11 February 2015

A new generation of GMOs based on the RNA interference technology evades regulation and is likely to flood the US market. What about the rest of the world?

We have, on several occasions, written about GMOs on hunger We have tried to explain why GMOs did not constitute a solution to world hunger [read] and discussed the advantages and risks from the economic, social, environmental and health perspective [read here]. In particular, we drew attention to the fact that a new generation of GMOs is being designed to be able to produce themselves the active substance that will protect them against pests and that this substance will be present throughout the plant, cannot be washed away, and therefore will also be present in the consumer’s plate with health consequences that have not fully been evaluated.

Recently, the J.R. Simplot Company released a new GMO potato whose DNA has been modified to reduce the amount of acrylamide present in the fried tuber (a neurotoxic that is also suspected to cause cancer) and that is also less prone to bruising which induces financial losses at the stage of transport and marketing. Before that, apples with reduced browning have also been obtained through a similar genetic modification.

What makes this new type of GMO worth mentioning is that it does not require adding allogenic genetic material (from bacteria or viruses), but is obtained by locking certain genes, making them unable to perform their tasks, by a technique called Innate Technology based on RNA interference, the implications of which is not well understood. RNA interference is achieved by the destruction of messenger RNAs which have a key role in allowing a given gene to order the production of a particular protein. This done by doubling in the cell the presence of the portion of DNA that is to be blocked. Because of the nature of this genetic modification, this new type of GMO escape environmental regulation existing in the US.

As a consequence, the US Department of Agriculture approved this new potato in November 2014, but it is not yet clear whether it will be widely adopted by the industry, as it is possible that consumers may decide to boycott it, as happened during previous attempts to introduce GMO potatoes.

Approval was granted despite protests by opponents to this technology who argue that the problem is that messenger RNAs have a central role in the cell’s life, and particularly in its growth and defense mechanisms against external intruders (viruses in particular). In the case of the Simplot GMO potatoes, it seems that the sequence of DNA doubled also contains genes that play a role in the use of nitrogen by the plant and in protection against pests. So some scientists feel that more research may be needed before authorising the cultivation and use of this potato, in order to be clearer on this risk and on eventual effects on consumer health (apart from reduced cancer-inducing acrylamide).

This view is also supported by a report prepared by a group of scientists commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and that had warned, in January 2014, on possible risks linked to this technology. The report recognized that digestion would probably annihilate any risk due to the ingestion of plants treated with this technology and that effects on animals and plants present in the soil and the environment is likely to be minimal but advised that more testing be undertaken and more data collected and analysed.

The approval of the Simplot potato has encouraged other companies to use this technology to produce more GMO potato varieties.

It will be important to monitor wether this type of potato will be used widely and authorised elsewhere in the world.


To know more:

  1. -Gurian-Sherman, D. The Next Phase of Genetic Engineering: A Flood of New Crops Evading Environmental Regulation, Civil Eats, January 2015

  2. -Pollack, A., U.S.D.A. Approves Modified Potato. Next Up: French Fry Fans., New York Times, November 2014

  3. -Report submitted to the US Environmental Protection Agency on the RNA interference technology, January 2014

  4. -on RNA Interference - consult learning resources at the Howard Hughes Medical institute

  5. -GMOs are not the solution to eradicate hunger,, September 2013

  6. -Genetic resources: acceleration of privatisation of living organisms is a threat to food security and biodiversity,, August 2013


Last update:    February 2015

For your comments and reactions: