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Monsanto/Bayer is pushing to introduce RNAi pesticides. Jeffrey Smith interviews scientist Jonathan Lundgren and Friends of the Earth campaigner Dana Perls about the serious unprecedented risks these pose for humans, insects and the environment.
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Notes for this week's Podcast
This week's Transcript
Speaker 1: (00:06)
Hi everyone. My name is Jeffrey Smith with the Institute for responsible technology. And I have explosive information from the science and the information is unsettling about a new application of a technology. That's actually more than two decades old, but we're going to hear from Dana pearls, a campaigner at friends of the earth, who co-authored a study on RNA interference, pesticides, and dr. Jonathan Lundgren, who used to be with the USDA, wrote an article and got it published about how the United States us department of agriculture does not have the ability to do a proper risk assessment of this new technology and found himself no longer working at the USDA. And now is working with a nonprofit foundation running a non-profit foundation, supporting regenerative agriculture. Welcome both of you. Thank you. Hi. So we're going to talk about RNA interference and I'm hoping we're not going to use much jargon here, but we're going to understand this, this technology in a way that we can walk away, being able to explain it to others and hopefully create general understanding of why it's probably not a good idea for Monsanto bear to be introducing it in the form of a pesticide.
Speaker 1: (01:36)
So Jonathan, why don't you start and tell us what RNA interference is, and then we'll get into some of the dangerous for humans for bees for the entire ecosystem.
Speaker 2: (01:47)
Um, well, in its simplest form or, uh, is it is knocking out specific genes. So we're able to, um, sort of flip genes on and flip genes off depending on their DNA sequence.
Speaker 1: (02:06)
Beautiful Dana, what are some of the applications of RNA interference that are already out there?
Speaker 3: (02:14)
Um, we've seen that used and, um, in the early stages kind of a variation of the flavor savor tomato, but more recently, um, we have seen the GMO Apple, um, use RNI, um, which, which effectively it affects the oxidizing enzyme, right? So that the Apple technically wouldn't turn Brown. Um, and then we've seen it be used in, uh, the, um, yeah, the, the potatoes as well. Um, the non, uh, um, RNA potatoes.
Speaker 1: (02:51)
So these are apples and potatoes that are engineered not to turn Brown when you slice it, because there is a gene which doesn't on when this RNA interference, uh, molecule is present. So it actually silences the expression of a particular gene. So Jonathan, what are they using? What are they planning to use these sprays for? And what is your concern?
Speaker 2: (03:20)
Um, well, they're planning on using them as an insecticide, um, at least at first and I believe that's already been done. Um, so they're using this to knock out critical gene function with an insect capacity there.
Speaker 1: (03:37)
Yep. And what happens if that pesticide gets on my skin and penetrates my skin? Is there any chance that that same silencing RNA could influence my gene expression?
Speaker 2: (03:54)
Um, well we, we don't really know it's possible. Um, and there's some evidence to suggest that that's worth digging into a lot more
Speaker 1: (04:04)
Well, if it's possible that it's worth digging into what are the regulations and requirements for companies like Monsanto and others that want to introduce it data? Are you familiar with the regulatory requirements and the loopholes?
Speaker 3: (04:21)
Yeah, I would argue right now that our regulatory system both domestically and internationally is actually not well set up to do the most effective environmental or public health and safety assessments needed. I mean, even the, the EPA admitted that, that we don't know enough to ask the right questions to do a thorough assessment. Um, and the idea that this would essentially be an open air experiment, right? That you're, that you're releasing RNI molecules that could be, um, changing, uh, gene expression through various generations. And you can't control where it goes. You might try to have it be just for a particular plant, but there's no way to control whether the spray is going to land on a different plant, or it might affect an off target species. So maybe you're trying to effect a beetle, but instead it affects a honeybee. Um, and so the idea of predicting and trying to assess the environmental risks, or as, as, um, Jonathan suggested the, the risks of let's say, inhalation of a farmer or a farm worker, and what, what could the impact be on, on worker safety is, is really difficult to try and predict, let alone assess.
