The Noah Project

Rebuilding a sustainable world.

British Scientists Set to Release Genetically Modified Insects into Environment


When I read this headline my first thought was “are you kidding?” On the Collective Evolution blog, Arjun Walia makes the case against releasing thousands of genetically modified insects into the environment.

Thousands of Genetically Modified (GM) insects developed by British scientists are set to be released into fields across Europe as an alternative to chemical pesticides. Granted, pesticides have been responsible for jeopardizing human health, damaging the environment and killing millions of bees and other insects, but is the proper solution manufacturing genetically modified insects?
The idea is to release a large number of GM olive flies that will be used to kill off wild pests that damage the crop. The company responsible for their manufacture and release is Oxitec.  They plan to release GM male olive flies that would naturally mate with the females, ultimately resulting in the death of female offspring at the larvae or maggot stage. The thought is that this would lead to a reduction in the olive fly population, which would allow the trees to produce fruit without the need for chemical sprays.
Oxitec has applied to Spanish regulatory authorities for permission to carry out a netted field trial of its GM insects. If the trial is successful, more trials will be carried out in Greece and Italy- the company also eventually hopes to be able to use the GM insects in British fields as well.
Our approach is aimed not only at controlling the olive fly, but also to avoid harming other species. By using our form of genetic sterility our flies are designed to eliminate the pest and not to stay in the environment. – Oxitec’s Dr Martha Koukidou (1)
In my view the use of GM insects to eradicate this pest is a necessary step towards achieving zero pesticide use. Critics of this technology who warn of danger to health and environment are scaremongering. European agriculture is facing some severe challenges. The burden of agricultural pests is ever present while the number of control approaches is shrinking in the face of insecticide resistance and de-registration of existing chemical treatments. To survive and prosper, European farming will need to evaluate and embrace new solutions and new technologies which are effective, sustainable and safe. If approved, this evaluation will be an important step to brining an exciting new approach to the farmers who need it- Hadyn Parry, Oxitec chief executive  (1)
Supporters of the GM insects, like Oxitec, claim that those who oppose the idea are simply fear mongering. This is currently the same response from the big biotech giants to opposers of genetically modified foods. Recently, we have found out that opponents of genetically modified foods have been correct with their concerns, as multiple studies have surfaced over the past couple of years that indicated GMOs can be very harmful to the environment, as well as pose multiple risks to human health.
It’s no different with these genetically modified insects, mosquitos to be exact, they’ve already been released into the public without a proper risk assessment.
Dr Helen Wallace, director of GeneWatch UK, warned:
Releasing Oxite’s GM fruit flies is a deeply flawed approach to reducing numbers of these pests, because large numbers of their offspring will die as maggots in the fruit. Not only does this fail to protect the crop, millions of GM fruit fly maggots will enter the food chain where they could pose risks to human health and the environment. Oxitec’s experiments should not go ahead until rules for safety testing and plans for labelling and segregation of contaminated fruits have been thoroughly debated and assessed. If these issues are ignored, growers could suffer serious impacts on the market for their crops.(1)
So what does this mean for animals that eat these flies as part of their routine diet? Or what about the humans that then eat these animals? Plans to commercialize GM insects would result in millions of GM insects being released onto field crops, including olives, tomatoes, citrus fruits, cabbages and cotton. Millions of GMO mosquitoes have already been released in experiments intended to reduce transmission of the tropical disease dengue fever, did you know about this? The release of GM insects are covered by laws and regulations that cover the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), however, there is no specific regulatory process for GM insects anywhere in the world. (2) (3)
Regulatory decisions on GM insects in Europe and around the world are being biased by corporate interests as the UK biotech company Oxitec has infiltrated decision-making processes around the world. The company has close links to the multinational pesticide and seed company, Syngenta. Oxitec has already made large-scale open releases of GM mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands, Malaysia and Brazil and is developing GM agricultural pests, jointly with Syngenta. (2)(3)
The public will be shocked to learn that GM insects can be released into the environment without any proper oversight. Conflicts of interest should be removed from all decision making processes to ensure the public have a proper say about these plans – Dr Helen Wallace, Director of GeneWatch UK (4)
The use of GM technologies is controversial. Some organizations such as GeneWatch UK and EcoNexus fear that reliance on high-tech solutions like genetic modification detracts from more effective but poorly deployed measures to combat the harm caused by insects. These are the companies we need to hear more about because they are the ones that directly monitor the use of genetic technologies. Environmental NGOs like Greenpeace suggest that GM insects could have unintended and wide ranging impacts on the environment and human health due to the complexity of ecosystems and the high number of unknown factors which make risk assessment difficult. These companies have raised a number of concerns which include (2):
  • New insects or diseases may fill ecological niche left by the insects suppressed or replaced, possibly resulting in new public health or agricultural problems
  • The new genes engineered into the insects may jump into other species, a process called horizontal transfer, causing unintended consequences to the ecosystem
  • Releases would be impossible to monitor and irreversible, as would any damage done to the environment
A briefing done by these organizations also shows that Oxitec is trying to influence regulatory processes for GM insects, that they (3):
  • Don’t want to be liable for any complications
  • Try to avoid any regulation of GM agricultural pests on crops appearing in the food chain
  • Excludes important issues from risk assessments, like the impact on human health
  • Release of large amounts of GM insects prior to regulations
  • Undermining the requirement to obtain informed consent for experiments involving insect species which transmit disease
The list of concerns go on and on. This is something that you don’t hear in corporate media, despite the importance of dialogue, it seems developments within this field are sneaking by very quietly. Should we not discuss this? Should there not be a proper risk assessment done? Concerning ourselves with our food, health and our environment is something we need to take very seriously. Developments that should attract a great deal of concern are happening without anybody knowing about them. These are some of the most important issues that our world faces today and some of the most important issues that will contribute in shaping the near future of our planet and the path we choose to take.

