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Transcription: Jeffrey’s Take: Can New GMO Pesticides Change How Your DNA Functions?

This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity

Jeffrey Smith: (00:06):

Hi everyone. My name is Jeffrey Smith with the Institute for Responsible Technology, and I have explosive information from science. The information is unsettling about a new application of a technology that’s actually more than two decades old, but we’re going to hear from Dana Perls, the Food and Technology Program Manager at Friends of the Earth, who co-authored a study on RNA interference pesticides, and Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, who used to be with the USDA, wrote an article and got it published about how the United States Department of Agriculture does not have the ability to do a proper risk assessment of this new technology. He found himself no longer working at the USDA, and now is working with a non-profit foundation, supporting regenerative agriculture.

Welcome both of you.

Dana Perls: (1:05)

Thank you.

Dr. Jonathan Lundgren:


Jeffrey Smith: (1:11)

We’re going to talk about RNA interference and I’m hoping we’re not going to use much jargon here. We’re going to understand this technology in a way that we can walk away able to explain it to others, and hopefully create a general understanding of why it’s probably not a good idea for Monsanto/Bayer to be introducing it in the form of a pesticide.

Jeffrey Smith: (01:36):

Jonathan, why don’t you start, and tell us what RNA interference is, and then we’ll get into some of the dangers for humans, bees, and the entire ecosystem.

Dr. Jonathan Lundgren: (01:48):

In its simplest form it is knocking out specific genes, so we’re able to sort of flip genes on and flip genes off, depending on their DNA sequence.

Jeffrey Smith: (02:06):

Beautiful.  Dana, what are some of the applications of RNA interference that are already out there?

Dana Perls (02:14):

We’ve seen that used, and in the early stages kind of a variation of the Flavor Savor tomato. More recently we have seen the GMO apple use RNAi, which affects the oxidizing enzyme so that the apple technically wouldn’t turn brown. We’ve seen it be used in the potatoes as well, the RNAi potatoes.

Jeffrey Smith: (02:51):

These are apples and potatoes that are engineered not to turn brown when you slice them because there is a gene that doesn’t turn on when this RNA interference molecule is present, so it actually silences the expression of a particular gene. Jonathan, what are they planning to use these sprays for? And what is your concern?

Dr. Jonathan Lundgren: (03:21):

They’re planning on using them as an insecticide, at least at first, and I believe that’s already been done. They’re using this to knock out critical gene function with an insect’s capacity there.

Jeffrey Smith: (03:37):

What happens if that pesticide gets on my skin and penetrates my skin? Is there any chance that that same silencing RNA could influence my gene expression?

Dr. Jonathan Lundgren: (03:54):

We don’t really know. It’s possible. There’s some evidence to suggest that that’s worth digging into a lot more.

Jeffrey Smith: (04:04):

If it’s possible, it’s worth digging into. What are the regulations and requirements for companies like Monsanto and others that want to introduce the data? Are you familiar with the regulatory requirements and the loopholes?

Dana Perls: (04:21):

Yeah, I would argue right now that our regulatory system both domestically and internationally is actually not well set up to do the most effective environmental or public health and safety assessments needed. Even the EPA admitted that we don’t know enough to ask the right questions to do a thorough assessment. And the idea that this would essentially be an open-air experiment, that you’re releasing RNAi molecules that could be changing gene expression through various generations and you can’t control where it goes. You might try to have it be just for a particular plant, but there’s no way to control whether the spray is going to land on a different plant, or it might affect an off-target species. Maybe you’re trying to affect a beetle, but instead it affects a honeybee. The idea of predicting and trying to assess the environmental risks, or–as Jonathan suggested–the risks of let’s say, inhalation (a farmer or a farm worker) and what could the impact be on worker safety is really difficult to try and predict, let alone assess.

Dana Perls: (05:45):

Currently in the EPA there isn’t any sort of appropriate assessment evaluations, oversight, or regulations, and neither at the United Nations, although at the United Nations currently there has been a push to get this addressed as a new and emerging topic and sort of a warning across the world that national governments around the world need to be paying attention to this new application, because it could have such far-reaching impacts on the environment and on worker and consumer safety.

Jeffrey Smith: (06:25):

Let’s make it clear exactly what’s going on that is being allowed without proper testing. Jonathan, can you explain a little bit about the mechanics of how the RNA interference works as the basis for understanding why the same RNAi piece might block the expression of many different species’ DNA?

