Pandora's Pantry: The Unforeseen Risks of RNAi Crops and Pesticides

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Imagine a technology that could genetically rewire organisms in real-time, silencing critical genes across entire ecosystems with unknown effects. Sound like science fiction? It's not. It's the reality of a new class of pesticides harnessing RNA interference, or RNAi - and they're already being deployed in our fields and food supply with minimal testing or oversight. For organic producers and non-GMO advocates, the risks could be catastrophic.

A groundbreaking report from Friends of the Earth rings the alarm on the dangers posed by gene-silencing RNAi pesticides.1 According to the report, these products can genetically modify organisms in the open environment, with risks of unintended effects on non-target species, human health, and the integrity of organic and non-GMO agriculture. Despite these threats, RNAi pesticides face little to no regulatory scrutiny in most countries, and some have already been approved for use.

In fact, in June 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency quietly green-lit an RNAi corn developed by Monsanto and Dow, now being marketed under the trade name SmartStax Pro.2 This corn produces a double-stranded RNA that disrupts a critical gene in a major agricultural pest, the western corn rootworm, causing its death.2 The approval flew under the radar of the media and even many environmental watchdog groups.3

RNAi works by using small RNA molecules to interfere with and "silence" the activity of specific genes.1 While that may sound precise, the report emphasizes that RNAi technology is prone to "off-target effects," meaning it can unintentionally silence genes in non-target organisms.4 Since many genes are conserved across species, a pesticide designed for one insect could end up harming beneficial pollinators, soil microbes, or even humans. What's more, the alteration caused by RNAi can sometimes be passed down to future generations, meaning that a single application could spark uncontrollable ripple effects.5

The Friends of the Earth report dubs RNAi pesticides "a vast open-air genetic experiment," with entire ecosystems as the lab rats.1 Because they're sprayed directly into the environment, controlling exposure is nearly impossible. Any organism that takes up the interfering RNAs could have its genome tinkered with. Some evidence suggests that ingesting RNAs from our diet may even influence human gene expression.6

There's also a risk that RNAi sprays could alter the genetic makeup of the very crops they're meant to protect, changing nutritional content or toxicity in unpredictable ways.7 The companies crafting RNAi pesticides are even filing broad patents that would grant them ownership rights over any organism exposed to their products.8 This means that if a farmer's crops are unintentionally contaminated by drifting RNAi sprays, the company could lay claim to their harvest.

What's particularly concerning is that the off-target effects of RNAi pesticides may extend beyond the farm and into the bodies of consumers. A 2008 study funded by Monsanto itself revealed that numerous small RNAs from corn, soybeans, and rice had perfect sequence complementarity to human genes.9 The implication is that if these RNAs survive digestion and accumulate in human tissues, they could potentially silence hundreds of our genes. While Monsanto took pains to spin this finding as evidence of safety, the reality is far more complex and troubling.

As the study showed, there are potentially hundreds of plant RNAs with sequences identical to human genes.9 If these dietary RNAs are indeed able to influence human gene expression, as mounting evidence suggests,6 then the genetic rewiring of our food crops with novel RNAi molecules could have far-reaching and entirely unpredictable effects on our health. It's not hard to imagine an RNAi pesticide designed to silence a rootworm gene also shutting down a crucial metabolic pathway in humans, for example.

Despite Monsanto's claims that plant RNAs couldn't possibly survive digestion to regulate human genes, a 2012 study proved otherwise. The research demonstrated that a specific plant microRNA from ingested rice could be detected in human blood and tissues, where it appeared to modulate the expression of a receptor involved in removing LDL cholesterol.10 If a natural plant RNA can have such a significant biological effect, what might be the consequences of engineered RNAi molecules?

As the Monsanto study noted, many genes are not consistently expressed, and their activity can vary based on environmental conditions.9 This adds yet another layer of complexity and unpredictability when it comes to assessing the risks of RNAi crops. A gene that is normally silenced under certain conditions could be unintentionally activated by an RNAi pesticide, with unknown health implications.

Furthermore, the human gut is home to a diverse community of microbes that play a vital role in our health and immune function. Preliminary research suggests that some of these bacteria may be capable of taking up dietary RNAs and incorporating them into their own gene regulation.11 The effects of RNAi crops on the human microbiome are entirely unknown, but could be significant given the importance of gut flora in everything from nutrient absorption to mental health.

Disturbingly, the biotech companies developing RNAi pesticides seem to be banking on this cross-species gene modulation as a feature, not a bug. Monsanto and Dow appear to be intentionally designing RNAi molecules that match sequences in other organisms beyond the targeted pest - a tactic that would allow them to claim those exposed species as their intellectual property.8 In one patent application, Monsanto even claims ownership over a long list of exposed animals, including bees, butterflies, and birds.12

This isn't mere speculation - it's already happening. A study on Monsanto's flagship RNAi corn found that the plant's rootworm-killing RNA sequences were also active in non-target beetles, indicating a worrying lack of specificity.13 The researchers found that the RNAi corn caused significant mortality in these off-target insects, despite Monsanto's assurances to the contrary. If RNAi pesticides are already demonstrating such concerning effects on insects, it's not a stretch to imagine they could also impact other organisms - including humans.

Given the scope of these risks and the glaring lack of long-term safety data, you'd think that RNAi crops would face stringent regulatory scrutiny. Unfortunately, that's far from the case. In the U.S., RNAi pesticides are being rubber-stamped under the EPA's woefully outdated regulatory framework for genetically engineered crops, which hasn't been updated since the 1990s.1 The EPA doesn't require any safety testing for off-target effects on non-pest species, let alone on human health.

