The agricultural and chemical giant Monsanto has by now received enough negative publicity to solidify its image as a money-driven corporation with little regard for the environment. It is no surprise, therefore, that the development of its newest pesticide has been highly controversial.
Rather than exterminate pests with the topical application of chemicals, the company’s novel technique targets pests at the genetic level. Known as RNA interference, it protects crops by disabling specific genes within a given pest and inevitably causing its death. A recent New York Times article by Andrew Pollack entitled “Genetic Weapon Against Insects Raises Hope and Fear in Farming” mentions that Monsanto’s main pest of interest is a mite that might be contributing to a decline in the honeybee population.
Though RNA interference could be an effective short-term solution, scientists lack knowledge of its long-term consequences, which might include the creation of other environmental problems.
“I was trying to think about what Rachel Carson’s reaction to something like this might have been,” said Visiting Assistant Professor of History Amrys Williams. “The attempts at making a highly targeted approach to this is something akin to the kinds of things that she herself proposed as potential solutions, [meaning] biological controls [that deal] with pest issues without fundamentally changing the nature of agriculture.”
Though Carson, the author of the culturally influential novel “Silent Spring,” was a supporter of biological control without the aid of laboratory chemicals, Williams thinks she might nonetheless have worried about RNA interference’s far-reaching effects on the ecosystem.
“I think [Carson] would have been very concerned about the potential for wider genetic effects within the biological community, [ones] that would be felt beyond the intended target,” Williams said. “Effects up the chain might happen and could propagate problems that we can’t foresee.”
In addition to its potential environmental consequences, RNA interference on pests may have unfortunate effects on human health. After the United States was forced to issue a ban on DDT in 1972, following the chemical’s widespread use in agriculture, later methods of pest control have been scrutinized more closely for detriment to human well-being.
In the case of DDT—which was manufactured by a number of chemical and pharmaceutical companies, including Monsanto—its adverse effects on human health did not become apparent until years after its implementation. In fact, a possible link between DDT and Alzheimer’s was only discovered within the past week, even though DDT has been illegal in the United States for over 40 years. A relatively new genetic pesticide could have similar medical repercussions, which could take decades to be exposed.
“Although I think it’s better that pesticides are ‘moving in the right direction,’ I don’t believe that the solution lies in increasing pesticide efficiency, which only further encourages the current flawed and inefficient food system in America today,” said Rachie Weisberg ’15, who led the Fall 2013 Student Food Forum. “I mean, it’s better than nothing. But nothing is setting a pretty low standard.”
Though some might argue that biotechnology is an exciting field that could transform the agricultural industry, it is important to realize that many environmental issues were originally the result of human interference. Even if Monsanto had charitable motives to do so, any company today would be hard-pressed to find a laboratory solution with absolutely no ill effects on the ecosystem or on human health. Given Monsanto’s track record, it is even more unlikely that the company’s latest product has reached that standard of safety.
Meanwhile, as the debate continues, there are several organizations that accept donations toward their efforts to fight Monsanto. In addition to the March Against Monsanto, the activist website Nationofchange.org has a page opposing the biotech corporation. Every donation provides financial support for protests and campaigns that lobby in favor of safer agricultural practices. Though it may seem difficult to effect drastic change, even a small contribution can make a key difference in the fate of the environment and our health.