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RNAi Technology: Farmer’s Savior or Pipe Dream?

RNAi is a development product by Monsanto

By Katie Goldenhar, University of Guelph Agricultural Communications Student, for Farms.com

BioDirect is a new tool for farmers which uses ribonucleic acid interference (RNAi). The technology may have the power to change the way farmers deal with herbicide resistant weeds, but it’s going to be a challenge to get it from the lab to the field.

This biological, topical spray is supposed to suppress gene expression in target weeds, making them susceptible to herbicides. But as crop scientist Dr. Dave Hume, professor emeritus at the University of Guelph, says, it’s one thing to be changing DNA in the lab, but in an uncontrolled field, where everything is different is a much bigger challenge.  

“You can transform weeds in the lab but it’s doubtful if you will get permission to put a magic elixir in the field to transform weeds,” says Hume.

RNAi silences specific genes in the targeted weeds that have developed due to overuse of a specific herbicide. The advantages to BioDirect speak for themselves: less herbicide use and higher profits. BioDirect is Monsanto’s new RNAi development product, set to be released within 10 years. BioDirect will be marketed as a biological control.

While it may be biological, it is most certainly not natural. Hume wonders what this will mean for the other flora and fauna in the area. No two fields are alike, which makes the transition from field to lab a large hurdle to jump.

As well, public perception could be a problem. Many people already have a huge problem accepting genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which have their DNA altered in the confines of a lab. Wait till they get a hold of this, says Hume.

“This will make [the reaction to] GMOs look like a walk in the park,” he says.

Questions remain about how RNAi might affect crops too, not just resistant weeds. There will need to be a huge push on educating the public about this technology if it is going to be sprayed on food crops.

Also, due to the advanced technology that this product contains, the price could be a huge factor. Experts estimate it will cost anywhere between $100 - $1,000 per acre. At these prices farmers would probably be more inclined to increase or change herbicide use to try and fix the problem.

Monsanto has some large hurdles to jump in order for RNAi technology to be successful, but it definitely has the possibility to change the way farmers deal with herbicide resistant weeds.

Katie Goldenhar is a third year student at the University of Guelph, studying Agricultural Science. Katie’s studies have been focused in the research and development area of crops.  She is from Innisfil, Ontario, but had no connection to agriculture until she was 17 years old.  She is a member of the 2016 Sabres square dancing set, and was recently awarded the Industrial Undergraduate Student Research Award through NSERC. This article is part of Katie Goldenhar’s course work for the University of Guelph agricultural communications course, instructed by Prof. Owen Roberts.

 


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