Tom Philpott

A Peek Inside an Industrial Chicken Slaughterhouse

| Tue Sep. 15, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Most undercover videos shot behind the meat industry's closed doors depict conditions in the enclosed barns where animals are birthed and raised. The latest one, taken by an Animal Legal Defense Fund investigator posing as a worker for meat giant Tyson Foods, delivers a glimpse of what it's like at the other end of the meat-production chain: the slaughterhouse, specifically, Tyson's chicken plant in Carthage, Texas. Spoiler alert: It's not pretty.

One worker's protective eyewear "failed to prevent the chicken feces, dirt, and chicken dander from getting into her eyes through the sides," ALDF claims.

Granted, the business of systematically killing and processing thousands and thousands of birds in a factory setting is bound to look ugly on film. But this investigator shines a light on something that's rarely portrayed in these videos: what workers go through. Starting about the 0:35 mark, we get a look at her station: the "live hang department," where workers snatch live birds and hang them upside down by their feet. Employees are required to hang 35 birds per minute, she reports. In a letter to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the ALDF claims that the investigator "wore protective eyewear provided to her by Tyson, but the eyewear failed to prevent the chicken feces, dirt, and chicken dander from getting into her eyes through the sides." Within weeks, she "developed an infection, and puss discharged from her eyes." 

The investigator claims to have been thrust into the fray without much preparation. "After a two-day orientation covering company policies and health and safety topics, the investigator began hanging chickens," the ALDF claims in a complaint letter to the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees slaughterhouses. "She was given no training, but was instructed to follow fellow live hang employees."

Tyson, for its part, disputes that claim. "We don't believe this claim is true," a Tyson spokesman wrote in an email to me. "We can tell you employees who work with live animals in the plant must complete chicken animal welfare training and must sign a form acknowledging they have been trained and that they can face possible dismissal if they don't follow proper animal handling procedures." As for her claim that she was immediately tasked with a 35-birds-per-minute quota, the Tyson spokesperson claimed that new workers are  "allowed to work at their own pace until they become familiar with the job."

The investigator also raised animal-cruelty and food safety issues based on her experience. She "observed employees mis-hanging birds in their struggle to keep up with the extreme speed of the line, along with employees roughly slamming birds onto shackles on a regular basis," the ALDF claims in its letter to the USDA. Birds that arrive to the slaughterhouse dead aren't supposed to enter the food supply, but the investigator "observed dead, dying, and injured birds being hung on slaughter line, suggesting either [the USDA's] failure to conduct adequate ante-mortem inspection, the plant's failure to separate live from dead-on-arrival (DOA) birds, or both," the ALDF's letter to the USDA states.

Tyson's reaction: "We're still reviewing the video, but can tell you we’re absolutely committed to proper animal handling and workplace safety." The  spokesman added, "The safety of our Team Members is very important to us. We continuously monitor our facilities to make sure they're safe."

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Federal Court to EPA: No, You Can’t Approve This Pesticide That Kills Bees

| Fri Sep. 11, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

On Thursday, a federal appeals court struck down the Environmental Protection Agency's approval of a pesticide called sulfoxaflor. Marketed by agrichemical giant Dow AgroSciences, sulfoxaflor belongs to a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which have been implicated by a growing weight of evidence in the global crisis in bee health. In a blunt opinion, the court cited the "precariousness of bee populations" and "flawed and limited data" submitted by Dow on the pesticide's effects on beleaguered pollinating insects.

"I am inclined to believe the EPA…decided to register sulfoxaflor unconditionally in response to public pressure for the product and attempted to support its decision retroactively with studies it had previously found inadequate," said a circuit judge.

Before winning approval for sulfoxaflor back in 2013, the company hyped the product to investors, declaring that it "addresses [a] $2 billion market need currently unmet by biotech solutions," particularly for cotton and rice.

US beekeepers were less enthusiastic—a group of national beekeeping organizations, along with the National Honey Bee Advisory Board, quickly sued the EPA to withdraw its registration of sulfoxaflor, claiming that the EPA itself had found sulfoxaflor to be "highly toxic to honey bees, and other insect pollinators."

Thursday's ruling, a response to that suit, took their side. It applies only to sulfoxaflor, which Dow markets as a foliar spray on a variety of crops, including cotton, soybean, citrus, stone fruit, nuts, grapes, potatoes, vegetables, and strawberries. It has no bearing on the EPA's equally controversial approval of other neonics like clothianidin  and imidacloprid, which are widely used as seed treatments on the two most prominent US crops: corn and soybeans.

