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Newly Affordable mRNA Technology is Changing the GMO Debate

Brooke Thomson

May 6, 2021

As life returns to normal thanks to the COVID vaccine, we stand on a biotech frontier as vaccine technology will become even more integrated into our daily lives. RNA technology used in the Covid Vaccine has entered the global mainstream in less than six months, but after battling Covid the genetic science is here to stay. The previous Green Revolution refers to introducing chemical solutions to crop management in the 1940’s, the next Green Revolution will be genetic sequencing for agricultural. Advancements using RNA technology may just be getting started.

While RNA science has been in the works for years, now that it is globally accepted opens the floodgates to use gene therapy in a range of other fields. Namely it will arrive to the agricultural & farming sector where it all started with GMO modifications to improve mass agricultural production.

The conversation about GMOs has been ongoing for about thirty years with strong advocates on both sides. The main problem with GMOs is that they are being modified to increase shelf life, be pest resistant, and just increase profit. GMOs have decreased nutritional value to the consumer, and hardiness of the crop makes it difficult to digest. There is also stigma around GMO corn & soy are tampered with, may be more difficult to digest, may be carcinogenic. According to the Non-GMO Project not enough time has passed to effectively determine safety of GMOs.

Ironically because GMOs are structured to be pest-resistant, the pests have now evolved to be tougher than ever before which requires the use of more pesticides and herbicides. Further, the price difference between organic and GMO produce tacitly encourages the logic that the organic version is of better quality than the GMO.

There are advantages to GMOs that may not weigh as heavily for those who can afford to eat organic. Mainly GMO's are extremely affordable and that it allows us to provide food to a large and growing population. It’s good business for farmers that GMOs increase large market-ready yields with less cost. From an economic and theoretical standpoint, GMOs makes sense. According to AGDirect,

An often-cited statistic is that the world population is expected to exceed 9 billion people by 2050, and currently 800 million people do not have adequate food. We can expect that food production will only get more complicated by climate change and the loss of arable land. It has been estimated that 20 percent of the global harvest is lost to plant diseases.”

The most problematic issue isn’t that lab genetics are being used but how they are being used. The GMO modifications are made for large scale commercial profit with little regard to farmer autonomy, soil health, pesticides/herbicides being used, and most of all consumer health.

Monsanto’s Bt Corn for instance is a GMO modified to be resistant to Roundup so that Roundup (a Monsanto product and known carcinogen known for it's landslide of lawsuits) can be used with less impact on the product. Are we genetically modifying our food to achieve a fresh quality product, or are we making modifications strictly for pest resistance, shelf life, larger size, and a faster growing, high-yield product?

The technology for an improved solution using RNA technology has been in the works for years. It could be a solution to the ongoing GMO conundrum, or just take the place of the current genetic modifications we are already making. Biotech has been developing side by side technology to use the vaccine’s RNA technology as a safe, effective, crop anti-viral and pesticide. Brett Morris, the CEO of TechAccl describes it:

We design RNAi molecules to turn off an essential gene in a specific target insect species, and this is pesticidal. This specificity allows us to produce very environmentally-friendly pesticides that only affect the targeted pest, leaving other insects including bees, monarch butterflies, animals, and people completely unaffected. In comparison, traditional pesticides are much more broad in what they target, and can be toxic to animals and people.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation raised $45B for an agricultural biotech startup called Enko Chem. Bayer bought Monsanto in 2018 and subsequently settled the Monsanto’s Roundup Lawsuit for $10 billion. This would be incentive enough to start looking for a non-chemical pesticide. A pesticide using RNA technology could be the solution. As of April 9th 2021, AgDirect states:

Monsanto is developing the use of RNAi through a technology called “BioDirect,” in which dsRNA formulation is applied to plants to protect against insect and pathogens. Syngenta scientists are also developing lines of biocontrol products based on RNAi to protect potato plants from the attack of the Colorado potato beetle. These technologies will help growers to improve pest control in crops, resulting in increased yields and improved quality.”

RNA technology can be applied to a plant in the form of a spray and be developed into various viral vaccines or pesticides. Thus, vaccine technology could be the beginning of the next “Green Revolution”. Once developed to the point where it can be mass produced, maintain quality, and be cost effective this gene therapy would provide farmers an alternative from synthesized pesticides and genetically modified crops. Initially Monsanto started developing an RNA vaccine that would modify the organism (more similar to the GMO of today); but now that RNA biology can be mass produced it may be more affordable than synthetic chemical pesticides to use on a mass scale.

Today farmers expect to spend $15-$16/acre on a chemical pesticide, organic farmers more so to avoid synthetic materials. Since 2017 (when RNA production was very expensive) companies such as RNAgri can now produce RNA supply that may be as cheap as $6/acre for farmers. This could be a game changer for developing countries in Sub-Sahara Africa and Asia where the global population is expected to grow the most with the least food security.

However, regulation is yet to be determined and acceptance by the American population will likely play into the already existing GMO debate. The key developer Monsanto already has a tainted name associated with Roundup and other sketchy practices. A key question will be if enough research is done to really prove RNA technology does not have long term consequences on humans or the environment. Where we are now with GMOs, there is no study that replaces decades of use to determine safety. Unfortunately the American public has seen this play out negatively with too many products that were considered safe a generation ago. Like Roundup. Either way, the RNA technology of the Covid Vaccine is leading us into the next Green Revolution, and it will have a global effect.

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