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Does RNAi-based technology fit within EU sustainability goals?

If we were farmers in Europe today, we would probably have major concerns about our future. In fact, the European Commission foresees a radical transformation of the food production system by 2030 to ensure sufficient food for the entire population produced in a sustainable and safe way for the environment and humans. The "F2F" ("Farm to Fork") strategy, in the well-known "Green Deal" policy document, should be implemented through the adoption of various practices, including the substantial decrease in the use of synthetic crop protection products and fertilizers (up to 50%) and a conversion of at least 25% of the current agricultural land to organic regime.

The reduction of crop protection products is a long-standing European goal, for which the impact on both agriculture and the environment has not been assessed and there are few or no effective alternatives. These shortcomings are causing great concern among farmers who, in a few years, will be deprived of many of the active ingredients used to protect crops. In addition, crop protection industries currently have few alternatives to offer the market.

The European Commission itself, together with important European institutions such as the ECPA (European Crop Protection Association), admits that the reason for these shortcomings lies in the delay in political planning and the time required to respond to these policies. Research and innovation are required to meet these political objectives, and the EC recognizes that there is urgency for promoting strong investments for the development of alternative, effective and sustainable strategies. In addition, the EC needs to accelerate the regulatory and approval procedures for new products and molecules.

Any new crop protection strategies must not only be effective, for a wide range of pathogens and pests (already widespread and newly introduced), beneficial for the environment and for humans. They should be easy to develop, able to progress through regulations and economically sustainable. Only in this way will it be possible to replace existing crop protection methods and guarantee an adequate and sustainable supply of food in Europe.

The iPlanta network supported by the EU-Horizon 2020 COST programme, COST Action CA15223 Modifying plants to produce interfering RNA, chaired by Prof. Bruno Mezzetti, Department of Agriculture, Marche Polytechnic University, Ancona (IT), has been focused on these issues, questioning the role that a new biotechnology, known as interfering RNA or RNAi, can have as a strategy to help fill these gaps by providing crop protection tools that meet the EC F2F requirements.

The 4-year project reached the following conclusions, also summarized in the final conference:

• RNAi is a natural process common to eukaryotic organisms where small double-stranded RNA molecules (dsRNA) silence the expression of genes in a sequence-specific manner. 

• By exploiting this sequence specificity, dsRNA-based biopesticides can be developed to specifically silence key genes for the growth of pathogens and pests, with different results depending on the affected gene. Apart from the high specificity - which in itself represents a great advantage for protecting the environment compared to traditional synthetic pesticides - RNA is also not very mobile in the soil, not persistent and non-toxic. The dsRNAs can be applied to the plant in two ways: through the development of GMO plants that express RNA against target pests and diseases, or through the development of RNA-based products that can be applied exogenously (e.g as sprays) in the field as common crop protection products.

The first method involving GM plant production, can be of interest especially for the nursery industry dedicated to the production of rootstocks. In fact, it has been shown that small RNAs can migrate from the rootstock to the canopy, which therefore does not undergo any genetic modification. However, the production of new formulations based on dsRNA with high efficacy in the control of several pathogenic fungi and insects, with different administration modes (spray, root absorption, trunk injections, imbibition of seeds) seems to be an important alternative to traditional synthetic and even natural pesticides now used in organic farming.

• It is on this perspective that several new start-ups and biotech companies are investing in the creation and production of new formulations based on dsRNA, which are safe, affordable, and accessible for farmers.

• The products obtained from this technology (plants - RNAi and dsRNA products) are under investigation, according to the current regulations (GMO directive and pesticide directive), to verify their safety for the environment and for the consumer.

• It is essential to ensure that the introduction of this technology is guided by an explicit knowledge of consumers perception of the benefits in terms of risk reduction compared to synthetic and natural pesticides now available.

The Covid-19 pandemic is impacting the world and only vaccines will allow us to return to normal. RNA technology has made it possible to obtain and spread in a few months new highly safe and effective vaccines (Pfizer-Biontech and Moderna), based on the production of short sequences of messenger RNA (mRNA) capable of activating our immune system to protect us from the virus. This technology is playing a very important role in controlling the current pandemic and is providing solutions for the control of other diseases as well.

iPlanta activities demonstrated the important role of RNA technology to solve problems in agriculture, in particular offering new biocontrol solutions based on RNAi techniques, either as stable expression in plants or through the exogenous application of formulated RNA Products.

The iPlanta network is supported by the EU-Horizon 2020 COST programme, and chaired by Prof. Bruno Mezzetti, Department of Agriculture, Marche Polytechnic University, Ancona (IT). email: b.mezzetti@unvipm.it. ViceChair Jeremy Sweet, J T Environmental Consultants, Cambridge (UK). 

For a view of outputs ofthe iPlanta program, consult these links:

Meetings and conferences - Webinars - STSMs and Schools - Publications and Reports - Video and Podcast - Book - Frontiers Research Topic 1 - Frontiers Research Topic 2.  

Further information: 
Bruno Mezzetti, Action Chair, IT, b.mezzetti@staff.univpm.it; Jeremy Sweet, Action Vice Chair, UK, jeremysweet303@aol.com; Guy Smagghe, WG Chair, BE, guy.smagghe@ugent.be; Lorenzo Burgos, SP, burgos@cebas.csic.es; Antje Dietz antje.dietz@julius-kuehn.de  and/or Matthias Fladung, matthias.fladung@thuenen.de 

Acknowledgement
This publication is based upon work from COST Action iPlanta, supported by COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology). 

COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) is a funding agency for research and innovation networks. Our Actions help connect research initiatives across Europe and enable scientists to grow their ideas by sharing them with their peers. This boosts their research, career and innovation.


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