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New Monsanto Spray Kills Bugs by Messing With Their Genes

But plenty of technological and regulatory obstacles are holding back the new pesticides.

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 6:05 AM EDT

In a fascinating long piece in MIT Technology Review, Antonio Regalado examines the genetically modified seed industry's latest blockbuster app in development—one that has nothing to do with seeds. Instead, it involves the industry's other bread-and-butter product: pesticide sprays. But we're not talking about the poisonous chemicals you convinced your dad to stop dousing the lawn with. The novel sprays in question are powered by a genetic technology called RNA interference, which promises to kill specific insects and weeds by silencing genes crucial to their survival, while leaving nontarget species unscathed.

RNAi, as it's known, is an emerging science; the two US researchers who discovered it brought home a Nobel Prize in 2006. Regalado describes the process like this:

The cells of plants and animals carry their instructions in the form of DNA. To make a protein, the sequence of genetic letters in each gene gets copied into matching strands of RNA, which then float out of the nucleus to guide the protein-making machinery of the cell. RNA interference, or gene silencing, is a way to destroy specific RNA messages so that a particular protein is not made.

If you can nix RNA messages that exist to generate crucial genes, you've got yourself an effective bug or weed killer. And GMO seed and pesticide behemoth Monsanto thinks it has just that. Robb Fraley, the company's chief technology officer and a pioneer in creating GM seeds, told Regalado that within a few years, RNA sprays would "open up a whole new way to use biotechnology" that "doesn't have the same stigma, the same intensive regulatory studies and cost that we would normally associate with GMOs." Fraley described the novel technology as "incredible" and "breathtaking."

A Monsanto exec describes the novel technology as "incredible" and "breathtaking."

It's not hard to see why the veteran agrichemical and biotech exec is so amped for something new to load into a crop duster. Monsanto's GM herbicide-resistant and insecticidal traits still dominate the highly lucrative US corn, soybean, and cotton seed markets, but these cash-cow products are victims of their own success, so widely used that weeds and pests are rapidly developing resistance to them. The company's flagship herbicide, Roundup, still generates about $5 billion in sales annually, but it went off-patent years ago, and it was recently declared a "probable carcinogen" by the World Health Organization—a finding Monsanto disputes.

Such concerns are widely seen as the reason Monsanto is so hotly pursuing a takeover of its rival, Syngenta, which focuses much more on pesticides than novel seeds. Syngenta, too, is developing RNAi technology, reports Regalado—back in 2012, it spent $523 million to buy Devgen, a company that had been developing the novel sprays.

However, there's no reason to assume crop dusters will be strafing farm fields with gene-silencing sprays anytime soon. As Regalado notes, they're very little studied outside of corporate labs. "So far, only a few scientific publications even mention the idea of RNA sprays," he writes. "That makes it hard to judge companies' claims."

The first obstacle is technological—the problem of "how to get a large, electrically charged molecule like RNA to move through a plant's waxy cuticle and into its cells," Regalado writes. That's crucial, because the technology works like this: A targeted bug—the one drawing attention now from Monsanto is the Colorado potato beetle—chomps on a leaf that's been sprayed by RNA solution and then, fatally, gets critical genes turned off. To make that happen, you have to get the RNA material into the leaf.

The most promising solution so far is to "encapsulate the RNA in synthetic nanoparticles called lipidoids—greasy blobs with specialized chemical tails," Regalado reports. "The idea is to slip them into a plant, where the coating will dissolve, releasing the RNA."

The EPA's current methods of evaluating new pesticides, which were designed to vet chemicals, might not apply to gene-altering sprays.

This nanotech booster to Monsanto's new bug killer won't likely raise red flags from government overseers. As I've shown before, both nanotechnology and adjuvants—the compounds mixed with pesticides to help them break into plants—are lightly regulated.

However, the RNAi compound itself will have to be reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency, which vets new pesticides before they reach farm fields. Early indications suggest the going will be bumpy. Last year, the EPA convened a scientific advisory panel to assess the human health and ecological risks posed by emerging RNAi crop technologies.

The panel concluded there's "no convincing evidence" that RNAi material poses a threat to humans or other animals—the digestive process likely destroys it before it can do harm. But for nontarget insects in the field, they concluded, it's a different story. The technology's boosters claim the technology can target particular pests and leave everything else in the ecosystem alone. The independent scientists on the EPA panel were not convinced. They noted "uncertainties in the potential modes of action in non-target species, potential for chronic and sublethal effects, and potential unintended consequences in the various life stages of non-target organisms." As a result, they found  "sufficient justification to question" whether the EPA's current methods of evaluating new pesticides, which were designed to vet chemicals, apply to these gene-altering treatments.

