Muzzled by Monsanto

Is Big Ag squelching research showing its new RNAi GMOs may be dangerous?

April 3, 2014 | Source: Boulder Weekly | by Caitlin Rockett

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After nearly 30 years studying how plants use their genes to defend against viruses, Vicki Vance, a professor at the University of South Carolina, doesn’t see genetically modifying plants as a malevolent or arrogantly God-like endeavor.

“There’s DNA in the world and it gets passed from one organism to another and it’s the natural thing. If that’s the problem you have with transgenic plants, that’s not a good reason to be against them,” Vance says.

She does, however, have a problem with mega corporations allegedly using their money and power to hide the risks of new forms of genetic technology.

“I didn’t use to be an anti-GMO person and I didn’t use to have strong feelings about Monsanto, but  ,” she says, her voice trailing off.

But that was before the Chinese research, before the calls from Monsanto, before she couldn’t get funding for work that she feels could change the way we treat cancer and other diseases. Her research put her at odds with one of the most powerful corporations in the world.

Vance isn’t a nobody in the world of RNA research. At a June 2011 conference hosted by the nonprofit International Life Science Institute (ILSI), a group of academics, regulatory professionals from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Risk Analysis Program and members of the biotech industry gathered in Washington D.C. They came to evaluate the environmental risks of a promising new technique to protect crops against pestilent insects – a gene-regulating process called RNA interference.

Vance wasn’t just an attendee at the conference; she provided the introduction for the event. She’s studied small interfering ribonucleic acid molecules, siRNA, in plants for most of her career. Her name appears often in academic papers and conference proceedings on the topic of gene silencing, the main function of so-called RNAi technology.

At that time, views of Vance and the other attendees was relatively positive: “No plausible risk hypotheses were identified that can be considered unique to RNAi mechanisms when compared to other genetically engineered plants with similar traits.”

“At the time I was like, ‘Hell yes it’s safe – how is this gonna be dangerous?'” says Vance. “The corn rootworm will take up these siRNAs, which turn off production of essential proteins in pests. Apparently it works really well. Otherwise you’d have to use pesticides, chemicals that are toxic.”

But her stance on RNAi as a pesticide would change shortly after the conference.