(by Sharon Selvaggio, Healthy Wildlife and Water Program Director)
This blog is the first in a series that will explore new pesticide technologies – and what they mean for your health.
Pesticides are those nasty chemicals that come in jugs at the garden store, right?
Research and development in “plant protection” is resulting in a slew of emerging technologies straight out of science fiction. Merging genetics with biochemistry, the industry is figuring out how to force living things to produce their own pesticides.
We’ll start with the idea of Plant-incorporated Protectants (PIPs) — Pesticides that plants produce themselves!
Plants evolved to produce toxics that provide protection against munching insects and other critters. But PIPs take this natural defense to another level. For example, by inserting the gene for a specific Bt pesticidal protein into a corn plant's DNA, the plant becomes the continuous manufacturer of tiny amounts of toxics – that can either kill or repel pests when they feed on the plant. The EPA has registered 38 PIPS so far. As you might expect, most of the PIPs approved so far are for the big commodity crops (corn, soybean and cotton), but we’re starting to see PIPs developed for plum, papaya and potato. Other crops aren’t far behind.
PIPs can be created through a number of genetic engineering techniques. Two of these include:
RNA Interference (RNAi)
Gene silencing! Gene silencing is a phenomenon known to occur naturally when small double-stranded molecules of RNA interfere with protein synthesis by ribosomes. But currently, this phenomenon is being applied in ways not known in nature. In 2017, the EPA first registered four products that include RNA interference technology intended to control corn rootworms. The Monsanto/Dow technology called DvSnf7 dsRNA allows a corn plant to manufacture a dsRNA sequence that gets eaten by the western corn rootworm. Once inside the rootworm, the dsRNS disrupts protein synthesis and results in the death of the pest.
Genome Editing (CRISPR)
Like a find and replace function in your word processor, this technology uses a cutting enzyme to remove the original DNA sequence and insert a new sequence. The technology currently has lots of applications; one under development includes editing out susceptibility to downy mildew in chardonnay grapes.
So...what does PIP technology mean for you? How does it affect your health and our finely tuned, infinitely complex planet?
The short answer is that we don't yet know. Many claim that these new technologies mean our rivers and bodies of water will no longer be polluted with synthetic chemicals. Human exposure will decrease and cancer could become a thing of the past! But we won’t take that at face value.
First and foremost, NCAP intends to remain true to our mission to protect human and environmental health by inspiring ecologically sound alternatives to pesticides. But we also need to learn more about these emerging technologies to remain effective advocates for you.
Questions NCAP will explore as we examine emerging pesticide technologies include:
- What unique or unstudied risks might be posed by the technology?
- Are non-target organisms subject to exposure? For example, what happens when a beneficial predatory bug eats an affected pest bug?
- Can insects or weeds evolve resistance to technology?
- Do EPA’s regulations and risk assessment processes sufficiently account for the unique ways in which emerging technologies interact with people and the natural world?
- If not, what amendments might be necessary?
- How do we inform and educate community members about potential risks?
Next month: Specialized drones capable of spraying pesticides or spreading granular insecticides are the newest tools being implemented by pest control companies. We’ll explore drones and pesticides and what it means for you in next month’s blog.