And the technology is so novel that figuring out what those tests should be will be hard— it "cannot be done without a better understanding" of exactly how the technology works, the panel concluded. US Department of Agriculture entomologists Jonathan Lundgren and Jian Duan raised similar concerns in a 2013 paper.

"This is surprisingly reminiscent of Monsanto's assurances in the '90s that weeds would be very unlikely to develop resistance" to Roundup, said one critic of the new technology.

One particular concern for the EPA panel was the amount of time RNAi material stays intact after it's sprayed. Monsanto says not to worry, because "when the company doused dirt with RNA, it degraded and was undetectable after 48 hours," Regalado reports. But he adds that Monsanto "wants to develop longer-lasting formulations," noting that another RNAi spray it's developing for trees was shown to persist for months. "What's more," Regalado notes, "Monsanto's own discoveries have underscored the surprising ways in which double-stranded RNA can move between species"—not exactly a comforting aspect of a technology Monsanto hopes to see widely used on farm fields.

A Monsanto geneticist told Regalado that the company hopes to get its first RNAi spray, one targeting potato beetles, into the market by 2020. The company is also working on an RNAi product to add to its failing Roundup herbicide—one it hopes can turn off the resistant genes in the superweeds now rampant on US farm fields. But that's well behind the potato beetle product in Monsanto's development timeline, a company spokeswoman told me.

In addition to its sprays, Monsanto has an RNAi-enhanced corn crop in the pipeline: a corn type engineered to contain RNA that was designed to kill a common pest called the rootworm. It's "currently pending approval from the EPA," the Monsanto spokeswoman said. "We are planning for a full commercial launch by the end of the decade, pending key regulatory approvals."

Doug Gurian-Sherman, a plant pathologist by training who covers biotechnology for the Center for Food Safety, echoed the EPA panel's concerns."These are very complex biological systems, and their interactions evolve, and are not static," he said. "So it is really impossible to predict all the things that could go wrong. That does not mean we should be paranoid about them, but we should be at least reasonably cautious and skeptical about claims of both safety and efficacy, since there is little experience or research to rely on."

He also questioned Monsanto's claim, reported by Regalado, that insects won't likely develop resistance to the RNAi treatments, as they have to most chemical treatments in the past. "This is surprisingly reminiscent of Monsanto's assurances in the '90s that weeds would be very unlikely to develop resistance to the glyphosate [Roundup] herbicide…and now we have an epidemic of glyphosate resistant weeds," Gurian-Sherman said. 

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Chart of the Day: Here's Why the Recovery Has Been So Weak

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 8:59 PM EDT

I don't really have any good hook for posting this chart, but it's one of the most important ones you'll ever see. It's from the Wall Street Journal and it shows total government spending (state + local + federal) during the recession and its aftermath:

For about a year following the Obama stimulus, total spending was a bit higher than average for recession spending. But after that, spending fell steadily rather than rising, as it has after every previous recession. The result: a sluggish recovery, persistent long-term unemployment, and anemic wage growth.

Instead of responding to a historically bad recession with a historically strong stimulus, we responded with the weakest stimulus ever. Government spending is now more than 25 percentage points lower than normal. If you want to know why the recovery has been so feeble and unsteady, this is it. Republican presidential candidates, please take note.

The FDA Just Approved "Viagra for Women"

Should women be rejoicing?

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 8:35 PM EDT
Flibanserin, a drug to treat low sexual desire in women.

More than 17 years after it ushered in Viagra, the Federal Drug Administration approved the first women's sex-drive drug, flibanserin, earlier today.  Sprout Pharmaceuticals will manufacture the drug, which they've named Addyi, and sell it to women with low libido, or hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD).

While the pill has garnered much attention under monikers like "pink Viagra" or "Viagra for women," its purpose and mechanism have little in common with the famous blue pill for men. The drug will not physically bring blood to parts of the body to assist arousal, but instead will alter chemicals in the brain to increase sexual desire.

Is this a victory for women after decades of being ignored by biased pharmaceutical researchers?

Well, not necessarily. As we reported in June:

Women who took the drug in trials reported no more than one additional "sexually satisfying event" per month than women who received a placebo.

