Whether you like them or not, genetically modified ingredients are hard to avoid in the food supply—they’re found in most processed foods in the U.S. and elsewhere. These crops—generally things like cotton, soy, and corn—are tweaked in labs so that they’re immune to pest-killing products made by companies like Monsanto. The pesticides used on the crops can be harmful to humans, and scientists have questioned the safety of modifying crops in the first place. A British company called Oxitec has a plan to ditch pesticides and GMO crops, instead using genetic modification to eliminate the bugs that feed on certain crops like broccoli, cabbage, and fruit. What could possibly go wrong?
In a recent story, the Daily Mail proclaims that "millions of GM insects developed by British scientists could be released into food crop fields without proper safety checks." It’s not that the company is being allowed to release its insects onto crops without any oversight at all, but the company has reportedly lobbied to ensure GM insect-friendly officials end up on European Food Safety Authority committees.
Here’s how the technology works on a basic level (more detailed science available here): The company puts deadly genes inside male insects of the target insect pest species, like the Diamondback moth. When the males mate with females of the species, their offspring inherit the gene and die before they become adults. And voila, no more pests that munch on crops.
Oxitec has already tested its technology in Brazil, Malaysia, and the Cayman Islands, where it conducted research on the use of GMO mosquitoes in controlling dengue fever (the same technology can be used for other mosquito-borne diseases like malaria). And the company has emphasized that it’s not trying to skirt the rules.
"To assert that a small company of our size can bias and subvert regulatory processes around the world in some kind of Machiavellian way is pure conspiracy theory nonsense," said Oxitec Chief Executive Hadyn Parry in an interview with the Daily Mail. "We are a company with a high scientific reputation and we hope people will see what we are doing in terms of the protection of human health."
Nonetheless, scientists still question the safety of GMO insects. In a 2011 article published in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, researchers complained that companies like Oxitec are not being open enough with its safety information.
For GM insect technologies as a whole to avoid abandonment before it is possible to determine what value they possess, the perception that accurate and informed public engagement is a means to delay technological development must be rejected … Not least because public acceptance of particular biotechnological techniques can be high when they are perceived to provide advances of real value. While it may appear naïve to argue for pre-release access to accurate scientific information and a high quality multi-disciplinary approach, it is in our opinion even more naïve to expect that the development of GM insect technologies will progress far in its absence.
It’s hard to say what the consequences of releasing GMO-insects widely could be, but potential problems include accidental release and negative effects on the surrounding ecosystem. Dr. Helen Wallace, director of the GeneWatch U.K. campaign group, warned in an article that "using GM pests to reduce another type of pest can lead to a surge in other types of pest. The impacts of GM insects on human and animal diseases are poorly understood and have not been properly considered. For example, GM flies could spread diseases from faeces onto fruit."
We’re still rooting for this to work out. Making it easier for farmers to reduce pesticide use and for developing countries to eliminate malaria are both causes worth fighting for.