But Greg Loarie, an attorney for EarthJustice who argued the case for the beekeeper's coalition, told me that the decision has broad significance because the ruling "makes clear" that when the EPA is assessing new pesticides, it must assess robust data on the health impacts on the entire hive, not just on individual adult bees.

In its opinion, the court rebuked the EPA for approving sulfoxaflor despite "inconclusive or insufficient data on the effects…on brood development and long-term colony health." That's a problem, the court added, because pesticides can cause subtle harm to bees that don't kill them but that "ripple through the hive," which is an "interdependent 'superorganism.'" Indeed, many independent studies have demonstrated just such effects—that low-level exposure to neonics is "sub-lethal" to individual bees but compromises long-term hive health.

"The EPA doesn't have that [hive-level] information on very many insecticides, if any," Loarie said.

And in the case of sulfoxaflor, the agency didn't try very hard to get that information. In January 2013, because of major gaps in research on the new chemical's effect on bees, the EPA decided to grant sulfoxaflor "conditional registration" and ordered Dow to provide more research. And then a few months later, the agency granted sulfoxaflor unconditional  registration—even though "the record reveals that Dow never completed the requested additional studies," the court opinion states.

In an even more scathing addendum to the court's main opinion, Circuit Judge N.R. Smith added, "I am inclined to believe the EPA…decided to register sulfoxaflor unconditionally in response to public pressure for the product and attempted to support its decision retroactively with studies it had previously found inadequate." The judge added, "Such action seems capricious."

Sulfoxaflor's twisted path through the EPA's approval process isn't the first time the agency has green-lighted a neonicotinoid pesticide under dodgy circumstances, as I showed in this 2010 piece on clothianidin, a widely marketed pesticide marketed by Dow's European rival, Bayer.

In 2013—the same year the EPA approved sulfoxaflor—the European Union placed a two-year moratorium on clothianidin and two other major neonics, citing pollinator health concerns. For a study released last year, the US Geological Survey found neonic traces in all the Midwestern rivers and streams it tested, declaring them to be "both mobile and persistent in the environment." In addition to harming bees, neonics may also harm birds and fish, Canadian researchers have found.

Niman Ranch Pork: Now Brought to You by Perdue

| Wed Sep. 9, 2015 2:29 PM EDT

Late Tuesday afternoon, Perdue, the nation's fourth-largest chicken company, snapped up the famed niche meat producer Niman Ranch, best known for its pork grown without antibiotic or other pharmaceutical growth enhancers, and also a player in the alternative beef, lamb, and egg markets. Eschewing the vast hog factories known as CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), Niman requires that its hogs "must be raised on pasture or in bedded pens."

The deal stunned the foodie Twittersphere, but it's really not surprising.

The deal stunned the foodie Twittersphere, but it's really not surprising. The United States remains one of the globe's most carnivorous nations, but our appetite for meat has waned in recent years. On a per capita basis, we ate nearly 10 percent less meat in 2014 than we did in 2004. The huge companies that dominate the meat industry have strained to maintain profit growth amid this slowdown, mainly by cannibalizing competitors—combining operations in order to cut costs—and by focusing on exports to countries where meat demand is surging. In gobbling up Niman, Perdue is pursuing the other strategy for generating growth in a stagnant market: buying into a rare segment that's growing rapidly. Sales of meat that can be marketed as organic, pasture-based, antibiotic-free, etc., are bucking the overall trend and growing rapidly.

Also, Perdue's move doesn't exactly count as a huge company moving a small, purist operation into the corporate maw. Nearly a decade ago, Niman's founder, the legendary California pasture-based rancher Bill Niman, cut ties with his namesake company after having sold a controlling interest in it to a private equity firm. "I left Niman Ranch because it fell into the hands of conventional meat and marketing guys as opposed to ranching guys," he told Business Insider last year. "You can't really ferret out how [the cattle] are being raised [now]." Until its sale to Perdue, Niman Ranch was owned by a private equity firm called LNK Partners, whose portfolio includes the restaurant chain Au Bon Pain as well as several fitness companies.

Niman isn't Perdue's first lunge into the alt-meat market. Back in 2011, the company bought the organic-poultry processor Coleman Natural. Perdue has also been steadily pushing its own massive chicken production away from reliance on routine antibiotic use, one of the meat industry's most reckless practices. In 2014, Perdue announced that it was raising 95 percent of its birds without antibiotics deemed important to human medicine by the Food and Drug Administration. This summer, the company claimed that more than half its birds are raised completely without antibiotics. 

Perdue's Niman buy comes just months after pork giant Hormel, known mostly for down-market Spam, dropped $775 million to gobble up Applegate, Niman's antibiotic-free/organic competitor.

