Gary Ruskin, who portrays himself as the heir apparent to Ralph Nader, is instead an “astroturf” consumer advocate who denies science and technology if the check clears. He migrated from a failed industry attempt to place warning labels on any foods derived from transgenic crops in California to an industry-funded effort to accomplish that nationwide, as co-founder and co-director of U.S. Right To Know (USRTK), an anti-farming militant group headquartered in the San Francisco metropolitan area.
Funded entirely by industry, Ruskin’s instructions are to use broad Freedom of Information Act requests to harass, intimidate, and bog down agricultural scientists and force universities to silence their science outreach work. When pressed about his ethical issues, Ruskin summons his team of lawyers to threaten and intimidate legitimate consumer advocacy work. His typical output consists of carefully orchestrated smear campaigns against scientists and science journalists who seek to educate and inform the public about GMOs, pesticides, and food additives. However, he avoids implicating USRTK with some of his more nefarious activities by using a variety of covert email addresses and aliases.
Gary Ruskin’s Career As a Political Activist
Ruskin holds two degrees, an undergraduate degree in religion and a master’s in public policy. Before co-founding USRTK or orchestrating the failed GMO warning label referendum in California, Ruskin ran the partisan Congressional Accountability Project and worked for Ralph Nader at Commercial Alert, an advocacy group that “opposed the commercialization of every nook and cranny of our lives and culture.”
In 2012, Ruskin orchestrated the California Proposition 37 campaign, which would have mandated that all genetically engineered food must carry warning labels – unless they were in alcohol or served in restaurants. He had help from the same lawyer who engineered the flawed Prop 65 campaign, which has resulted in virtually every California product carrying a meaningless warning label while making trial lawyers wealthy. The ballot initiative was widely criticized by the scientific community as an attempt to mislead consumers about the risks of consuming GMOs. Though he initially bragged about how popular the measure was, once the public caught on to his deception, even pro-organic California wanted no part of him and it failed spectacularly on election day.
Gary Ruskin’s Attacks on Scientists
USRTK portrays itself as a watchdog group “working for transparency and accountability in our nation’s food system.” In reality, it is simply an industry-funded front group that serves organic corporations by catering to the left-leaning political demographic that denies agricultural science. Under Ruskin’s leadership, the group spends its sizable corporate-funded budget smearing scientists, journalists, and groups who threaten the agenda of USRTK’s industry donors.
Shortly after USRTK’s founding in 2014, Ruskin and an army of social media bots began complaining that many prominent agricultural scientists have working relationships with biotech firms like Monsanto. USRTK even admits on its website that it uses the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to harass scientists and acquire emails between researchers and biotech firms in order to manufacture the perception that academic experts regularly “front for private corporations and their slick PR firms.”
Ironically, Ruskin and his staff at USRTK were caught doing far worse, and they were revealed using the FOIA requests they rely on. They have proved to be colluding with PR firms, sympathetic academics, and journalists to undermine farmers and scientists. The emails between USRTK staff and their allies in the press and academia depict them conspiring to create a scandal in order to drum up opposition to biotechnology and silence scientists who challenge the claims of Ruskin’s funders.
Food and biotech companies commonly and uncontroversially hire experts to develop their products – it is well-known in academia that if you are in an applied field and have never been asked to consult, you are not an expert -but Ruskin alleges that these researchers, for a tiny paycheck, were secretly helping Monsanto defeat his GMO labelling initiatives and suppress evidence that the widely used herbicide glyphosate was dangerous to human health. In other words, he was manufacturing a narrative where the public did not see through his tricks, a company almost as large as Whole Foods – Monsanto – was mobilizing hundreds of thousands of scientists against him.
Ruskin began calling these scientists “Monsanto Trolls” in his press releases and social media posts, until it was revealed that USRTK was collaborating with sympathetic journalists to plant stories about the scientists in question. Like Carey Gillam, whom he would hire after her employment was terminated by Reuters under a cloud of suspicion about her relationship with Ruskin.
None of his targets took this criticism lying down. University of Florida plant biologist Kevin Folta, for example, rebutted the charges leveled at him by Ruskin’s group, and pointed out the many errors in USRTK’s spin about his relationship with Monsanto.The prominent science journal Nature Biotechnology also published a response to USRTK’s “open letter” to Folta, arguing that their harassment of scientists would discourage academics from educating the public.
Even Union of Concerned Scientists, which rarely sides with scientists at all, much less in agriculture, castigated Ruskin for his numerous breaches of ethics and integrity.
Gary Ruskin Libels Science Groups
After the scientific community responded to Ruskin’s claims about conflicts of interest, he began casting aspersions on anyone who questioned USRTK’s investigations. The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a non-profit staffed by scientists and doctors, is labeled a “front group” by USRTK because four percent of their funding comes from industry sources – whereas fellow denier for hire and USRTK co-founder Stacy Malkan is paid by Environmental Working Group, which receives 20 times as much industry funding. Ruskin’s group claims the Council’s positions on several public health issues “unscientific,” though USRTK provides no evidence to support that claim.
Ruskin similarly attacked science journalist Jon Entine, founder of the Genetic Literacy Project (GLP), calling him a “chemical industry PR operative” because he defends the use of biotechnology and pesticides. Ruskin named the GLP a front group as well, though GLP is entirely funded by foundations. Science journalists Tamar Haspel, Amy Harmon, and Keith Kloor have also faced similar criticism from Ruskin after challenging his scorched earth tactics.
Gary Ruskin, A Darling Of Industry
Despite running an organization that attacks scientists for industry ties, Ruskin’s group is heavily financed by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), a trade group for thousands of corporations that sell organic products. Far from being nonpartisan, the OCA works “to challenge industrial agriculture, corporate globalization, and the Wal-Martization of the economy, and inspire consumers to ‘Buy Local, Organic, and Fair Made.’” His other funding comes directly from corporations, like Crossfit and Dr. Bonner’s Magic Soap.
Gary Ruskin: A “Useful Idiot” For The Russian Government
According to the Director of National Intelligence, the Russian government has a vested interest in stifling American technological innovation, which includes food and energy, and was shown to be funding environmental and activist groups. As a result, Ruskin has drawn criticism in recent months for possibly handing off court documents to Russia Today (RT) related to a lawsuit filed against Monsanto in northern California and asking them to repeat his claims.
RT is widely recognized as the Kremlin’s propaganda arm in the western world, so they could not possibly have noticed a minor amplification related to a document in a California court. Nonetheless, they published a sympathetic article on the documents parroting USRTK’s anti-GMO talking points and using Ruskin’s same verbiage. Because the foreign media outlet probably wouldn’t have come across the court documents on its own, and because they cite USRTK in the story, critics suspect that Ruskin is RT’s “deep throat” source. Numerous Foreign Agent Registration Act complaints have been filed against him but his lawyer denied that he knowingly collaborated with the Russian government, and if he did, it was not for USRTK. That is also where all his alias email accounts help.
The Kremlin’s propaganda outlet, for their part, has told Ruskin that he’s “doing God’s work.”