Dr. Jonathan Lundgren: (06:54):

Sure. You have to take a little bit of a step back to understand how this works. Our genome is made up of little nucleotides, A’s, C’s, T’s & G’s, we’ll say for the purpose of discussion. Those are links on a chain and how those four molecules are arranged on that chain kind of influences what gene is ultimately expressed, so that’s your genetic code. RNAi is an assemblage of complementary nucleotides to these A’s, C’s, T’s, and G’s, so it links up there, and it folds right on there. It’s able to block specific transcriptions from your genome before they’re made into proteins, and those proteins do things for you. What happens is that there are 21 little linkages along this RNAi molecule, and it’s searching and it blocks no matter where it occurs within a genome. It will latch onto that and that’ll stop it from being expressed or at least transcribed. Although it’s targeted for a particular gene within an insect pest or a weed or something along those lines, the statistical likelihood that it’s going to interact with other places in the genome that might duplicate that same sequence is pretty high.

Jeffrey Smith: (08:40):

I remember talking to Professor Jack Heinemann from New Zealand, who was evaluating an RNAi wheat that was being proposed, and based on what he understood, those 21 sequences or 21 nucleotides where he looked on the human genome to see if it would have potentially latched on or found a couple of it in the human genome. He included those and put, I think, 80 pages of different sequences that were available–some huge number. The concept is that when you release this little silencing sequence, it’s like a little molecule with a clipboard looking around for a sequence in the DNA. If it finds it, it grabs hold of it in some way, stops the expression, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a honeybee or a mouse or a human, as long as that sequence is there. Am I getting this right?

Jonathan Lundgren: (09:52):

Right. And one of the marketing factors for RNAi is just that it’s very specific on your past, and just that one gene. We looked at all of the different pesticides, the RNAi-based pesticides that have been developed within the scientific literature. We kind of compared the gene targets that they were intended to attack with the honeybee genome, similar to what Jack did with the human genome– and boy, every single one of them ended up finding off-target binding sites within the honeybees. Does that mean it’s going to silence the genes? No, we don’t know that, but it certainly questions this whole concept of specificity.

Jeffrey Smith: (10:42):

I read an article where they took honeybee larva and exposed it to a meal of RNAi, a single meal, and then tested the gene expression compared to the control group two other times over the next few weeks. They counted over 1400 genes that changed their activity levels. This is about 10% of the genome of the honeybee changed by a single meal. Now what’s interesting is they chose the RNAi for this experiment–it was from luminescent jellyfish or something– because it was so radically different as a species. They were expecting this would become used as a control group. In other words, they predicted it would have no effect on the honeybee DNA expression of proteins, and yet about 10% of the genes changed their levels of protein expression.

Dana Perls: (11:54):

I would add that what they’re finding in the studies is that change, that impact, spreads across generations. Part of the selling point that we had heard previously is not only is it precise and specific, that this is something that will only affect organisms right now. But in fact, the scientific literature is suggesting that the potential impacts could be inherited.

Jeffrey Smith: (12:18):

Can you explain the mechanisms for that, Jonathan, ‘cause I know the DNA doesn’t rearrange, but its expression changes so it’s an epigenetic effect? Can you explain how that could be passed on from one generation to another?

Jonathan Lundgren: (12:37):

I’m not entirely sure exactly how it’s all happening within these organisms. I think that says a lot. The fact that there is some heritability in certain model organisms really suggests that there’s a lot more to look into with that. It could be this is a rapidly developing field. It could be that we’ve discovered why these are so heritable, I’m not sure yet.

Jeffrey Smith: (13:05):

We do know from studies that where a pregnant mouse was fed a particular diet and the hair color changed in the offspring because the gene expression was changed, not the genes, but the gene expression. And lo and behold, the offspring’s offspring also had that hair color. Am I right on this score, that it was passed down, the epigenetic change was in fact inheritable?

Dr. Jonathan Lundberg:  (13:35):

I’m not familiar with that study. Dana, did you see that one?