Your Lawn Is Giving Frogs a Sex Change

| Wed Sep. 9, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

To paraphrase Kermit, it's not easy being a frog. These insect-chomping, sonorous creatures are under severe pressure, their populations plunging both nationally and globally. Evidence has mounted for years that agrichemicals commonly used on big corn and soybean farms are wreaking havoc on frogs, feminizing males and shifting sex ratios.

But what about the lawn, that great symbol of US suburbia? A 2005 NASA study estimated that lawns cover about 128,000 square kilometers, or 31 million acres, of our landmass. That's equal to about a third of the territory we devote to corn, our biggest crop. What's all that turf grass and ornamental shrubbery mean for frog life?

Nothing good, suggests a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, by Yale and US Geological Survey researchers. They compared frog populations in forest and suburban zones in Connecticut—and found that frogs in the suburban areas had twice the ratio of females to males compared with frogs in the forested areas. Then they tested water from suburban and forest ponds for a particular class of chemicals—hormone-mimicking compounds that can disrupt the endocrine systems of frogs at very low levels. They found them in only one of six of the forested ponds, but in nearly every (11 of 13) of the suburban ones.

So what's the culprit? You might think it's all the chemicals people tend to dump on their lawns. But the study's lead author, Yale researcher Max Lambert, told me that while he and his colleagues tested the suburban water for "a couple of" pesticides, they didn't find any. He said that while lawn chemicals couldn't be ruled out as a cause of the sex changes, the main driver may be endocrine-disrupting chemicals that occur naturally in some plants, known as phyto-estrogens. These compounds turn out to be rare in most forest plants but abundant in common lawn plants like clover (often added to lawn grass mixes) and various ornamental shrubs, he said. Whatever the cause, "our work shows that for frogs, the suburbs are similar to farm areas," he said—meaning that both of these human-dominated landscape types offer plenty of room for frogs to roam but may be subtly poisoning them.

Undercover Video Exposes the Dark Side of Chicken McNuggets

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 5:44 PM EDT

Back in 2013, a proposed law that would have criminalized the act of secretly videotaping abuses on livestock farms—known by critics as an "ag gag" bill—failed in Tennessee. A least one of the state's chicken operations has reason to lament that defeat. An undercover investigator with the animal-welfare group Mercy For Animals managed to record the above footage at T&S Farm in Dukedom, Tennessee, which supplies chickens for slaughter to poultry-processing giant Tyson—which in turn supplies chicken meat for McDonald's Chicken McNuggets.

For those too squeamish to watch, the video opens with a worker saying, "You don't work for PETA, do you?," before proceeding to pummel a sickly bird to death with a long stick—which, for good measure, is outfitted with a nasty-looking spike attached to its business end. More beatings of sickly birds proceed from there. 

Both the poultry giant and the fast-food giant quickly cut ties with the exposed Tennessee poultry farm, The Wall Street Journal reports

Monsanto Halts Its Bid to Buy Rival Syngenta—For Now

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 4:17 PM EDT

After four months of hot pursuit, genetically modified seed/pesticide giant Monsanto formally ended its bid to buy rival Syngenta Wednesday—at least for now. Earlier in the week, Monsanto had sweetened its offer for the Swiss agrochemical behemoth—most famous for its controversial atrazine herbicide and neonicotinoid pesticides—to $47 billion, in an effort to convince Syngenta's management and shareholders to accept the merger. They balked, and Monsanto management opted to halt the effort, declaring in a press release that it would instead "focus on its growth opportunities built on its existing core business to deliver the next wave of transformational solutions for agriculture." 

However, Monsanto may just be pausing, not fully halting, its buyout push. The company's press release states that it's "no longer pursuing [the] current proposal" (emphasis added) to buy its rival, and quickly added that the combination "would have created tremendous value for shareowners of both companies and farmers." And as Dow Jones' Jacob Bunge notes, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant "has coveted Syngenta since at least 2011, and said in a June interview that he viewed the effort as 'a long game.'" 

The logic that has driven Monsanto's zeal for a deal remains in place: It wants to diversify away from its reliance on seeds by buying Syngenta, the world's biggest purveyor of pesticides (more on that here). 

Meanwhile, Monsanto has been actively hyping up a new generation of pesticides, still in the development stage, which work by killing crop-chomping pests by silencing certain genes. But the company doesn't expect the novel sprays to hit the market until 2020—a timeline that may be overly optimistic, as I show here

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Salad Seems Really Virtuous, Right? It's Not.

| Tue Aug. 25, 2015 2:10 PM EDT
Dietary virtue in a clamshell—or just a bunch of expensive water?

