Almost 60 years ago I stood beneath a blazing Louisiana sun, up to my knees weeding in the tepid, mosquito-infested water of my father’s rice field. It was the 1950s, and I was nine years old. I eventually got off that farm, but the experience made me devote myself to developing technology to make agriculture more productive and its practice less physically demanding.
Now I’m part of a company working to develop a new non-GMO technology that could provide a boost to agricultural productivity while also controlling insect-borne disease. Sprayed-on RNA that silences specific genes has the potential to transform agriculture for both large-scale and subsistence farmers (see “The Next Great GMO Debate”).
So-called RNAi (RNA interference) technology could let farmers alter crops without permanent genetic modification. It could, one day, allow farmers to spray a crop with a drought remedy only when there’s a drought. It could give them the ability to control mosquitoes in an environmentally benign way.
RNAi was not clearly described until the late 1990s, but research has moved rapidly. RNA is a natural component of all the food we eat, and there’s good evidence that it’s benign with regard to human health and the environment. Some even think it could be a great tool for organic farming, whose once-meteoric growth is now constrained by the lack of productivity tools common in large-scale agriculture.
A major impediment to all this is cost—manufacturing RNA is now incredibly expensive, and we need to find a cheaper way of making it. My company, Apse, is working on that problem now.
Genetic modification has been limited to a few crops and has been rejected by large swaths of consumers. Topical RNAi can provide many of the benefits that genetic modification has promised, but without the baggage.
John Killmer is CEO of Apse, a company developing RNA technology in agriculture.