Not a great track record. Many health experts and academics doubt the existence of HSDD and believe Big Pharma is fabricating a disorder and exploiting gender imbalances to create a new market. Private investors staked some $50 million on flibanserin's approval, according to Forbes.

The FDA's decision came after two prior rejections of the drug because of side effects like dry mouth, fatigue, nausea, and fainting. On the bright side, consumers of Addyi ready to jump into bed will be relieved to hear that the side effects have apparently been diminished.

The White House Just Hired Its First Openly Transgender Official

A former activist who's criticized Obama's immigration policies just started work in the West Wing.

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 4:30 PM EDT
Raffi Freedman-Gurspan is the first openly transgender official to work in the White House.

The White House has hired its first openly transgender staff member, a former activist who started working in the West Wing on Monday. Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, who previously served as a policy adviser at the National Center for Transgender Equality, will work as a director of outreach and recruitment for the White House personnel office, the Wall Street Journal reports. Valerie Jarrett, a White House senior adviser, said in a statement that Freedman-Gurspan "demonstrates the kind of leadership this administration champions."

The Obama administration has taken recent steps to promote transgender rights. Last month, President Barack Obama signed an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of gender identity, while the Department of Defense announced that transgender people would be allowed to serve openly in the military by early next year.

But the White House has also faced criticism for not doing enough, as transgender women face disproportionately high rates of violent crime as well as abuse in prisons and immigration detention centers. In June, just two days ahead of the Supreme Court's landmark ruling on marriage equality, Obama was heckled by Jennicet Gutiérrez, an undocumented transgender activist, during his speech at a gay pride event. "I am a trans woman!" she yelled at the president, denouncing the treatment of transgender women in immigration detention centers. "No more deportation!"

Gutiérrez was promptly escorted from the room. "I am just fine with a few hecklers, but not when I'm up in the house," Obama said with a smile. "Shame on you, you shouldn't be doing this," he added, before the crowd began chanting his name. Some LGBT activists did not approve of his response, with one onlooker describing his treatment of Gutiérrez as "heartless."

Freedman-Gurspan, who was adopted from Honduras and raised by a single mother in Massachusetts, has also criticized Obama's immigration policies in the past. Following the gay pride event, immigration officials issued new guidelines calling for better treatment of transgender detainees. "This is all interesting on paper, to say the least, but we need to see how this actually plays out," Freedman-Gurspan told the Associated Press of the new guidelines. "We don't think these folks should be in detention centers, period."

Was Ted Cruz a Big Winner or a Big Loser From the GOP Debate?

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 3:06 PM EDT

We now have a second poll showing who gained and who lost from the first GOP debate. It's from CNN/ORC, and its results are similar to yesterday's Fox News poll with two significant exceptions.

First, Donald Trump gained significantly in the CNN poll instead of holding steady. However, this may be just an artifact of the date of the comparison poll: July 30 for Fox and July 22 for CNN. They both have Trump at about the same absolute level currently.

The other big difference is Ted Cruz. Fox had him up four points after the debate; CNN has him down two points. Since they both had him starting at 6 percent, that's a pretty substantial difference. Aside from the normal statistical vagaries of polls like this, I can't think of a reason for it.

Anyway, it's still early days. This stuff is entertaining, but probably doesn't mean a whole lot.

E-Cigarettes May or May Not Be a Gateway Drug. (But Probably Not.)

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 2:37 PM EDT

Are e-cigarettes a gateway drug to traditional cigarettes? There's a new study out that suggests they might be:

The study focused on ninth-graders at 10 public schools in Los Angeles who had tried e-cigarettes before the fall of 2013. Researchers surveyed those students in the spring of 2014 and fall of 2014, and discovered that they were about 2½ times as likely as their peers to have smoked traditional cigarettes.

This is a classic case of correlation which may or may not also be causation (something the authors acknowledge). Did more of the e-cigarette kids take up smoking because e-cigarettes gave them a taste for it? Or do the kids who are most likely to take up smoking in the first place simply start with e-cigarettes? There's no way to tell just from this study.

That's not to say it's worthless, though. If the study found no correlation, then you could be pretty sure that e-cigarettes don't lead to cigarette smoking. That would be worth knowing. But since it did find a correlation, we need more research to know if there's causation here.

One way to get a tentative read on this is to look at total cigarette smoking among teens. If it's up, then e-cigarettes might be leading more kids to cigarettes. If it's not up, then e-cigarettes are probably just temporarily replacing cigarettes for kids who were going to take up smoking anyway. So which is it?