Nothing quite promises dietary virtue like the wall of boxed salad greens you'll find in a typical supermarket produce section: plump, little plastic clamshells, often adorned with words like "superfood," or "antioxidants," stuffed with precut, chlorophyll-tinted leaves, and penance for that bag of chips or tub of ice cream lurking in the shopping cart.

By the time they're cut, washed, packaged, trucked, and stacked on the shelf, salad greens have likely surrendered the great bulk of their nutritional content.

Is it all just a mirage—is our devotion to salad really a vice?

In her latest Washington Post column, Tamar Haspel makes a provocative point: "Lettuce is a vehicle to transport refrigerated water from farm to table." Iceberg lettuce, she reports, is 96 percent water by weight. And the other 4 percent doesn't offer much in the way of nutrition—a whole salad's worth has just a gram of fiber (a fourth of what you'd get from a medium apple) and barely a tenth of a day's requirement of vitamin A and C.

Similar-sized servings of other salad greens, including red leaf lettuce, romaine, arugula, and spinach, deliver a much bigger nutritional punch. But the great bulk of these popular salad greens are grown in California and shipped across the country. By the time they're cut, washed, packaged, trucked, and stacked on that pious supermarket shelf in your hometown, they have surrendered the bulk of their nutritional content, strong evidence suggests.

And let's face it: Fancy marketing prose aside, what those bags too often offer is wan and bland, not the peppery jolt of, say, fresh-picked arugula. So what you're mainly buying are limp tissues of water, most likely shipped from one of two California growing regions (the Imperial or the Salinas valley) with severe long-term water issues.

Haspel adds that in addition to their dubious nutrient density and water economics, salad greens rank as our "top source of food waste" (she reports that 1 billion pounds of salad greens spoil before they're consumed each year) and also the "chief culprit for foodborne illnesses" (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says leafy greens are "responsible for 22 percent of all food-borne illnesses from 1998-2008").

Parsley has nearly four times the vitamin A and eight times the vitamin C of arugula, which itself is no slouch compared with iceberg lettuce.

What, then, to make of the social expectation that no healthy meal is complete without a salad? Haspel suggests pulling back from it: "Maybe we should stop thinking about salad as a wholesome staple, and start thinking about it as a resource-hungry luxury."

I try to confine my fresh leafy-green consumption to those times of year when my own garden or farmers around me can readily churn out arugula, spinach, and other nutrient-dense greens. When good salad greens are scarce—as they are now in the infernal Texas summer—I often make a straight parsley salad; parsley has nearly four times the vitamin A and eight times the vitamin C of arugula, which itself is no slouch compared with iceberg lettuce. Or I mash up this bright-tasting herb with a raw seasonal vegetable, like cucumbers, along with heat-hardy basil and garlic chives. I've got my eye on this Bon Appetit recipe for a salad built entirely on scallions and cilantro. 

Way back in 1988, the restaurant critic Jeffrey Steingarten penned a marvelous essay called "Salad: The Silent Killer" (you can read it here). In it, he deplored the habit of "tuck[ing] into the dreariest salad simply because it is raw and green. No matter that the arugula is edged with brown…[or] that it is the dead of winter and the salad chills us to the marrow." His real target was out-of-season, cross country-trucked, flavorless greens. The convention that no healthy dinner is complete without them has persisted, and it remains absurd. Like the little girl in the old New Yorker cartoon, "I say it's [limp] spinach, and I say, to hell with it."

There Is Poop in Basically All Hamburger Meat

| Mon Aug. 24, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

There's a "simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill," wrote Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. "There is shit in the meat.” 

A new Consumer Reports investigation suggests things haven't changed much since the publication of Schlosser's 2001 blockbuster. The team tested 300 packages of ground beef, bought from more than 100 grocery, big-box, and natural food stores in 26 cities nationwide. The result:

All 458 pounds of beef we examined contained bacteria that signified fecal contamination (enterococcus and/or non-toxin-producing E. coli), which can cause blood or urinary tract infections.

But not all burger meat is created equal. The researchers also compared the bacterial load of beef from conventionally raised cows (181 samples) to that of their no-antibiotic, grass fed, and organic peers (116 samples total), grouped under the heading "more sustainably produced." Here's what they found:

From "How Safe is Your Beef?," Consumer Reports

The bacterial implications of beef production practices really emerged when the researchers tested the bacterial strains for resistance to antibiotics. Nearly a fifth of conventional ground beef carried bacteria resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics—more than double the number found in the "more sustainably produced" samples, and triple that found in samples from cows raised outdoors on grass.