Speaker 3: (05:45)
So currently, um, in the, in the EPA, um, there, there isn't any sort of appropriate assessment evaluations, oversight, or regulations, and neither at the U at the United nations, although at the United nations currently, um, there has been a push to get this addressed as a new and emerging topic and sort of a warning across the world that, that national governments around the world need to be paying attention to this new application, because it could have such far reaching impacts on the environment and on worker and, um, consumer safety.
Speaker 1: (06:25)
And let's make it clear exactly what's going on. That is being allowed without proper testing. Jonathan, can you explain a little bit about the mechanics of how the RNA interference works as the basis for understanding why it might the same RNA AI piece might block the expression of many different species DNA?
Speaker 2: (06:54)
Sure. Um, so you have to take a little bit of a step back to kind of understand how this works, right. Um, our genome is made up of little nuclear times a CSTs and GS, we'll say for the purpose of discussion, those are links on a chain and how they're arranged those four molecules are over ranged on that chain kind of influences what gene is ultimately expressed. So that's your code, right? That's your genetic code? Um, RNI, uh, is an assemblage of, of complimentary nucleotides to these ACS Ts and GS. And so it links up there, right? And it folds right on there. And it's able to block specific, um, sort of, uh, transcriptions, uh, from your genome before they're made into proteins and those proteins do things for you. So, um, what happens is that there's 21 little linkages of long, this RN, AI molecule, and it searching and it blocks no matter what, where it occurs within a genome, it will latch onto that and that'll stop it from being expressed, um, or at least transcribed. Um, and so the, um, although it's targeted for a particular gene within an insect pest or a weed or something along those lines, the statistical likelihood that it's going to interact with other places in the genome that might duplicate that same sequence is pretty high.
Speaker 1: (08:40)
So I remember talking to, uh, professor Jack Heinemann, uh, from New Zealand who was, uh, evaluating at RNA wheat that was being proposed and based on what he understood, those 21, uh, sequences or 21 nucleotides were he looked on the human genome to see if it would have potentially latched on or found a couple of it in the human genome. And he included those and put, I think, 80 pages of different sequences that were available, some huge number. So there are the concept is that when you release this little silencing sequence, it's like a little molecule with a pen where they clipboard looking around for a sequence in the DNA. And if it finds it, it grabs hold of it in some way stops the expression, but it doesn't matter whether it's a honeybee or a mouse or a human, as long as that sequence is there, am I getting this right?
Speaker 2: (09:52)
Right. And we've looked at a lot of, because one of the marketing factors for RNI is just that it's very specific or your past, and, and just that one gene. And so we looked at all of the different pesticides, the RNI based pesticides that have been developed within the scientific literature. Um, we kind of, um, compared the gene targets that they were intended to attack with the honeybee genome, similar to what Jack did with the human genome and boy, every single one of them ended up finding off target binding sites within the honeybees. Does that mean it's going to silence the genes? Well, no, we don't know that, but certainly a questions. This whole concept of specificity,
Speaker 1: (10:42)
You know, I, I read an article where they took honeybee larva and exposed it to a meal of RNI, a single meal, and then tested the gene expression compared to the control group two other times, over the next few weeks. And they counted over 1400 genes that changed their activity levels. And this is about 10% of the genome of the honeybee changed by a single meal. Now what's interesting is they chose the RNI for this experiment. It was from Luba luminescent jellyfish or something because it was so radically different. And as a species they were expecting, this would become used as a control group. In other words, they predicted it would have no effect on the honeybee DNA expression of proteins. And yet about 10% of the genes changed their levels of protein expression. Yeah. I would add that. What they're finding in that, in the studies is that, um, that,
Speaker 3: (11:54)
That change, that impact spreads across generations. And part of the selling point that, that we had heard previously is not only is it precise and specific, but that, but that this is something that will only affect, um, organisms right now. Um, but in in fact, the scientific literature is suggesting that the potential impacts could be inherited.
