The Green New Deal Activists Spreading Deadly Vaccine Lies

·10 min read
Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast/Getty

It’s pushed conspiracy theories about everything from 9/11 to “the Great Reset,” a right-wing myth that pandemic lockdowns are a prelude to biomedical totalitarianism. And it has a record of targeting vulnerable communities with vaccine disinformation—despite an ongoing pandemic killing about 1,500 Americans every day.

And yet the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), a nonprofit based in Finland, Minnesota, is no right-wing operation. In fact, it’s somehow found a place for itself in progressive political circles.

For years, the group inhabited the ragged margins of the left-wing political map: an odd estuary where environmental advocacy mingled with paranoia about vaccines and “trutherism” about the Sept. 11 attacks. The group’s leader, Ronnie Cummins, has long published articles about genetically modified organisms in obscure online outlets and occasionally appeared on long lists of signatories to letters written to federal officials about legislation like the so-called “farm bill.”

But the progressive surge of the past half-decade has allowed the OCA to seep into the mainstream, even as its activities have grown increasingly toxic.

In September 2019, five House Democrats appeared at a rally that OCA affiliate Regeneration International held on Capitol Hill with the Sunrise Movement, in support of the Green New Deal. A few months earlier, the Association had feted Robert F. Kennedy Jr., perhaps the nation’s foremost anti-vaccine activist, for an event in Minneapolis. In February 2020, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) touted the organization among the endorsers of his “Farmers Bill of Rights”—even though it spent that same month bankrolling a campaign to overturn a statute limiting vaccine exemptions in Maine.

Perhaps the group seemed an appealing ally at the time. After all, Cummins’ 2020 book Grassroots Rising, which advocated so-called “regenerative agriculture” and the Green New Deal, bore an adulatory quote from famed environmentalist Bill McKibben.

But Cummins’ next tome was co-authored by notorious supplement hawker Joe Mercola, whom the New York Times called “the most influential spreader of coronavirus misinformation online,” and bore a foreword from the misbegotten Kennedy scion. It asserted, among other scientifically dubious offerings, that pandemic lockdowns are part of a public-private “Great Reset” plot, and that those infected with COVID-19 should inhale hydrogen peroxide.

Cummins did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. But spouting nonsense hasn’t alienated his group from some of the nation’s leading progressive Democrats.

In April of this year, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) included a quote from OCA’s political director in a release announcing his proposal of a “Civilian Climate Corps.” One day later, the same political director joined Cummins in a public conversation in which they propounded wild conspiracy theories about Dr. Anthony Fauci, Bill Gates, vaccine safety, COVID-19 death tolls, and the supposedly impending takeover of the United States by a shadowy corporate and government cabal.

All the while, thousands of dollars from Cummins and other OCA leaders have poured into the campaign coffers of such left-of-center candidates as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN).

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The last elected official is especially remarkable because she hails from the same Twin Cities Somali community that Minnesota authorities say the OCA infected with anti-vaccine misinformation before the COVID-19 pandemic, triggering the state’s largest measles outbreak in decades.

But if the OCA was active before the emergence of the novel coronavirus, the pandemic has offered it new opportunities to propagate blatant disinformation.

Among other focuses, the group has taken to spreading what experts call flagrant lies about the vaccine to Spanish-speaking communities via Regeneration International and two other affiliates: La Asociación de Consumidores Orgánicos and Vía Orgánica. The websites and social pages rave about the approach of “el Gran Reinicio” and “bio-fascismo,” and publish posts with headlines like “Señales de que la vacuna antiCOVID no funciona” (Signs That the Anti-COVID Vaccine Doesn’t Work) and “Peligros a largo plazo de las vacunas experimentales de ARNm” (Long-Term Dangers of the Experimental mRNA Vaccines).

Simultaneously, the groups promote unproven and debunked preventative measures and “cures” for the lethal virus. It’s all part of what critics describe as a disturbing scheme to recruit health enthusiasts and recent immigrant groups to a deadly cause.

“The Organic Consumers Association is designed to draw in people by appearing on its surface to have this cuddly name: everybody likes ‘organic foods,’” warned Imran Ahmed, founder of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit that has studied the anti-vaccine movement and its tactics. “But Cummins is less now about organic consumption and organic production than a vector for anti-vax misinformation that might kill people.”

None of the Democratic senators or House members who previously boasted support from the OCA—or received their donations—offered on-the-record comments for this story prior to publication. But one House source, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the subject, suggested the group had inadvertently appeared on a list of friendly environmentalist groups, though they could not say with certainty where that list might have originated.

All of these same officials have urged Americans to get inoculated against COVID-19, and none has endorsed the sort of disinformation the OCA has promoted. (McKibben, for his part, characterized himself as a “longtime pro-vaxxer” and denied any knowledge of Cummins’ views on the topic at the time he provided the blurb.)

But this is typical of anti-vaccine groups, argued Ahmed. In multiple reports, the Center has identified the OCA as an extension of the mega-rich Mercola, who has contributed millions to the Association via his foundation. Besides the book co-written with Cummins, the OCA’s website carries ads for Mercola’s natural remedy marketplace—complete with a unique promo code—and publishes content from his website.

