Will New ‘Spray GMOs’ Reignite the Frankenfood Debate?

August 18th, 2015

Monsanto is at it again.

The widely reviled biotech company has been hard at work formulating a chemical it’s calling BioDirect, which, when sprayed onto a plant, reconfigures the plant’s genes to do things like kill pests that want to eat it, prevent browning of apples, or improve the taste of tomatoes. Those last two uses are still a long way off, but the use of BioDirect as a pesticide is well on its way to market.

BioDirect contains a mechanism called RNA interference, which allows farmers or scientists to temporarily “turn off” the activity of any gene. The spray can be configured for any number of uses, depending on the needs of and threats to the crop. Monsanto’s chief technology officer Robb Fraley told MIT Technology Review that BioDirect will “open up a whole new way to use biotechnology” that “doesn’t have the same stigma, the same intensive regulatory studies and cost that we would normally associate with GMOs.”

Therein lies the likely motive behind Monsanto’s development of this product (note: other biotech firms, such as Bayer and Syngenta, are also working on similar sprays): with this, the company believes this product may be able to sidestep the raging debate over GMOs, as it will not be modifying plants as seeds but treating them when they’ve fully developed. And per usual, the company maintains RNA is perfectly safe for human consumption: “Humans have been eating RNA as long as humans have been eating,” Fraley said.

If that phrase sounds familiar, it’s because it follows the same logic of Monsanto talking points around GMOs: that humans have manipulated foods and food crops for millennia, from fermentation to classical selection, and that modern genetically modified foods have never been proven by science to be dangerous for human consumption.

But just like they’ve failed to do with traditional GMOs, biotech companies, Big Food, and their boosters—rather than GMO skeptics—own the burden of proving that RNA and BioDirect sprays are harmless to humans and the environment. And as the Technology Review piece correctly states, “RNA may be natural. But introducing large amounts of targeted RNA molecules into the environment is not.”

Maybe the real concern, though, isn’t at the biological level, but a philosophical one. The goal of the Monsantos and Syngentas and Krafts of the world are clearly to make a profit, but at what cost? Is it inherently good to continue to artificially tamper with the food system simply to grow a fruit with fewer blemishes (a natural occurrence), that can withstand drought (a natural occurrence) or feeds no other living organism besides humans (a natural occurrence) – all the while fattening the wallets of these companies?

Many consumers are bound to say “no.”

Photo credit: Javier Pardina via Stocksy

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Steve HoltSteve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.