Speaker 1: (12:18)
Can you explain the mechanisms for that, Jonathan, how you can, cause I know the DNA doesn't rearrange, but its expression changes has. So it's an epigenetic effect. Can you explain how that could be passed on from one generation to another?
Speaker 2: (12:37)
Well, I'm not entirely sure exactly how it's all happening within, uh, these organisms. And I think that, that says a lot, um, the fact that it, there is some heritability in certain model organisms, um, really suggests that there's a lot more to look into with that, but, um, it could be, this is a rapidly developing field. It could be that we've discovered why these are so heritable. I'm not sure yet.
Speaker 1: (13:04)
Well, we do know from studies that where a pregnant mouse was fed a particular diet and the hair color changed in the offspring, um, because the gene expression was changed, not the genes, but the gene expression and lo and behold, the offspring's offspring also had that hair color. Am I right on this, this score that it was passed down the chain, the epigenetic change was in fact inheritable.
Speaker 2: (13:35)
Uh, I'm not familiar with that study, um, being a, did you see that one
Speaker 3: (13:41)
Familiar with that study? I think one of the questions, um, with, with RNI in terms of ingestion is whether it could interfere with human genome expression, um, because there were some studies, um, that, that, that raised raised questions about, um, ingestion, um, where they, where they found that the RNI could also play a really key role in regulating physiological conditions. Um, and I believe that was a mouse study. And so that, that suggests that if, if there could be interference with, with, with, with genome expression, um, in animals, that it would be worthwhile to also investigate if there could be an impact from like inhalation, if there were a farm worker around the spray or any implications from, for consumers. But as Jonathan said, there's a lot of really important questions that need to be examined. And, and we shouldn't be taking that risk. Um, you know, by putting this out onto the market and into the environment ahead of understanding what those risks are,
Speaker 2: (14:52)
What are the mechanisms that might be going on though, is, is when we were looking at, into the honeybee genome, like within that study that I explained before we found that a lot of the genes that were potentially silenced were developmental genes and they might not be expressed in that initial generation. They might be expressed down just by knocking out the, um, a transcription of those.
Speaker 1: (15:19)
So there's kind of potential genetic time bombs being planted in one generation, we saw that in the, uh, university of Washington, dr. Skinner labs, where they injected Roundup into the, into, uh, pregnant mice and the offspring were okay, but the grandchildren did not fare so well. And the great grandchildren or the worst were 90% showed some significant reaction. And that the epigenetic markers were found on the sperm cell and in the each generation. So the application of a poison in one generation effected the fourth generation. Uh, most here we have eating an Apple or a potato where we are eating ingesting. A small piece of RNA interference could correct me if I'm wrong. Theoretically, since it hasn't been tested, we don't know, could theoretically change the way our genes express and possibly the way our offsprings genes can express. And now they want to put it into sprays, which we can potentially inhale or get the spray on our skin, which might penetrate, or we may eat the food with the spray on it. And that way in just the spray am I tracking right, Jonathan?
Speaker 2: (16:40)
Well, I, you know, I think that, I think that there's a presumption here in that, um, you know, we're exposed to RNA AI, this isn't a unique mechanism, right? So this is a, this is a mechanism that every one of our cells uses every minute of every day to regulate gene expression. Um, there's a presumption that because it is a part of our lives that is in every food that we're eating, we're being exposed on our skins and things like that, but it can't hurt us. Um, and, and the fact that pesticidal RNA is, are so effective at killing PEs suggests just the opposite that these RNA molecules are, can actually have an effect on higher organisms. But boy, it rolls a really, I mean, it really gets complicated really quickly because there are a lot of environmental RNA, but it's not, it's not a massive doses of a single RNA that you're being to within a normal, uh, within a normal contact event or exposure like you would be in the case of a spray or a, or a genetically modified food.
