The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded another $10 million last week to the controversial Cornell Alliance for Science, a communications campaign housed at Cornell that trains fellows in Africa and elsewhere to promote and defend genetically engineered foods, crops and agrichemicals. The new grant brings BMGF grants to the group to $22 million, USRTK reported Wednesday.
The PR investment comes at a time when the Gates Foundation is under fire for spending billions of dollars on agricultural development schemes in Africa that critics say are entrenching farming methods that benefit corporations over people.
“While we are grateful to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its commitment to overcoming food insecurity, and acknowledging the humanitarian and infrastructural aid provided to the governments of our continent, we write out of grave concern that the Gates Foundation’s support for the expansion of intensive industrial scale agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis,” says the sign-on letter coordinated by the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI).
The letter cites the Gates-led Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA) for its “highly problematic” support of commercial seed systems controlled by large companies, its support of restructuring seed laws to protect certified seeds and criminalize non-certified seed, and its support of seed dealers who offer narrow advice about corporate products over much-needed public sector extension services.
“We appeal to the Gates Foundation and AGRA to stop promoting failed technologies and outdated extension methods and start listening to the farmers who are developing appropriate solutions for their contexts,” the faith leaders said.
Despite billions of dollars spent and 14 years of promises, AGRA has failed to achieve its goals of reducing poverty and raising incomes for small farmers, according to a July report False Promises. The research was conducted by a coalition of African and German groups and includes data from a recent white paper published by Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute.
The Gates Foundation has not yet responded to requests for comment for this article but said in an earlier email, “We support organisations like AGRA because they partner with countries to help them implement the priorities and policies contained in their national agricultural development strategies.”
“Gene-silencing pesticides” now under development pose novel risks to surrounding ecosystems and beneficial insects. This new report, Gene-Silencing Pesticides: Risks and Concerns, summarizes current science and data gaps on risks to human health, the environment and farmers posed by experimental gene-silencing pesticides that biotech and agrichemical corporations are seeking to patent and bring to market as soon as next year.
The report summarizes the latest science on the health, socioeconomic and environmental risks — and the many unknowns — surrounding experimental gene-silencing RNAi pesticide sprays that biotechnology and agrichemical corporations are seeking to patent and bring to market. The first such pesticide is likely to be submitted to the EPA for registration by GreenLight Biosciences by the end of 2020.
What are gene-silencing RNAi pesticides?
Agrichemical corporations such as Bayer, BASF, and Syngenta are using genetic modification techniques to develop pesticides that exploit a cellular process called RNA interference (RNAi), in order to switch off or “silence” genes that are essential for the survival of insects – thus killing them.
For example, RNAi could be applied as a foliar spray on leaves. After the pest eats the leaves, interfering RNA enters the insect’s stomach and silences a gene that is essential for cell division, following which, the pest cannot make functioning new cells and dies.
What is RNA interference?
RNA interference (RNAi) is a naturally occurring cellular process in plants, fungi, and animals, including insects. The RNAi pathway functions to control whether a gene is turned off or not. Genetic engineers are now able to make synthetic interfering RNA molecules in laboratory settings. The resulting RNAi pesticides can kill a pest by triggering a process in the organism that “silences” genes that are essential for survival.
What are potential environmental impacts of RNAi pesticides?
The technology is imprecise. Gene-silencing can occur both in the genome of the target organism as well as in non-target species. Some of these unintended genetic modifications could be inherited and persist in the environment for generations.
Environmental concerns include:
Open-air experimentation: Entire agroecosystems could be affected. Genetically modifying organisms in the open environment makes controlling exposure difficult or impossible.
Unintended silencing of genes: RNAi technologies are widely associated with off-target activity –the silencing of genes that weren’t intended to be silenced, both within the genome of target organisms as well as in related non-target species.
Effects on non-target organisms: RNAi targeting a specific pest’s genes may bind to and shut down genes in other organisms as well. This off-target effect may extend beyond closely related species to potentially thousands of different species. A 2017 meta-analysis indicated that existing interfering RNAs developed for other target species could also directly impact gene activity in honeybees, and a 2019 study showed the uptake and exchange of interfering RNAs within bee colonies across generations.
Entrenching the pesticide treadmill: There is evidence suggesting that, as with other pesticides, targeted pests will rapidly develop resistance to RNAi pesticides.
What are potential health impacts of RNAi pesticides?
Key questions around human health impacts remain completely unstudied and must be fully investigated.
Public health concerns include:
Inhalation of synthetic RNAi: Farmers, farmworkers, production workers and rural communities may be exposed to synthetic interfering RNAs via the potential spray drift. The risks pertaining to inhalation exposure are completely unknown.
Altering crops’ genetic composition: Unwanted gene silencing could alter crops’ genetic composition in a way that raises safety concerns, such as altering levels of toxins or allergens.