As it happens, we know the answer to this: cigarette smoking has plunged among teenagers over the past four years. On the other hand, total cigarette use among teens (cigarettes + e-cigarettes) has gone up. The cigarette plunge makes it unlikely that e-cigarettes are a gateway to traditional cigarettes. But the increase in total cigarette use suggests that e-cigarettes really are creating a new market. It's complicated.

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Here's How Hillary Clinton's Meeting With Black Lives Matter Activists Went

"Respectfully, if that is your position, then I will talk only to white people about how we are going to deal with the very real problems," Clinton said in one response.

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 1:57 PM EDT

After being shut out of a scheduled campaign event in New Hampshire last week, Black Lives Matter activists engaged in a candid and, at times, tense conversation with Hillary Clinton on racial issues and criminal justice reform. Footage of the conversation, released on Monday by GOOD, appeared to show Clinton sympathizing with activists' calls for candidates to bring forth more concrete policy proposals.

"You can get lip service from as many white people as you can pack into Yankee Stadium and a million more like it who are going to say, 'We get it, we get it. We are going to be nicer,'" Clinton said. "That’s not enough, at least in my book."

But the discussion took an awkward turn when activist Julius Jones rejected Clinton's suggestion that the movement formalize a more specific plan for its next steps. "I say this as respectfully as I can," Jones told Clinton. "But if you don't tell black people what we need to do, then we won’t tell you all what you all what you need to do."

Jones also accused Clinton of engaging in victim-blaming.

"I'm not telling you," Clinton shot back. "I'm just telling you to tell me. Respectfully if that is your position then I will talk only to white people about how we are going to deal with the very real problems."

She then offered a more personal perspective on how to address the deep-seated racism in America.

"Look, I don't believe you change hearts," Clinton said. "I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You're not going to change every heart. You're not. But at the end of the day, we could do a whole lot to change some hearts and change some systems and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them, to live up to their own God-given potential."

Following the video release of the encounter, Jones and fellow activist Daunasia Yancey told Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC that Clinton's responses were not enough.

“What we were looking for from Secretary Clinton was a personal reflection on her responsibility for being part of the cause of this problem that we have today in mass incarceration," Yancey said. "So her response really targeting on policy wasn’t sufficient for us."

I Read Scott Walker's Health Care Plan So You Don't Have To

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 1:12 PM EDT

It's health care day for Scott Walker. Today he released "The Day One Patient Freedom Plan," a title that's apparently designed to give the impression that his plan would start on Day One of his presidency. Yuval Levin comments that Walker's proposal "will be familiar to health wonks," and it's true. It's the usual conservative mish-mash of HSAs, high-risk pools, tax credits, interstate insurance sales, tort reform, and block-granting of Medicaid.

Oh, and Walker's plan won't require any tax revenue. This is....a little hard to believe since a quick swag suggests that the gross cost of Walker's tax credits will run about $200 billion per year. I figure the net cost, once you account for the end of Obamacare subsidies and other current outlays, is still in the neighborhood of $100 billion or so.1 That's a lot, so I assume Walker explains pretty carefully how he's going to pull this off without any new taxes.

Indeed he does. Here's the answer: "We would simplify and reform how the federal government helps people access health insurance." Gee, I wonder why no one's thought of that before?

So far, there's nothing very interesting here. Every Republican candidate is going to release a plan very similar to this. But there is one other thing I was curious about. It turns out that protecting people with pre-existing conditions is really popular, and this means that Republicans all feel like they have to support the idea. But how? Apologies for the long excerpt, but I want to make sure you see Walker's whole answer:

No individual should fear being denied coverage, or face huge premium spikes when they get sick and then try to change jobs or insurance plans. My plan would address these concerns. It would make additional reforms to insurance coverage laws to ensure individuals with pre-existing conditions would be protected, not only when moving from employer-based plans to the individual market, but also when switching between plans. This would make insurance coverage more portable, permitting individuals to own their coverage, regardless of how or where they purchase it.

Provided individuals maintain continuous, creditable coverage, no one would see their premiums jump because of a health issue or be shut out of access to affordable health insurance because of a new diagnosis or a pre-existing medical condition. Newborns, as well as young adults leaving their parents’ insurance plans and buying their own, would have these same protections. Unlike the ObamaCare approach, my plan would protect those with pre-existing conditions without using costly mandates. By relying on incentives rather than penalties, individuals would be free to choose.