Dana Perls: (13:41):

No, I’m not familiar with that study. I think one of the questions with RNAi in terms of ingestion is whether it could interfere with human genome expression because there were some studies that raised questions about ingestion, where they found that the RNAi could also play a really key role in regulating physiological conditions. (I believe that was a mouse study.) That suggests that if there could be interference with genome expression in animals, that it would be worthwhile to also investigate if there could be an impact from inhalation if there were a farm worker around the spray or any implications for consumers. As Jonathan said, there are a lot of really important questions that need to be examined, and, and we shouldn’t be taking that risk, you know, by putting this out onto the market and into the environment ahead of understanding what those risks are.

Jonathan Lundgren: (14:52):

What are the mechanisms that might be going on, though, is when we were looking into the honeybee genome, like within that study as I explained before, we found that a lot of the genes that were potentially silenced were developmental genes and they might not be expressed in that initial generation. They might be expressed down just by knocking out a transcription of those.

Jeffrey Smith: (15:19):

There’s kind of potential genetic time bombs being planted in one generation. We saw that in the University of Washington Dr. Skinner labs, where they injected Roundup into pregnant mice, and the offspring were okay but the grandchildren did not fare so well. The great-grandchildren were the worst, where 90% showed some significant reaction, and that the epigenetic markers were found on the sperm cell in each generation, so the application of a poison in one generation affected the fourth generation. Here we have eating an apple or a potato, where we are ingesting, a small piece of RNA interference that could (correct me if I’m wrong–theoretically, since it hasn’t been tested, we don’t know) could theoretically change the way our genes express and possibly the way our offspring’s genes can express. And now they want to put it into sprays, which we can potentially inhale, or get the spray on our skin, which might penetrate, or we may eat the food with the spray on it and that way ingest the spray. I am tracking right, Jonathan?

Dr. Jonathan Lundgren: (16:40):

I think that there’s a presumption here that we’re exposed to RNAi. This isn’t a unique mechanism, right? This is a mechanism that every one of our cells uses every minute of every day to regulate gene expression. There’s a presumption that because it is a part of our lives that is in every food that we’re eating–we’re being exposed on our skins and things like that–that it can’t hurt us. The fact that pesticidal RNA’s are so effective at killing pests suggests just the opposite–that these RNAi molecules can actually have an effect on higher organisms. But boy, it gets really complicated really quickly because there are a lot of environmental RNA’s, but it’s not massive doses of a single RNA that you’re being  within a normal contact event or exposure, like you would be in the case of a spray or a genetically modified food.

Jeffrey Smith: (18:02):

The argument is because RNAi is out there anyway, that this is just more of the same. They tried to use the argument that genes create proteins. Proteins are good for you. We have proteins in our bodies, therefore it doesn’t matter what the protein is. This was an argument made 20 years ago. This is really stupid biology. Or that it’s just DNA. DNA is safe because it’s in our bodies and we’re just changing the DNA–just not very intelligent. Dana, you wanted to say something?


I think again, the implication that there are naturally occurring RNA interference molecules, but when you’re synthesizing new ones that are specifically designed to turn off genes or to silence genes–and not just any genes, but the survival genes—and you add that to the risk that this could impact trees or some other crop or honeybees or other really critical crops. The unintended consequences at a time when we’re already seeing biodiversity loss–massive biodiversity loss on this planet and that we would release another application that could increase biodiversity loss that wasn’t even intended. I think the bigger point is that it’s an unnecessary risk. We don’t actually need this technology. Jonathan could certainly speak more to that. I would add another big point that we haven’t discussed, which is that the RNAi pesticides, the gene silencing pesticides, really raise urgent questions around property rights, over nature, and the need for people, not corporations, to decide whether they want to be part of an open-air experiment.

Dana Perls: (19:56):

There are companies like Monsanto that are filing patents for gene silencing sprays that don’t just patent the RNA molecule but also the plant itself and all of its offspring. Really this constitutes a really massive expansion of privatization of our food system and nature, and this can pose a threat to farmers. What if the RNAi, the gene silencing spray were to drift on the surrounding land or farms or local ecosystems, and that could then modify any number of non-target plants and insects including trees and beneficial insects like honeybees? What if those organisms, because of patents, now become the property of the agrichemical company? Really, we have environmental questions, we have health questions, but also we have this big question of who owns the farm and this potential expansion of property rights an, these big chemical agrichemical companies having even more ownership over and our food system,

Jeffrey Smith: (21:11):

Excellent point. And it’s a point that sometimes gets lost unless you happen to be a farmer where your crops were contaminated by Monsanto’s seeds. And now you understand that there were court cases about that, and they didn’t go well for farmers. We have precedents of the bullying and the use of laws by Monsanto, the use of patents, that don’t leave us safe.