From "How Safe is Your Beef?," Consumer Reports

The article offers plenty of information that could explain these differences. As for why essentially all ground beef carries fecal bacteria, the slaughter and processing of huge animals is messy—feces caked on the hide or trapped in intestines can easily move onto the carcass. That's not such a big deal in steaks and roasts, because the bacteria tend to stay on the surface, so "when you cook them, the outside is likely to get hot enough to kill any bugs." But with ground beef, "the bacteria get mixed throughout, contaminating all of the meat—including what’s in the middle of your hamburger."

"The meat and fat trimmings often come from multiple animals, so meat from a single contaminated cow can end up in many packages of ground beef."

Then there's this problem: "The meat and fat trimmings often come from multiple animals, so meat from a single contaminated cow can end up in many packages of ground beef."

As for why conventional production—the source of 97 percent of US burger meat, according to CR—is moderately more likely to contain certain bacteria like E. coli, and much more likely to contain multidrug-resistant strains, the report delivers a detailed look at the different production systems.

Conventionally raised cows start out on grass but spend the final months of their lives on feedlots, where they fatten on diets of corn and soybeans, even though "cows' digestive systems aren't designed to easily process high-starch foods such as corn and soy," creating an acidic environment in the cows' digestive tract that can "lead to ulcers and infections" and "shed more E. coli in their manure.

And corn and soy aren't the only delicacies feedlot cows feast on.

[Their feed can also include] include candy (such as gummy bears, lemon drops, and chocolate) to boost their sugar intake and plastic pellets to substitute for the fiber they would otherwise get from grass. Cattle feed can also contain parts of slaughtered hogs and chickens that are not used in food production, and dried manure and litter from chicken barns.

In addition, they can also receive regular low doses of antibiotics, both to prevent infections and promote faster growth, although the Food and Drug Administration has launched a voluntary program to limit the latter use. One common feedlot antibiotic, tylosin—used to ward off liver abscesses—is in "a class of antibiotics that the World Health Organization categorizes as 'critically important' for human medicine," CR reports.

The magazine recommends that consumers buy from the alternative supply chains "whenever possible," adding that "sustainable methods run the gamut from the very basic 'raised without antibiotics' to the most sustainable, which is grass-fed organic." (The article contains ample detail on each.) And when you get it home, handle it carefully and cook it to 160 degrees. After all, there's shit in pretty much all the ground beef.

The Drought Is Making California Sink—And Climate Change Makes the Drought Worse

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 6:04 PM EDT
Between May 2014 and January 2015, parts of the Central Valley sank by as much as 13 inches.

The policymakers tasked with overseeing California's ever-stressed water supply got two pieces of rough news this week.

• The Central Valley is sinking—really fast. A new satellite analysis from NASA found that vast swaths of the state's most important growing region—a massive national supplier of vegetables, fruit, and nuts nationwide—is dropping as farmers tap underground aquifers to compensate for lack of water from the state's irrigation projects. Subsidence, as the phenomenon is known, damages crucial infrastructure like aqueducts, train tracks, bridges, roads, and flood-control structures. As a June 2015 Center for Investigate Reporting article showed, no state agency keeps track of the financial cost exacted by repairing the ravages of subsidence, but the price tag is likely already in the tens of millions of dollars. Some of the most severe subsidence, NASA found, occurred along the California Aqueduct, damaging a network of canals, pipelines, and tunnels that carries water collected from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the southern Central Valley's farms. Subsidence also permanently reduces the underground aquifers' water storage capacity, NASA adds.

• Climate change is making the whole situation worse. In addition to an epochal drought—driven mainly by lack of winter snows in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the engine of California's water system—the state is also experiencing historically warm temperatures. And while climate change  isn't likely the main factor behind the precipitation drop, it does likely drive the current heat wave. This year, California and much of the western US have endured record-high temperatures, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports.

NOAA

Hot weather, of course, compounds the impact of droughts: It accelerates the loss of water stored in soil, vegetation, aqueducts, and reservoirs, a process known as evapotranspiration. In a just-published paper, researchers from Columbia University and the University of Idaho looked at temperature and precipitation data gathered between 1901 and 2014 and compared them to climate change models. They concluded that California's recent dearth of precipitation can be explained mainly by natural variability, but that that climate change-induced evapotranspiration has contributed dramatically to the drought's severity. Think of it like this: Lack of precipitation has severely limited new water coming into California, and climate change has hindered the landscape's ability to hold onto what little water is available. Over all, increased evapotranspiration is responsible for as much as 27 percent of the state's current water shortage, they calculated. Worse, going forward, "anthropogenic warming has substantially increased the overall likelihood of extreme California droughts," they concluded.

New Monsanto Spray Kills Bugs by Messing With Their Genes

| 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.