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The agency said it “recognizes the need to better understand the scientific issues concerning the assessment of the risks to human health and the environment that RNAi technologies may pose before any regulatory decisions concerning these products can be made.”
In an email, the agency said it has already approved two such products, virus-resistant plums and potatoes.
Monsanto wants to add RNA molecules to its popular glyphosate herbicide to kill weeds that have become resistant to the chemical. Another product would help combat larvae that are resistant to a toxin in genetically engineered corn crops.
Two USDA scientists, including one who’s expected to be a member of the EPA panel, published a paper in the August issue of the journal BioScience outlining a number of potential hazards posed by RNA pesticides. More research is needed to find out how long the pesticidal molecules linger in the environment and to prove that lab testing can adequately predict what impact the pesticides will have in the field, the scientists said.
Robert T. Fraley, Monsanto’s chief scientist, calls the technology “cool new stuff” and said his company welcomes the way the EPA is approaching the issue.
“I’m really appreciative that they’re setting the framework,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of discussions with the regulatory agencies around the framework over RNAi technology.”
The meeting will be held one day before the EPA convenes a scientific advisory panel to review the problems with rootworm resistance. A bacterium gene that was engineered into the corn plants renders them poisonous to the larvae, but some of the insects have developed resistance to the toxin, known as Bt.
Unlike the Bt toxin, RNAi theoretically wouldn’t hurt harmless insects. RNAi also could be used to kill pests such as aphids that Bt toxins can’t be used against, Falk said.
The technology also could help crop developers avoid concerns that new genetically engineered products could induce allergic reactions. That’s a problem for scientists because inserting a new gene in a plant or animal produces new proteins. Companies such as Monsanto are required to prove to federal regulators that any new proteins they create would pose no threat to consumers. RNA, on the other hand, has generally been considered safe to eat.
But Bill Freese, senior policy analyst for the advocacy group Center for Food Safety, worries that companies such as Monsanto are rushing the technology to market without knowing the consequences. The micro RNA that companies want to put into pesticides may be more precise than the Bt toxin but it may not be precise enough to avoid harming other insects, Freese said.
There could be human health concerns, too, Freese said, pointing to a Chinese study that suggested that RNA molecules found in rice can affect the way the body controls cholesterol levels.
“It’s a familiar situation where we have cutting-edge science ... and immediately we want to start applying this before we know all the ins and outs. That’s pretty concerning,” said Freese, whose organization has battled Monsanto in court over genetically engineered crops.
He said the new products amount to “techno-fixes” that are aimed at correcting problems, such as the weed and insect resistance, that were caused by the overuse of the gene-altered crops.