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Vaccinating Plants: A Risky Technology?

plants and rising sun

The “vaccine” is sprayed on or applied directly to leaves of the plant and triggers a reaction known as “RNA interference, which is an innate defense mechanism of plants, animals and other eukaryotic organisms against pathogens.”

In an attempt to reduce use of pesticides on crops, scientists are exploring the concept of “vaccinating” food plants to prevent them from being infected with viruses and other pathogens. Experiments are utilizing an external application of double-stranded RNA (dsRNA), a naturally occurring product that is found in most organisms, to make plants resistant to certain microbes. Double stranded RNA (dsRNA) plays a key role in activating the immune systems of plants and other organisms.

Acknowledging that pesticides have caused harm to the environment and human health, researchers from the University of Helsinki in Finland and French National Centre for Scientific Research report they have discovered a way to “vaccinate” the plants themselves to prevent infection.1 The “vaccine” is sprayed on or applied directly to leaves of the plant and triggers a reaction known as “RNA interference, which is an innate defense mechanism of plants, animals and other eukaryotic organisms against pathogens.”2

The authors explained that trials using dsRNA to trigger RNA interference have been limited because producing the necessary dsRNA in the lab has been too expensive and inefficient to apply the technology in the real world. After achieving efficient and reproducible methods of producing dsRNA, the researchers developed a production system that allowed them to study the effects of applying the plant “vaccine” and exposing the test plants to an infectious agent. Their goal is to produce “an efficient, highly flexible, nontransgenic and environmentally friendly approach for protecting crops against viruses and other pathogens.”3

Citing data from Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, the authors estimated the cost of invasive pests and pathogens is $540 billion per year. Adding the cost of poisoning the environment and human health with traditional pesticides, the authors argued that using an external application of the dsRNA has benefits. For example, they said, the dsRNA is designed to target a specific pathogen, so it is not a broad-spectrum killer. They believe that mutations leading to resistance are unlikely, for either the agent or the pathogen and that, unlike chemical pesticides, dsRNAs are naturally biodegradable and not expected to “produce any substantially novel residues in food products.”4

However, there are outstanding questions about whether dsRNA will stress the plants in unexpected ways or affect beneficial insects in the environment. Due to the fact that the experimental technology is new, existing government regulations may not apply to licensing the product. According to co-researcher Dr. Minna Poranen, “It’s difficult to predict when the vaccine will be made available because no relevant legislation exists yet.”5

Warnings Sounded by Environmental Protection Advocates

Despite promotion of the potential benefits of the experimental technology by those developing it, others are questioning whether using dsRNA technology to “vaccinate” food plants is risk-free. In a May 23, 2018 article, Dr. Joe Mercola warned that, “While we certainly need to eliminate agrochemicals from food production, RNAi technology is risky business and could produce any number of unforeseen consequences.6

Dr. Mercola cited a letter by Regeneration International founding member Judith Schwartz posted as a comment to the editors of Yale Environmental 360 in response to its April 18, 2018 article, “Can ‘Vaccines’ for Crops Help Cut Pesticide Use and Improve Yields?”.7

Ms. Schwartz questioned wrote, in part:

As a journalist covering land management, I am extremely disappointed in the lack of skepticism demonstrated in this reporting. Any distinction between this and ‘chemical pesticides,’ or for that matter, ‘genetic engineering,’ is merely semantic; if gene editing is not considered genetic engineering that’s only because the companies say so. As we do not know if this technology is safe, how can we be sure that non-targeted genes are not deactivated? 

This could dangerously impact insect, plant and/or mammal species and ecological stabilities … There are a growing number of farmers who are working with nature by means of no-till, cover-cropping and other ecological practices, who are finding that the best means of managing problem insects is biodiversity: the other insects that prey on them.

Such farmers have been able to grow healthy crops while markedly reducing and often eliminating herbicides and pesticides. Independent research has shown that pesticide-treated croplands often have far more pests and impacts than untreated cropland. Aren’t problem pests a symptom of an out-of-balance ecology? Could not this RNAi experiment throw the ecology even further out of balance?

How would this address the underlying problem, rather than merely boost the sale of pesticides? … [W]e can already produce enough food to feed 10 billion people; the challenge is in distribution, nutrient density and affordability. Nor is this the job of industrial agriculture. More than 70 percent of the world’s food is grown by small-holder farmers in the developing world …

Given the limited research on RNAi technology that is not funded by entities that would benefit from its use, isn’t more critical analysis required? I would encourage your editorial staff to run an objective piece that goes into more details on the implications of RNAi technology and considers pest management alternatives.

Only time will tell whether plant “vaccines” will turn out to be a safer way to control the effects of microbes that destroy crop yields, or whether the experimental technology will prove to cause further damage to an environment already compromised by pesticides.


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