At the international level, RNAi is barely on the radar. U.N. delegates have floated the idea that RNAi products should be regulated as a form of genetic engineering under the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, but no formal framework exists.14 Meanwhile, Monsanto/Dow's SmartStax Pro corn and other RNAi crops are racing toward global markets, with approvals already secured in several countries.2

For organic and non-GMO advocates, this regulatory vacuum is a recipe for disaster. Without robust safety testing and labeling requirements, RNAi crops could soon infiltrate food supplies worldwide, turning consumers into unwitting test subjects in a massive uncontrolled experiment. Organic farmers may find their crops and local ecosystems irreversibly contaminated by drifting RNAi molecules. The economic impacts on non-GMO markets could be severe if consumers lose confidence in the integrity of organic products.  

The biotech industry's blasé attitude toward the risks of RNAi is perhaps best summed up by a Bayer CropScience executive, who declared, "The beauty of [RNAi] technology is that it's just RNA. You can wash it off and it's gone."15 That cavalier stance is belied by the mounting evidence that dietary RNAs can profoundly impact gene expression across kingdoms. It also flies in the face of basic principles of ecology and the precautionary principle, which demand that we thoroughly assess technologies for unintended consequences before unleashing them into the environment.

RNAi pesticides aren't a minor tweak to existing agricultural practices - they represent a watershed moment in the industrialization of our food supply. By granting biotech firms the power to deliberately manipulate gene expression across entire species and ecosystems, we are throwing open the doors to a brave new world of unforeseen consequences. As one policy expert put it, "RNAi is a good example of a 'techno-fix' that may initially be billed as a move away from toxic pesticides, but is introducing a whole different array of risks."16

Those risks are simply too great to ignore in the rush to develop the next blockbuster pesticide. We need a moratorium on all RNAi crops and pesticides until their far-reaching effects can be independently studied and publicly debated. Organic standards must be updated to exclude any genetically manipulated RNAs, and clear labeling should be required for all RNAi products. Stricter regulation, safety testing, and oversight must be put in place internationally. And most of all, we need a paradigm shift away from the failed pesticide treadmill and toward proven agroecological farming methods that work with nature, not against it.

The stakes couldn't be higher. By silencing genes across the web of life in the name of industrial efficiency, RNAi pesticides threaten to disrupt the very fabric of our food systems and environment. It's up to all of us - farmers, consumers, scientists, and policymakers alike - to speak out now, before this dangerous technology spins beyond our control. The integrity of our agricultural heritage and the future of food depend on it.

Learn more about this topic by reading the following articles: 


References

1: Friends of the Earth. "Gene-Silencing Pesticides - Risks and Concerns." Friends of the Earth, 2020. https://foe.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/FOE_GeneSilencingPesticides_db-1.pdf

2: Lowe, Rob. "GreenLight Biosciences targets 2022 rollout of RNAi pesticides." AgFunder News, 18 June 2020. https://agfundernews.com/greenlight-biosciences-targets-2022-rollout-of-rnai-pesticides.html

3: Charles, Dan. "EPA Approves New Dow/Monsanto Pesticide Seen As Toxic To Bees." NPR, 23 June 2017. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/06/23/533970091/epa-approves-new-dow-monsanto-pesticide-seen-as-toxic-to-bees

4: Mesnage, R., et al. "An integrated multi-omics analysis of the NK603 Roundup-tolerant GM maize reveals metabolism disturbances caused by the transformation process." Scientific reports 6 (2016): 1-14.  

5: Heinemann, Jack A. "Should dsRNA treatments applied in outdoor environments be regulated?." Environment international 132 (2019): 104856.

6: Zhang, L., et al. "Exogenous plant MIR168a specifically targets mammalian LDLRAP1: evidence of cross-kingdom regulation by microRNA." Cell research 22.1 (2012): 107-126.

7: Agapito-Tenfen, S., et al. "Effect of stacking insecticidal cry and herbicide tolerance epsps transgenes on transgenic maize proteome." BMC plant biology 14.1 (2014): 1-19.

8: Heinemann, J. A. "The international scientific community's warnings on the risks posed by uncontrolled release of nucleic acids." (2016).

9: Ivashuta, Sergey, et al. "Endogenous small RNAs in grain: semi-quantification and sequence homology to human and animal genes." Food and chemical toxicology 47.2 (2009): 353-360.

10: Zhang, L., et al. "Exogenous plant MIR168a specifically targets mammalian LDLRAP1: evidence of cross-kingdom regulation by microRNA." Cell research 22.1 (2012): 107-126.

11: Liu, Shiping, et al. "The host shapes the gut microbiota via fecal microRNA." Cell host & microbe 19.1 (2016): 32-43.

12: Huber, Craig. "Monsanto Wants to Patent & Control All Offspring of Their GMO Creations." Cornucopia Institute, 13 Aug. 2013. https://www.cornucopia.org/2013/08/monsanto-patent-control-all-offspring-of-their-gmo-creations/

13: Bachman, Pamela M., et al. "Characterization of the spectrum of insecticidal activity of a double-stranded RNA with targeted activity against Western Corn Rootworm (Diabrotica virgifera virgifera LeConte)." Transgenic research 22.6 (2013): 1207-1222.

14: Convention on Biological Diversity. "Report of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology." CBD/SYNBIO/AHTEG/2019/1/3. 2019.  

15: "The Beauty of Gene Silencing Technology." GMWatch, 10 May 2012. https://www.gmwatch.org/en/news/archive/2012/13850-the-beauty-of-gene-silencing-technology

16: Wallace, Helen. "Genetically Modified (GM) Techniques." Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics (2014).

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