that the foods are safe to consume, at least half of the general public thinks the science around genetic engineering is not settled, the researchers said.
“When it comes to information about scientific matters, the public is less trusting of scientists for information about GMOs than they are for information about vaccines, climate change, evolution or nuclear power,” Dorius said.
The researchers said GMO has become a catch-all phrase for many concepts, including opposition to chemicals used to raise crops, and distrust of government and large corporations.
“Anti-GMO messaging is a wedge issue not only within the U.S. but also between the U.S. and its European allies, many of whom are deeply skeptical of GMOs,” Dorius said.
“Stirring the anti-GMO pot would serve a great many of Russia’s political, economic and military objectives,” he said.
Dorius and Lawrence-Dill said Russia is attacking the U.S. in areas in which America is strong and Russia weak.
“The idea in an asymmetrical war, you look at where you’re weak and your opponent is strong, and you’re really trying to undermine their strength,” Dorius said. “This is an area where U.S. science is strong worldwide — especially so, relative to Russia.”
The research doesn’t address Russia’s success at swaying opinions about genetically engineered crops.
“One of the questions that we don’t take up is its effect — how much is being absorbed and who is it being absorbed by?” Dorius said.
The researchers encourage consumers to look for credible sources, such as the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, to better understand genetic engineering.
“There are many ways to improve our food system,” Lawrence-Dill said. “It doesn’t make sense, given what has to happen for us to meet worldwide demands for food in coming decades, to take any of the tools off the table.
“It’s important to try to understand how biotechnology is one of the tools that we have,” she said. “It’s not an ‘either or’ issue.”
The professors recently presented the research at Iowa State University Crop Bioengineering Center’s annual meeting.
Source: Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register