Over last week’s Thanksgiving holiday, many Americans will have paused to savor the blessings of health, family and community. Some of us will have binged on too much turkey and consumption-crazed Black Friday sales. But for the world’s biggest pesticide and seed biotech companies, the entire year has been one long feeding frenzy. This frenzy culminated in recent months in a multi-billion dollar spending spree in which, reports Bloomberg, three of the "Big 6" pesticide companies (Syngenta, Bayer and BASF) together shelled out over two billion dollars to acquire biopesticide and other “green product” companies.
Concerns over corporate "greenwashing" notwithstanding, the larger issue here is a new frontier of market-making and corporate consolidation from the people who brought us "DDT is good for me" commercials.
Bayer CropScience recently spent half a billion dollars to acquire biopesticide company, AgraQuest, while BASF spent over one billion dollars to buy up biological seed treatment company, Becker Underwood. Not to be left out, Syngenta — the largest of the world’s Big 6 pesticide companies—snapped up the biopesticide company, Pasteuria Bioscience. More significantly, Syngenta is now preparing to spend over half a billion dollars to acquire DevGen, a biotech company that has been “developing a proprietary portfolio of traits” in rice, based on the controversial gene-silencing technologies known as RNA interference (RNAi), used in insect control (more on that below).
Pesticide monopolies not enough
Explaining the pesticide industry’s “spending boom,” Chemical and Engineering News notes, “In contrast to tepid growth projections for traditional chemical markets, the market for crop protection products and seeds is expected to rise steadily over the next five years.”
What you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it’s a consolidation of the entire food chain”— Robert Fraley, Co-President, Monsanto’s Agricultural Sector
In other words, chemical pesticide markets have been effectively monopolized and industry is moving onto more promising frontiers. And corporate mergers and acquisitions — in this case of smaller “crop protection” companies (i.e. makers of pesticides), continue to be a tried and true way to consolidate agricultural market control.
And, as I have been saying, GE seed technology is the secret growth engine of the pesticide industry. If in the process, you can buy up biotech companies like DevGen that enable control over plant genetics critical to the world’s food needs (such as rice), so much the better.
Silencing of the genes
With its latest acquisition, Syngenta has moved decisively into the controversial application of RNA interference (RNAi) in pest control. RNAi is a natural process that takes place within living cells, in which an enzyme triggers a chain of reactions ultimately resulting in the moderation or silencing of gene expression. Companies like DevGen have been experimenting with developing RNAi sprays and RNAi-based biotech traits in order to control insect pests.
If all goes according to plan, when target insects feed on plants sprayed with the company’s RNAi spray, the product triggers RNA interference, effectively silencing expression of one or more genes critical to the insect’s survival (or fertility). Much like GE seed technology however, the frequency with which "all goes according to plan" once these genetic experiments make their way from petri dish out into the mixed and messy world of farming is an open question.
Recent experiments suggest that plants genetically engineered to contain double-stranded RNA can — if eaten by the target insect — also silence gene expression in that insect. (For the gene-wonks amongst you, the enzyme cleaves the dsRNA into short interfering RNA, or siRNA, which after several more steps, basically shuts down the target gene).
As a technology, this all sounds quite intriguing. But there is so much we don’t know about the real-world side effects of engineering food plants that can turn off genes in animals that eat those plants. One potential problem is that these manipulations of genetic material don't seem to respect the species barrier, and may in fact cross generations.
Cool technology, but will it behave?
As a recent study from China’s Nanjing University reported in Nature, rice microRNA (an RNA form that, like siRNA, is central to RNA interference) not only survived digestion by humans, but also altered gene regulation in other parts of the body (in this case, affecting cholesterol function). Similarly, in mice, a rice microRNA was found to move from the gut to other organs, where it regulated gene expression and affected the mice's physiological condition.
In an interview with Grist, Union of Concerned Scientists’ Doug Gurian-Sherman pointed out the relevance of the Chinese study’s startling findings to the pesticide industry’s recent discovery of RNAi application in pest control. Since humans and insects actually share a great deal of DNA, it’s entirely possible — says Gurian-Sherman — that the use of microRNA in gene silencing pest control technologies might also alter gene expression in humans (not to mention in other non-target organisms) in unpredictable ways.
Unfortunately, I’m fairly certain we cannot count on corporate “due diligence” when it comes to testing the potential long-term health and environmental harms of their products. What the industry's latest spending spree does show us, however, is the relentless drive of the Big 6 pesticide companies to expand and deepen their control over how agriculture happens — without apparent regard for whether or not their products actually behave as promised in the field.