This is literally a non-answer. We do know a couple of things: (a) if you let your insurance lapse, you're screwed, and (b) Walker will somehow prevent insurance companies from raising your rates if you maintain continuous coverage. He provides no clue just what kind of insurance regulation would accomplish this, and for a good reason: I doubt there is one. Obamacare accomplishes it via community rating, which requires insurance companies to cover all comers at the same price, but Walker surely rejects this approach. What he replaces it with remains a mystery.

One other thing worth noting: Walker's tax credits would, at best, pay only for catastrophic coverage. Maybe not even that. Nor will his plan cover everyone. Nor is it likely to cost nothing. Nor does it have any concrete proposals to reduce the cost of health care. If you think that's OK, then Walker is your guy. If you think everyone should be able to receive affordable routine health care, and you're willing to pay for it honestly, you might want to stick with Obamacare.

1Don't worry about the numbers. They're just illustrative guesses on my part. I'm sure experts will weigh in eventually with better estimates.

Here Is a Video of Marco Rubio Accidentally Hitting a Kid in the Head With a Football

The "beaning" happened at the Iowa State Fair.

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 12:31 PM EDT

Marco Rubio decided to play a friendly game of "toss a football to children to demonstrate to voters how normal and approachable I am" at the Iowa State Fair this week. Things didn't go as planned.

Our friends at SB Nation say it was the kid's fault.

This isn't some political statement. Marco Rubio is fine here. We're not talking about his politics, we'll leave that up to you -- but this is 100 percent on the hands (or head) of his receiver. The kid's arms are wide like he's catching a beach ball, his coordination is all off. Rubio threw a tight spiral.

We Are All Fans of Self-Deportation

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 11:47 AM EDT

Ezra Klein has read Donald Trump's immigration plan and finds it even worse than he expected. I didn't feel that way: it read to me like a pretty standard right-wing take on illegal immigration, with just a few added Trumpisms (Mexico will pay for the wall, we should force companies to hire Americans, etc.). But two things in Klein's piece struck me enough to want to comment on them:

The plan would be a disaster for immigrants if enacted. But even if it's not enacted, the plan is a disaster for the Republican Party, which is somehow going to need to co-opt Trump's appeal to anti-immigration voters, but absolutely cannot afford to be associated, in the minds of Hispanic voters, with this document.

....When Mitt Romney embraced "self-deportation" in 2012, it was considered an awful mistake....But self-deportation is Trump's plan, too. And Trump's insight here is that the best way to drive unauthorized immigrants out of the country isn't to target them. It's to target their children and families.

On the first point, I think this ship sailed a long time ago. Maybe the Trump publicity juggernaut will aggravate things further, but I honestly don't see how the Republican Party could appeal to Hispanics much less than it already does. The anti-immigrant rhetoric from leading Republicans has been relentless for years, and Trump is merely adding one more voice to the chorus. Will Trump's bluster about making Mexico pay for the wall really make things any worse?

The second point is a little trickier. It's true that Mitt Romney blew it in 2012 with the infelicitous phrase "self-deportation." But the uproar that followed elided an important point: every immigration plan involves putting pressure on illegal immigrants in order to motivate them to (a) leave or (b) not come in the first place. There's a sliding scale of pain involved, and liberals tend to want less while conservatives tend to want more. But both sides make use of it.

The easiest way to think of immigration control is like this:

  1. Figure out how many illegal immigrants you're willing to tolerate.
  2. Ratchet up the the cost of illegal immigration and ratchet down the cost of legal immigration.
  3. Eventually, you'll figure out the right combination of costs that gets you to your number.

Nobody talks about immigration like this, but it's the thought process behind every immigration plan. Both Republicans and Democrats support E-Verify, for example, which makes it harder for immigrants who lack legal documents to get jobs. But what is this, other than a way to use economic pressure to persuade illegal immigrants to go back to Mexico? Likewise, both Democrats and Republicans support border security. Republicans may generally want more of it than Democrats, but Democrats are nonetheless willing to use increased security to raise the cost of crossing the border.

In the end, everyone uses this calculus,1 whether consciously or not. The amount of pressure—or cruelty, if you prefer—that you're willing to employ depends on just how many illegal immigrants you're willing to tolerate. But no matter what that number is, if you put any pressure at all on illegal immigrants, you're exploiting the power of self-deportation. Just don't say it out loud, OK?

1The exception, I suppose, are the people who advocate completely open borders. But they're a very tiny minority.