In fact, nearly all of the recent Spanish-language posts about COVID-19 on the websites of the Asociación de Consumidores Orgánicos and Vía Orgánica have run under Mercola’s byline. These include articles promoting unproven treatments often touted by vaccine skeptics such as ivermectin, zinc, and quercetin—the last of which the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter to Mercola for marketing in May.

All of this, Ahmed argued, is part of what he characterized as the anti-vaccine movement’s “affiliate marketing strategy”: identifying receptive audiences, and engaging them with material geared toward their specific interests and concerns.

“They’ve seen the opportunity to target people who are concerned about their health, and may be looking for alternative solutions,” he said. “Because of his willingness to play ball with Mercola, to form an alliance, [Cummins] has become a particularly useful conduit to channel into people who care about organic foods.”

Mercola, for his part, acknowledged his financial relationship with the OCA and its affiliates to The Daily Beast. But he called Ahmed’s group a “dark-money funded political operative” and denied that his dubious claims that the COVID-19 virus was “lab-engineered” and “anticipated” represent disinformation. He further insinuated that a pandemic simulation exercise held by the Gates Foundation and World Economic Forum in October 2019 was evidence of some sort of malign scheme for world domination.

Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America and co-founder of the Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab, echoed Ahmed’s observations about a marketing strategy—and saw it in the OCA’s outreach to Spanish speakers. He noted the preponderance of COVID-19 and vaccine-related content on the website of Vía Orgánica, a group ostensibly dedicated to running an organic farm in Mexico, where the “Noticias” page is dominated by updates from Mercola.

This, Carusone argued, reflects the widespread suspicions and anxieties about the pandemic in Hispanophone communities, where concerns about GMOs and “wellness” issues might seem, to some, like a “luxurious” concern.

“That’s something right now that is deeply part of the Latinx information ecosystem: conversations about the vaccines,” Carusone said. “What we’re talking about here is an entity that is taking that little bit of mistrust that is well-placed, and exploiting it.”

He warned further that the OCA could also gain “credibility by association” in progressive circles—so often dependent on coalitions—through its links with environmentalist groups and causes.

Dr. Rogelio Sáenz, a demographer at the University of Texas at San Antonio who has tracked the impact of the pandemic on immigrant communities, said there is a historic market for weight-loss supplements and for holistic cures of the sort Mercola and the OCA promote.

"There has always been a noticeable part of the population that falls into those particular kind of remedies, those sort of quick fixes,” Saenz told The Daily Beast. “There has also been, within the Latino community, a great degree of respect and also use of traditional herbs and things like that, which is also part of the culture and could be exploited, as well.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, feared that the OCA—with its foothold in Mexico—could lead to anti-vaccine misinformation trickling not just into Spanish-speaking communities in the United States, but also in nations to the south, where the scientific establishment has so far kept such sentiments at bay. Hotez, who is also a Daily Beast contributor, pointed to his own findings: that failure to vaccinate had cost 22,000 lives in the Lone Star State and Florida, which he blamed on the plague of disinformation.

“Any organization that’s promoting ivermectin or unproven therapies and treatments is dangerous. We know what happens, and we’ve seen this over and over again in the United States, which is that people start relying on those instead of vaccinations, and wind up dying,” he said. “One of my great fears is that anti-science aggression that’s here in the U.S. will start to filter into Latin America.”

The OCA’s approach to infiltration is all-too familiar to those who observed its propaganda campaign last decade in the group’s home state of Minnesota.

Responding to an increase in autism diagnoses among the children of Somali immigrants, the nonprofit and its partners targeted parents with materials in their native language. Among other things, they asserted a debunked link to the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, and even engaged with families directly at local community and shopping centers.

Dr. Kari Campeau, assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver, produced her doctoral dissertation on the resulting outbreak of measles. She noted the community often had difficulty interfacing with social services because of language and access disparities, and often dealt with mistreatment by doctors. These issues, combined with difficulties obtaining sanitary living spaces and healthy food, created a gap that the OCA could enter and exploit.

“I feel that group, with others, really stepped into that vacuum and said, ‘We have this ready answer: it’s the vaccines,’” recalled Campeau. “This group did weaponize concerns and poor experiences that people had with medicine, and really targeted a vulnerable community.”

Particularly disturbing to Campeau was how the disinformation lingered even after the outbreak passed. Somali families she interviewed whose children were among the dozens infected continued to tell her they would not vaccinate their kids in the future.

It’s a disturbing precedent given millions of Americans still need vaccines and booster shots to ward off COVID-19 in the months and years ahead, experts said.

“The messaging was that persuasive—that even having first-hand experience of kids getting sick, going to hospitals, the terror of that was not enough [to convince them vaccination was safe],” she said.

At least one Green New Deal-supporting progressive has pushed back on the OCA and its activities: In September, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) penned a letter to Amazon attacking the prominence its site gave to Mercola and Cummins’ book.

“The book perpetuates dangerous conspiracies about COVID-19 and false and misleading information about vaccines,” the senator wrote. “And the book contends that vaccines cannot be trusted, when study after study has demonstrated the overwhelming effectiveness and safety of COVID-19 vaccines.”

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