Dietary consumption of synthetic RNAi: Preliminary research suggests that naturally occurring interfering RNAs in our diet play a role in regulating physiological or pathological conditions in our bodies. This suggests that synthetic RNAi products may also interfere with human gene regulation, with unforeseen health implications. Further investigation is needed to fully understand the safety implications of consuming synthetic interfering RNAs.
Who owns the crops or insects that are modified by RNAi spray?
Gene-silencing pesticide sprays raise many questions and concerns about patenting and ownership issues.
Corporations developing RNAi pesticides are applying for patents that would give them ownership of exposed organisms and even their offspring, regardless of whether the exposure was intentional. This would result in a massive expansion of property rights over nature, ever more deeply entrenching the power of biotech companies over the food system in ways that would threaten farmers’ rights.
Are government regulations sufficient to ensure health and safety in relation to the environment and people?
RNAi pesticides currently fall outside of existing domestic and international regulatory structures and therefore have yet to be regulated in most parts of the world. Oversight and regulations for interfering RNA applications should include independent, transparent health and environmental assessment, including examination of potential long-term impacts, before being allowed to enter the market or environment, and products of all genetic modification should be traceable, and labeled as GMOs.
Are gene-silencing pesticides safe for eaters?
RNAi pesticides are being described by developers as “eco-friendly” and “natural” because the active ingredient, the interfering RNA, is a form of genetic material that exists in all organisms. However, equating the safety of naturally occurring interfering RNAs with novel synthetically produced interfering RNAs lacks scientific grounding.
Synthetic interfering RNAs are being developed as insecticides, and it depends on the individual interfering RNAs, and the modified organism, as to whether they are safe for consumption. Further, developers may alter their chemical structure, or add nanoparticles and other synthetic materials to RNAi products to enhance their function — for example, to make them more resistant to degradation. They should thus be judged on a case-by-case basis and not merely assumed to be equivalent to their natural counterparts.
Also, as stated above, preliminary research suggests that naturally occurring interfering RNAs in our diet play a role in regulating physiological or pathological conditions in our bodies. This suggests that synthetic RNAi products may also interfere with human gene regulation, with unforeseen health implications. Further investigation is needed to fully understand the safety implications of consuming synthetic interfering RNAs.
What are sustainable and healthy alternatives?
Based on evidence from scientific assessments available, it is not possible to assure the safe use of RNAi products, designed to induce genetic modifications in organisms in the open environment.
Rather than perpetuating the pesticide treadmill, ecological farming methods that underpin organic and other forms of ecological agriculture, offer a true solution. A growing body of science shows that farmers who rely on ecological methods for pest management instead of pesticides can meet or outperform their conventional counterparts in terms of yield and profits. Ecological farming techniques build healthy soils that confer greater pest immunity to plants and increase biodiversity in farming systems to disrupt the growth of pests and to foster natural predators. This includes crop rotations, cover cropping, composting, reducing tillage, and planting habitat for beneficial insects.
A team of scientists sound the alarm in a new Science Policy Forum report about a mysterious US government program that is developing genetically modified viruses that would be dispersed into the environment using insects. The virus-infected or ‘Frankenstein’ insects are being developed as countermeasures against potential natural and engineered threats to the US food supply. The program is operated by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) could be viewed as an attempt to develop an entirely new class of bioweapons that would prompt other nations to seek similar weapons, they cautioned.
The researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology and the University of Freiburg both in Germany, and the University of Montpellier in France suggest DARPA’s program could likely breach the Biological Weapons Convention, the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the development, production, and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons.
Dubbed the “Insect Allies” program, DARPA began modifying insects in 2017, with the plan to produce more resilient crops to help farmers deal with climate change, drought, frost, floods, salinity, and disease, said Gizmodo. The technology at the center of the program is an entirely new method of genetically modifying crops. Instead of modifying seeds in a lab, farmers would send swarms of insects into their crops, where the genetically modified bugs would infect plants with a virus that passes along the new resilience genes, a process known as horizontal genetic alteration. Hence the technology’s name—Horizontal Environmental Genetic Alteration Agents (HEGAA).
For HEGAA to work, Gizmodo explains that DARPA labs develop a virus that is inserted into the chromosome of a target organism. Scientists would use leafhoppers, whiteflies, and aphids genetically altered in the lab using CRISPR, or a variant of a gene-editing system, to carry the virus into crops. Each plant would then be infected by the insect, triggering the intended effects of protecting crops from natural and or human-made threats.
However, the lead author of the report, Richard Guy Reeves from the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, says DARPA’s Insect Allies program is disturbing and an example of dual-use research in which the US government, in addition to aiding farmers’ crops, is also developing a biological weapon.