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A New Wave of Gene-Silencing Pesticides is About to be Sprayed on Your Food

A New Wave of Gene-Silencing Pesticides is About to be Sprayed on Your Food
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The EPA has already failed at protecting Americans from the dangers of chemical pesticides, but this new generation of products opens a whole new can of worms on safety that the EPA is doing its best to ignore. Action Alert!

Are you ready for the next generation of gene-altering compounds that are going to be sprayed on your food? Welcome to the world of RNAi (short for ribonucleic acid interference) pesticides, products which work by “silencing” genes that are essential to life in target pests. These pesticides aren’t genetically modified (GM) themselves, helping lift what would have otherwise been a major regulatory burden that they don’t like. The goal for RNAi pesticides is for them to modify the genetics of the pests that feed on the crops—as well as any other species that happen to get caught in the crossfire. As we’ve seen with GM soil microbes, the EPA is treating RNAi products like any other pesticide, which ignores an entirely new set of risks and dangers associated with these products. Like GM soil microbes, this technology is being used to solve a problem the agrichemical industry itself created. Does this sound familiar when you reflect on “pill-for-an-ill” medicine?

We’ve previously analyzed the insufficient mechanisms in place at the federal level to ensure that pesticides are safe for human health or the environment. And that’s for “traditional” pesticides. Now this already broken framework is being applied to brand spanking new RNAi technology, so it is a certainty that the novel risks posed by this technology are not being identified and assessed.

In fact, the agency is rushing forward: the EPA recently granted GreenLight Biosciences an Experimental Use Permit that allows the company to use its RNAi product (Ledprona, an active ingredient targeting the Colorado Potato Beetle) for two years in limited test plots before a standard testing period is completed. Never mind the very real danger of pesticide drift that could result in even a limited application of Ledprona spreading to unintended places.

Before it’s even been proven safe or effective, more RNAi technology is on the way. It has already been engineered into some corn plants and has been used in medical therapeutics and vaccines. It is a solution, like GM soil microbes, that has arisen out of a fusion between industrial agriculture and biotechnology.

Monoculture (the cultivation of large areas with a single crop), especially when coupled with intensive use of agrochemicals, depletes the soil of nutrients and microbial life, reduces the amount of natural predators and other control agents, and gives adapted pests an almost unlimited food source. All of this makes crops way more vulnerable to pests and diseases than they are in a mixed or diversified system.

This generates the fertilizer and pesticide “treadmill” that farmers struggle to get off: a new chemical is developed to kill weeds, weeds become resistant to that chemical, soils become sterile, so a new, more potent pesticide is developed, more fertilizer is applied, and so on and so on. Now Big Agri, like its cousin Big Pharma, is turning increasingly towards genetic engineering to accomplish its goals. Good for their profits, bad for our health—and a very uncertain future for people and planet ahead.

As others have pointed out, the EPA, in granting this Experimental Use Permit, has utterly failed to properly assess risks and protect human health. We simply do not have enough data on RNAi pesticides to determine if they are safe. For example, some research suggests that naturally-occurring interfering RNAs in our diet play a physiological role in our body. What would it mean to ingest a synthetic RNAi product? Could they interfere with human gene regulation? We don’t know but it seems entirely possible. There are risks and unknowns related to inhaling synthetic RNAi’s, especially when they drift into nearby homes and towns.

Then there is the ever-present danger of unintended consequences: what if unwanted gene-silencing occurs in crops as a result of RNAi pesticide application, and what if it results in changes in those crops’ genetic composition in ways that endanger human health (for example, by increasing levels of toxins or allergens)? RNAi application could also result in silencing genes that weren’t intended to be silenced, both within target organisms or in non-target species. Research has already shown the potential for harm to insects like honeybees and beetles.

If history were to repeat itself, we’ll know the EPA will look out for industry interests before it will protect the health of the public. Bayer announced it would stop selling glyphosate/Roundup in the US not because the EPA served its function as a watchdog, but as a response to a wave of costly litigation. Time and time again we’ve seen the EPA waffle on about regulating dangerous chemicals, as we’ve seen with the ongoing saga of PFAS contamination. If we want action, we must hold the agency’s feet to the fire.

Action Alert! Tell the EPA to revoke approvals for RNAi pesticides until mechanisms are in place to properly assess their unique risks to human health and the environment and validate their safety. Please send your message immediately.

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