Speaker 1: (18:02)
So the argument is because RNI is out there. Anyway, this is just more of the same. And yet they tried to use the argument that, you know, genes create proteins. Proteins are good for you. We have proteins in our bodies. Therefore it doesn't matter what the protein is. This was an argument made 20 years ago. And it was like, this is really stupid biology or that it's just DNA. DNA is safe because it's at our bodies and we're just changing the DNA. Just not very intelligent. Danny, you wanted to say something,
Speaker 3: (18:33)
I think again, the implication, you know, yes, there are naturally occurring RNA interference molecules, but when you're synthesizing, um, new ones that are specifically designed to, to, to turn off genes or to silence genes and not just any genes, but the survival genes, and you add that to the risk that, um, this could impact, you know, trees or some other crop or honeybees or other really critical crops. You know, the unintended consequences at a time when we're already seeing biodiversity loss, massive biodiversity loss on this planet and that we would release, um, an another application that could, um, increased biodiversity loss that wasn't even intended. You know, this is an, I think th the bigger point is that it's an unnecessary risk. We don't actually need this technology. Um, and, and John then could certainly speak more to that. And, and, and I would add another big point that we haven't discussed, which is that, um, the RNI pesticides, the gene silencing pesticides, really raised urgent questions around property rights, over nature, um, and the need for people, not corporations to decide whether they want to be part of an open air experience experiment.
Speaker 3: (19:56)
You know, there are companies like Monsanto that are filing patents for gene silencing sprays that don't just patent the RNA molecule, um, but also the plant itself and all of its offspring. And so really this constitutes a really massive expansion of privatization of our food system and, and nature. And this can pose a threat to farmers. Um, you know, in the, in the case that what if the RNI that the gene silencing spray were to drift on the surrounding land or farms or local ecosystems, and that could then modify any number of non target plants and insects, including trees and beneficial insects like honeybees, but that, what if those organisms, because of patent now become property of the agrichemical company, really, we have environmental questions, we have health questions, but also we have this big question of who owns the farm and this potential expansion of, of property rights. And, you know, these big chemical agrichemical companies having even more, uh, ownership over, over, over nature and our, and our food system,
Speaker 1: (21:11)
Excellent point. And it's an a point that sometimes gets lost unless you happen to be a farmer where your crops were contaminated by Monsanto's seeds. And now you not understand that there were court cases about that, and they didn't go well for farmers. So we have precedents of the bullying and the use of laws by Monsanto use of patents that don't leave, don't leave us safe.
Speaker 3: (21:38)
And it's unnecessary. It's completely unnecessary to, to, you know, to use this. And we have lots of sustainable, less risky, um, management systems that can use on farms. And, you know, I'm not a farmer, but I've read the work of Jonathan and others who, um, have made it clear that this is another tool for corporate profit, and this is a risk that is not necessary to take for people or the environment. Right.
Speaker 1: (22:05)
And Jonathan, speaking of things you've written, can you tell us first the reaction of the USDA to the article you wrote when you were a USDA scientist and what it was about the article that raised there? Well, we'll use the word concern.
Speaker 2: (22:24)
Um, well, uh, the, the article was, um, published in, in uh, bio-science. It was a review of RNI and, uh, the unintended consequences and some of the risk, um, characterization for that compound. Um, they weren't, uh, yeah, it was, uh, it was a very controversial issue. They were, um, uh, it was subjected to several additional peer reviews, um, by administrators that didn't necessarily have a whole lot of expertise in this area. And, um, they removed a lot of teeth from the paper. Um, we then, um, published something or tried to publish something, uh, that the honeybee study that ultimately was published. Um, but they blocked that one altogether. And so they said that it was, um, uh, yeah, that this wasn't the kind of thing that they wanted to be involved in. So, uh,
Speaker 1: (23:32)
Any particular, uh, pressure, um, or any kind of, what was their reaction to you and your position?
