A Bigger Russian Threat: Disrupting U.S. Innovation

By | 2017-10-05T15:14:44+00:00 October 5th, 2017|
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Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, is experienced at employing surrogates and agents of various stripes and talents to further its agendas. The most recent example was a “trending topic” story on Facebook about the Las Vegas shooting published by Sputnik, a news agency controlled by the Russian government; the item claimed, inaccurately, that the FBI had found a connection between the shooter and Daesh, also known as ISIS.

An ongoing example is TV “news channel” station RT (formerly Russia Today), the Kremlin’s English-language propaganda arm, the mouthpiece for Russian 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.

In a report from the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, implicated RT in Russian hacking during last year’s presidential election. The report found that 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 U.S. democratic procedures.”

Russia’s targets are not limited to politics. Dr. Alex Berezow of the American Council on Science and Health has describes how RT subtly undermines the technology and economic growth of the United States. 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.

To underscore how seriously this is being taken by congressional leaders, on July 10 the House Science Committee sent this statement from Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) to the Wall Street Journal’s “Best of the Web” column:

If you connect the dots, it is clear that Russia is funding U.S. environmental groups in an effort to suppress our domestic oil and gas industry, specifically hydraulic fracking. They have established an elaborate scheme that funnels money through shell companies in Bermuda. This scheme may violate federal law and certainly distorts the U.S. energy market.

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.”

Russia’s targets are not limited to politics. Dr. Alex Berezow of the American Council on Science and Health has describes how RT subtly undermines the technology and economic growth of the United States.

Genetic engineering in agriculture is another sector that holds intense interest for the Russians. Harkening back to the Lysenkoism catastrophe for Soviet agriculture in the Soviet Union, their research and development expertise in that area is virtually nil, and the government has a long-standing ban on genetically engineered organisms from abroad from entering the country, so the Russians have adopted a strategy of trying to inhibit 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 United States and its home-grown anti-genetic engineering movement, which is well-coordinated and well-financed. It’s unclear whether anti-GMO activists are 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 synergistic 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 genetically engineered plants;
  • recent advances in genetically engineered 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.

An example of the lengths to which Russian trolling in the United States will go to discredit genetic engineering was a wire-service story claiming that Melania Trump has banned genetically engineered foods from the White House and favors organic products. It appeared 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,” had previously penned articles alleging, among other things, “Sweden Bans Mandatory Vaccinations Over ‘Serious Health Concerns’” (untrue); and the arrest for “treason” of a “former Hillary Clinton employee” (also untrue).   

Moreover, much of the Melania Trump 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.

One of the memes commonly employed by Russian trolls is the accusation that their targets are drug dealers or otherwise involved with illegal drugs. An odd coincidence, then, is this bizarre accusation in a comment on a Wall Street Journal article of mine: “He is presently working with the Sinaloa cartel on a campaign to put heroin back in CocaCola [sic].” (I assume he meant cocaine—which was present in trace amounts in Coke in the original 19th century formulation—rather than heroin.) More fake news.

The Russian agenda gets plenty of support from inside the United States. For decades the U.S. organic industry’s propaganda campaign has been trolling and dispensing the same sorts of disinformation to discredit the competition (that is, genetic engineering). Academics Review, a reliable, science-oriented nonprofit organization of academic experts, performed an extensive review of hundreds of published academic, industry, and government research reports concerned with consumers’ views of organic products. The group also looked at more than 1,500 news reports, marketing materials, advocacy propaganda, speeches, etc., generated between 1988 and 2014 about organic foods.

Its analysis found “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.”

Because of genetic engineering’s prodigious scientific, economic and humanitarian successes, history is on the side of the scientists and science-communicators in the biotechnology community. As Nobel laureate Max Planck observed, scientific innovations rarely spread as a result of their opponents’ conversion; instead, opponents of innovation “gradually die out,” and the next generation accepts the breakthrough. But in the face of relentless, dishonest opposition to genetic engineering applied to agriculture, and its attendant fake news and character assassination, it will be a long row to hoe.

About the Author:

Henry I. Miller
Henry I. 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 FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.