Dana Perls: (21:38):

And it’s unnecessary. It’s completely unnecessary to use this. We have lots of sustainable, less risky management systems that can be used on farms. I’m not a farmer, but I’ve read the work of Jonathan and others who have made it clear that this is another tool for corporate profit, and this is a risk that is not necessary to take for people or the environment.

Jeffrey Smith: (22:05):

Jonathan, speaking of things you’ve written, can you tell us first the reaction of the USDA to the article you wrote when you were a USDA scientist, and what it was about the article that raised their… well, we’ll use the word “concern.”

Dr. Jonathan Lundgren: (22:25):

The article was published in Bio-science. It was a review of RNAi and the unintended consequences and some of the risk characterizations for that compound. Yes, it was a very controversial issue. It was subjected to several additional peer reviews by administrators that didn’t necessarily have a whole lot of expertise in this area, and they removed a lot of teeth from the paper. We then published something–or tried to publish something–the honeybee study that ultimately was published, but they blocked that one altogether. They said that this wasn’t the kind of thing that they wanted to be involved in.

Jeffrey Smith: (23:32):

Did you get any particular pressure or any kind of…what was their reaction to you and your position?

Dr. Jonathan Lundgren: (23:39):

Right. Well, I was the golden boy of the USDA. Things were going really well and following us starting to investigate this as well as neonicotinoid insecticides–which is another pretty widespread use of pesticides in the environment right now–it ended up leading to scientific suppression and other problems that really shouldn’t be going on.

Jeffrey Smith: (24:13):

So you just left the agency because of their suppression and the bill? Put it in your own words.

Jonathan Lundgren: (24:21):

Well, harassment started to increase, restrictions on just daily activities, interactions with the press–I was muzzled entirely. Finally, they started to ask me to pull my name off of papers and things like that, and that just isn’t right. And so I filed a whistleblower complaint and left the USDA. It became really clear that number one, there were viable solutions to these issues that Dana just mentioned with regenerative agriculture and other ecologically intensive farming that they weren’t particularly interested in pursuing. Also that the whole dialogue on genetically modified crops and risk assessments of pesticides and things like that was really corrupted. For us to move forward, it really became increasingly clear that science needed to be kind of rethought–at least how we apply science to this really formative stage of our food production system right now. We’re in a transformative phase of our food production system. So that’s what we’re trying to do at Ecdysis Foundation, is kind of rethink how we apply science in order to make our food system much more resilient without the need for all of these expensive tools that have unintended consequences that we really don’t need to be worried about.

Jeffrey Smith: (26:13):

First of all, thank you on behalf of everyone for speaking your truth and being willing to pursue what you knew to be true in the face of suppression, in the face of biased policymaking of a corrupt regulatory regime, which you said is a corrupt way of evaluating and approving GMOs. In a moment I would ask you and Dana to share your contact information in terms of the organizations you work with and how people can learn more. Can you tell us what you think the motivation is? Who’s calling the shots at the USDA, forcing them or inspiring them to muzzle the science and corrupt the regulatory process?

Jonathan Lundgren: (27:06):

Large corporate interests end up making campaign donations. Those campaign donations influence elected officials that govern the budgets for the federal and state governments. When noisy scientists or things start to challenge the agenda of large corporate interests, there’s a real risk by administrators within certain departments of losing their funding and that affects everybody that they care about. A lot of times it’s much easier to simply suppress science, but doesn’t need to be done for us to be doing a good job, but that’s how scientific dialogue is manipulated.

Jeffrey Smith: (28:10):

I saw your presentation in Mexico at the Convention of Biological Diversity. And I know you’re in charge of an organization now, that you haven’t stopped your mission to understand the truth and apply a more intelligent science to the growing of our food into our entire agricultural ecosystem. Can you share the name, spelling and the URL where people can go to your website to learn more about what you’re doing?

Jonathan Lundgren: (28:43):

Sure. ECDYSIS Foundation. We are also on Facebook and Twitter under those handles.

Jeffrey Smith: (29:01):

Beautiful. And Dana, I have enjoyed learning from you for years. You are an expert in so many areas working with Friends of the Earth. Can you share a little bit about what you do and how people can follow your work?