Speaker 2: (23:39)
Right. Well, uh, I was the golden boy of the USTA. Um, things were going real well and following are starting to investigate this as well as, um, neonicotinoid insecticides, which is another, um, pretty widespread use of, uh, pesticides in the environment right now. Um, the, yeah, it and end up, uh, leading the scientific suppression and other problems that really shouldn't be going on.
Speaker 1: (24:13)
So you just left the, you left the agency because of their suppression and the bill. And tell me, tell it, put in your own words.
Speaker 2: (24:21)
Uh, well, harassment started doing crease, um, restrictions on just daily activities, uh, interactions with the press I was muzzled entirely. Um, and then finally they started to ask me to pull my name off of, off of papers and things like that. And that just isn't right. And so, uh, I filed a whistleblower complaint and, and, uh, left the USDA and, uh, became real clear that, um, number one, there was viable solutions to these issues that Dana just mentioned with regenerative agriculture and, and other ecologically intensive farming, um, that they weren't particularly interested in pursuing. And, um, and then also that the whole dialogue on genetically modified crops and risk assessments of pets just type and things like that was really corrupted. And, um, and, and for us to move forward, it really became increasingly clear that that science needed to be kind of rethought at least how we apply science to this really formative stage of our food production system right now. Um, we're a transformative phase of our, our food production system. So, uh, that's what we're trying to do at ectasis foundation is kind of rethink how we apply science, um, in order to make our food system much more resilient without the need for all of these, uh, all of these expensive and, uh, tools that have on the unintended consequences that we really don't need to be worried about.
Speaker 1: (26:13)
Well, first of all, thank you on behalf of everyone for speaking your truth and being willing to pursue what you knew to be true in the face of suppression in the face of, of biased, policymaking of a corrupt regulatory regime, which you said is a corrupt way of evaluating and approving GMOs. Um, and in a moment I would ask you and Dana to share your contact information in terms of the you work with and how people can learn more. But, um, can you tell us, what do you think the motivation is, or the who's calling the shots at the USDA forcing them or inspiring them to muzzle the science and corrupt the regulatory process?
Speaker 2: (27:05)
Um, well, uh, large corporate interests, um, ended up making campaign donations. Um, those campaign donations influence elections, um, elect elected officials then govern the budgets for the federal and state governments, right. Um, and so when there's noisy scientists or things start to challenge the agenda of large corporate interests, um, and there's a real risk by administrators within certain departments, um, of losing their funding and, and that affects everybody that they care about. Right. And so a lot of times it's much easier to, to simply suppress science rather than, um, but doesn't need to be done, right. It doesn't need to be done for us to be doing a good job. Um, but that's how scientific dialogue is manipulated.
Speaker 1: (28:10)
I know I saw your presentation, uh, in Mexico at the, uh, convention of biological diversity. And I know you're in charge of an organization now that you haven't stopped your mission to understand the truth and apply a more intelligent, uh, science to the growing of our food, into our entire agricultural ecosystem. Can you share the name, spelling and the URL where people can go to your website to learn more about what you do?
Speaker 2: (28:43)
Sure. Um, diocese foundation, ECD, Y S I S dot biome, or you can look on blue Dasher farms is the location, um, uh, where we're doing our research and we are on Facebook and Twitter under those handles
Speaker 1: (29:01)
Beautiful. And Dana, uh, can you share what your, I have enjoyed learning from you for years? You are an expert in so many areas working with friends of the earth. Can you share a little bit about what you do and how people can follow your work?
Speaker 3: (29:18)
I am the program manager for the food and technology program at friends of the earth. So focused on things like gene, silencing pesticides and new and emerging technologies that are being proposed or applied to in particular to agriculture, um, and conservation, and just looking at, you know, making sure that what we're doing is actually in the best interest of people in the planet. So, uh, friends of the earth is the organization, and that can be [email protected] Uh, and my name is Dana pearls and can reach [email protected]
Speaker 1: (29:57)
Beautiful. Before we go, I'll start with you, Jonathan, is there anything else that we didn't cover that you think would be important for people to know, take whatever time you need?
