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If the Bugs Go, We Go

January 28, 2020

In the last week, a group of Australian and Chinese scientists published a review article describing the results of a number of studies conducted by approximately 50 research groups around the globe over the last decade. The results are something that should be obvious to most people, but that, until recently, had been very difficult to quantify: insecticides sprayed on crops, kill not only the target pest, but also thousands of different non-target organisms, including pollinator and beneficial insects.

Just think about this: In one acre of arable land dedicated to agriculture, there are approximately 10 million individual insects. That’s as many individual insects as there are people in the New York City Greater Urban Area. Typically, when the crop sprouts, about two thousand individual insects in that same acre of land are the bad guys. These are the bugs that will eat your crop, and will rapidly multiply and take over your field if they are not controlled. So we kill them. All of them. Of course, today we don’t have a way to kill these criminals exclusively. So we just kill all the insects. All 10 million of them. Bad guys, normal citizens, and even good guys. Think about how absurd that is.

Until recently, we didn’t know what impact killing all these non-target insects would have on the broader environment and at the global level. But now we know. Insect depletion, the catastrophic reduction in the sheer number of beneficial and non-target insects that is going on right in front of our eyes, is a threat to humanity, probably only second to global climate change. If the projections in these studies held true, and we indeed lost about 40% of all insect species over the next 30-50 years, then entire ecosystems would collapse, thousands of plant species would disappear, and simply put, humanity would face extinction. And, unlike global warming, whose effects can be somewhat controlled by spending money (e.g., building sea walls, relocating people away from coastal areas, migrating north as the planet warms), humanity would not be able to recover from a global insect extinction. If the bugs go, we go.

Today, novel biological strategies have the potential to control pests in an effective way and with the specificity required to only stop said pests, while being non-toxic to beneficial and pollinating insects, as well as other non-target species. Our own company, GreenLight Biociences, has developed an RNA-based platform capable of developing and delivering insecticidal molecules that can control crop pests as efficiently as traditional chemical insecticides, but with exquisite specificity. When we treat one acre of a particular crop, only the target species is stopped, and the other 10 million insects co-inhabiting our field are spared. Furthermore, because our RNA insecticide is completely carbon-based, it leaves no residue in the soil, air or water, and it does not contribute to global warming in a significant way. Just like GreenLight, many other companies are developing non-chemical, highly specific insect control solutions.

The science behind these solutions is truly novel. The research behind them in many cases has spanned decades. And despite all this, science is not the main barrier to introducing these solutions broadly into the market: My hope is that when these solutions come to market – hopefully within the next few years – the regulatory agencies (like the EPA and their European and Asian counterparts) will aggressively embrace these technologies and work with companies to ensure their rapid approval.

Our human species is facing many threats, the caliper of which we have never seen before. We need to implement radical solutions based on rigorous science to address them. We cannot afford to let status quo or unfounded perceptions stop our ability to implement indispensable course correction measures. We are running out of time. Let’s all be part of the solution.

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