Biotech company Oxitec announced on Sept. 5 that it has started releasing genetically modified (GM) moths in Geneva, New York. Globally, only two types of GM insects have ever been released. GM mosquitoes have been released in Brazil, Panama, the Cayman Islands, and Malaysia. And a GM pink bollworm was briefly released about 10 years ago in Arizona. Both the mosquitoes and bollworms were also made by Oxitec.
The genetic changes made to the newly released moth are much more complex, however, than those made to the bollworm—which was modified to glow for tracking and study purposes.
The moth has been genetically modified to produce offspring that will die before reaching maturity. It has a kind of genetic “kill switch.” Concerned groups like GeneWatch and the Center for Food Safety have pointed out that the kill switch is not 100 percent effective. Some GM moths survive and breed with the wild population, perhaps changing the wild population irreversibly and in unintended ways.
Feeding on crops, the diamondback moth is a pest estimated to cost farmers worldwide some $4 billion annually, says Oxitec. The hope of scientists at Cornell University, working for Oxitec, is that the GM moths will cull the population.
“It’s supposed to be an effort to reduce damage,” said Jaydee Hanson, a senior analyst at the Center for Food Safety. “But the bottom line is, they have not been transparent.”
The Center for Food Safety requested information about earlier cage trials, without success. The Cornell scientists said they were not going to release all the information to the public, that they were submitting it to peer-review first. While that information remains in the dark, 10,000 moths are to be released weekly.
Public information sessions have been cursory, Hanson said. He’s not sure even the authorities have had all the information they should have to assess the risk of the release.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on July 6 its approval of the release, determining that the moth is not likely to have a negative impact. After the USDA approval, Oxitec awaited state-level approval. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) decided the moth was beyond its regulatory authority and that Cornell University and Oxitec did not require a DEC permit.
“You have a bizarre situation in New York where you need a permit to release butterflies at your wedding, but you don’t need a permit to release these genetically engineered moths,” Hanson said.
Organic farming organizations worry that all the dead larvae left on the crops after the kill switch kicks in will compromise organic certification. The larvae can still chew the plants, so even if the population eventually decreases as hoped, the initial increase in population—with the release of 10,000 insects per week—could harm farmers’ fields.
These initial trials are within a limited area, and the crops involved are to be burned, not sold for consumption. But the concern is that open field trials don’t really have any limits.
GM Mosquito Experience
The GM mosquitoes released in other countries by Oxitec have a kill switch similar to that in the moth. The effectiveness of releasing these GM mosquitoes to reduce transmission of diseases like malaria has been questioned. GeneWatch published a report on Sept. 4 looking at the Oxitec mosquito releases in the Cayman Islands.
While Oxitec had reported a 79 percent decrease in the mosquito population there, GeneWatch noted that a decrease only occurred in the dry season, when numbers fall anyway. GeneWatch said Oxitec studies did not show whether the population decrease continued into the wet season.
Rather than suppressing the population with its release of male GM mosquitoes, Oxitec’s own data showed spikes in the number of female mosquitoes (which can transmit disease) in the release areas. GeneWatch speculated that these spikes may be due to the unintended release of female GM mosquitoes or due to wild female mosquitoes gathering to mate with the released males.
GeneWatch and the Center for Food Safety call for greater transparency so the potential risks of releasing GM insects can be better determined before irreversible changes are made in wild insect populations.
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