Speaker 2: (30:07)
Well, these are scary times, right? And it's very easy to focus on, on the fear and the uncertainty associated with new technologies and stuff. Um, I also think that it's a really hopeful time and we have very, very good solutions that improve our natural resources of our farms while making farmers more profit and resilient to changing the changing planet. Um, uh, and so, uh, I really love the idea of focusing our attention on those positive solutions, where everybody wins under those circumstances. So to me, this is a really exciting and hopeful time, and that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be paying attention and, and, and, and critical of, um, of potentially harmful things, but also that we need to be focusing on the solution as well.
Speaker 1: (31:06)
Thank you so much for bringing that in. It's a, it's easy to get lost in the sauce on the risks, but both of you talked about how their technology is not necessary, because there are other ways that can accomplish not only the same thing, but do it in better ways with better side benefits rather than side effects. And, uh, um, I, you said everyone wins, perhaps Monsanto's not on that list and that the people that contribute to the, to the campaigns are not on that list, but humanity does survive, does benefit and the ecosystem benefits, thank you for that data. Is there, are there, is there, uh, something you'd like to share that we haven't covered?
Speaker 3: (31:52)
I think just to emphasize that, that, uh, gene silencing pesticides, uh, take us in the opposite direction in terms of protecting the environment, ensuring safety of people and, um, and, and also protecting rights of nature. Um, and based on the evidence that we have available these gene silencing pesticides, um, we, we can't, we can't assure their safety. And as Jonathan said, rather than perpetuating this pesticide treadmill, um, we have ecological farming methods, uh, that really underpin organic and, and other forms of ecological agriculture that offer the true solution. And we have a lot of science that shows that farmers who rely on ecological farming methods for pest management instead of pesticides can meet, or even in some cases outperform the conventional counterparts in terms of yields and profits. So really we have the pathway forward in a way that is going to be ecological and safe for people on the planet. And we need to really be prioritizing that over or corporate profit.
Speaker 1: (32:58)
Beautiful. And I want to add my last 2 cents. Um, so few decades ago, RNA was basically written off as just a waystation. There was the DNA and the RNA was just a bridge to get the proteins to be made. And there wasn't a lot of deep understanding, or certainly wasn't taught that way. It turns out now that RNA plays a key role in how DNA expresses, how much it is a regulatory element that we are just now getting a grasp of. Now, we also used to think that, you know, you can look at all of the nutrition and food just as vitamins and minerals. Now we know there's phyto nutrients, but there's also RNA. And it turns out that some of the RNA in the foods that we eat can beneficially program or change the expression of our DNA. So this is a way that the intelligence of nature in food becomes incorporated in the intelligence of our body.
Speaker 1: (34:05)
And it's only a very recent science. And so we are learning more and more about what is nutrition, what is, what do we get from food? And now that we've discovered, Oh, we're getting some of this DNA programming from our food. We are still babes in the woods in this regard. And yet the biotech industry wants to jump in and manufacture millions or billions or trillions, or many more amounts of certain types of RNI and release it in the environment and sprays, or put it in the food without really understanding the transfer of this intelligence from the food into our bodies. And if it's not the proper intelligence, and if it's, if it's not supporting our health, perhaps it is damaging our health. But we don't know because the research, the state of the science is not there so that we cannot make these type of changes in the food supply, in a safe and predictable way, or the ecosystem in a safer, predictable way. So I see this as an arrogant, uh, narrow focused reductionist thinking where we discover a little bit about science and then in the effort to commercialize it, we ignore life. So that's my 2 cents on RNA interference. I want to thank you both for joining us. Anything else you want to share before we, we go, all right. Thank you. And thank you, Jonathan. And thank you, Dana. Thank you. I know safe eating.
Speaker 4: (35:54)
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