EPA fast-tracking of gene-altering pesticide sparks concerns

By Shannon Kelleher

US regulators are fast-tracking a novel, gene-altering insecticide in an unusual move that would greenlight the product for three years of commercial use before a standard testing period is completed.

Calantha, a product of the company GreenLight Biosciences, contains the active ingredient ledprona, which uses a mechanism called RNA interference (RNAi) to kill the Colorado potato beetle, a notorious pest, by turning off genes it needs to survive. Calantha would be the first pesticide spray using RNAi, though the technology has been genetically engineered into some corn plants to protect them from the corn rootworms, and RNAi has a history of use in medical therapeutics and vaccines.

The EPA just granted GreenLight Biosciences an Experimental Use Permit (EUP) in May, giving the company two years to gather and assess data from use of the new product in limited test plots. But now the new pesticide could be widely sprayed on potato crops around the country as early as this spring.

Critics fear that the new pesticide is being fast-tracked without sufficient data to demonstrate that it is safe for human health and the environment, and that it will even be effective.

“It’s a huge precedent-setter,” said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumer Reports. “This is a new form of pesticide which has never been on the market before. When this is a new class [of pesticide], you shouldn’t be cutting corners.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said Friday that it is extending the public comment period for ledprona following a request from the environmental group Friends of the Earth. The deadline for the comment period, which was scheduled to end October 13, has been moved to October 30.