Dana Perls: (29:18):

Sure. I am the Program Manager for the Food and Technology program at Friends of the Earth, so focused on things like gene silencing pesticides and new and emerging technologies that are being proposed or applied, in particular to agriculture and conservation, and just looking at, you know, making sure that what we’re doing is actually in the best interest of people and the planet. Friends of the Earth is the organization, and can be found at And my name is Dana Perls and you can reach me at

Jeffrey Smith: (29:57):

Beautiful. Before we go, I’ll start with you, Jonathan. Is there anything else that we didn’t cover that you think would be important for people to know? Take whatever time you need.

Jonathan Lundgren: (30:07):

These are scary times, and it’s very easy to focus on the fear and the uncertainty associated with new technologies and stuff. I also think that it’s a really hopeful time, and we have very, very good solutions that improve our natural resources of our farms while making farmers more profitable and resilient to the changing planet. I really love the idea of focusing our attention on those positive solutions, where everybody wins under those circumstances. To me, this is a really exciting and hopeful time, and that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be paying attention to and critical of potentially harmful things, but also that we need to be focusing on the solution as well.

Jeffrey Smith: (31:06):

Thank you so much for bringing that in. It’s easy to get lost in the sauce on the risks, but both of you talked about how their technology is not necessary, because there are other ways that can accomplish not only the same thing but do it in better ways with better side benefits rather than side effects. You said everyone wins–perhaps Monsanto’s not on that list and that the people that contribute to the campaigns are not on that list, but humanity does survive, does benefit, and the ecosystem benefits. Thank you for that data. Is there something you’d like to share that we haven’t covered?

Dana Perls: (31:52):

Just to emphasize that gene silencing pesticides take us in the opposite direction in terms of protecting the environment, ensuring the safety of people, and also protecting the rights of nature. Based on the evidence that we have available these gene silencing pesticides, we can’t assure their safety. As Jonathan said, rather than perpetuating this pesticide treadmill we have ecological farming methods that really underpin organic and other forms of ecological agriculture that offer the true solution. We have a lot of science that shows that farmers who rely on ecological farming methods for pest management instead of pesticides can meet or even in some cases outperform the conventional counterparts in terms of yields and profits. So literally we have the pathway forward in a way that is going to be ecological and safe for people on the planet and we need to really be prioritizing that over corporate profit.

Jeffrey Smith: (32:58):

Beautiful. And I want to add my last 2 cents. A few decades ago, RNA was basically written off as just a way station. There was the DNA and the RNA was just a bridge to get the proteins to be made. There wasn’t a lot of deep understanding, or certainly wasn’t taught that way. It turns out now that RNA plays a key role in how DNA expresses how much it is a regulatory element that we are just now getting a grasp of. We also used to think that you can look at all of the nutrition and food just as vitamins and minerals. Now we know there are phytonutrients, but there’s also RNA, and it turns out that some of the RNA in the foods that we eat can beneficially program or change the expression of our DNA. So this is a way that the intelligence of nature in food becomes incorporated in the intelligence of our body.

Jeffrey Smith: (34:05):

It’s only a very recent science. We are learning more and more about what is nutrition, what do we get from food. Now we’ve discovered we’re getting some of this DNA programming from our food. We are still babes in the woods in this regard, and yet the biotech industry wants to jump in and manufacture millions or billions or trillions, or many more amounts of certain types of RNAi and release it in the environment and sprays, or put it in the food without really understanding the transfer of this intelligence from the food into our bodies. If it’s not the proper intelligence, and if it’s not supporting our health, perhaps it is damaging our health. But we don’t know, because the research, the state of the science is not there, so we cannot make this type of changes in the food supply in a safe and predictable way, or in the ecosystem in a safer predictable way. I see this as arrogant narrow-focused reductionist thinking, where we discover a little bit about science and then in the effort to commercialize it, we ignore life. So that’s my 2 cents on RNAi interference.

I want to thank you both for joining us. Anything else you want to share before we go?

Dana Perls: (35:39)

We’re all good.

Jeffrey Smith: (35:41)

All right. Thank you. And thank you, Jonathan. And thank you, Dana.

Jonathan Lundgren:

Thank you.

Jeffrey Smith:

Safe Eating.