Author: Daniela

I will forever be grateful that I was introduced to the utility and beauty of hand crafted products early in life - from the symbolic motifs sewn into the coarse linen fabric of Croatian traditional wear to the colorful Kilim carpets that decorated the parquet floors in my grandmother's living room. I treasure the memories of my grandfather teaching me how to protect myself against the "evil eye," the smell of the flower stalls in the open air market where my grandmother bought produce early every morning for the day’s meals and the summers spent at my great grandmother's where the village wags would come to gossip over thick, black Turkish coffee in her cool stone kitchen. Someone noted that "For all of us that want to move forward, there are a very few that want to keep the old methods of production, traditions and crafts alive." I am a fellow traveler with those who value the old traditions and folk wisdom. I believe the knowledge they possess can contribute significantly to our efforts to build a more sustainable world - one that values the individual over the corporation, conservation over growth and happiness over wealth.

5 thoughts on “British Scientists Set to Release Genetically Modified Insects into Environment

  1. “Oh no, oh no, oh no”. (Lines from a simple blues song). FLW: (famous last words) “What could possibly go wrong”. Predators, from other insects (dragon flies?), to birds eating the GM flies – in addition to what has been mentioned, and the ‘ripples’ could wave out so very far. Lines from another song: “Where have all the (fill in the blank) gone, long time passing.”

    I see you’ve posted on the concern of meeting food needs, a related concern, will check out that article also. I sometimes wonder – maybe we humans are simply going to need to put more earthy time into raising food! (Someone is working on algae as food. Haven’t checked it out, but have been waiting for that – wrote a poem on it years ago!)

    I haven’t really said anything wise to this GM post – just allowed snippets of thought to be what they are. But the thought, “we humans are simply going to have to incorporate raising food into our schedules” does occur to me. Another thoughts turns to the issue of our economic system driven by profit – that there is a “company responsible for their manufacture” is no doubt part of the impetus that inspires these GM flies. Yet another thought: “Of course! It’s the female flies that will die off!” … but perhaps I take evidence of patriarchal dominance too far in that!

  2. Checked ‘the dish’ article on whether or not technology can resolve world food shortages. No obvious opportunity for comment, so will post here.

    The book “Food First”, by Francis Moore Lappe, years back explored distribution systems as a culprit. Replacing small food production, local/regional, systems with plantations for export was held responsible.

    Recently heard an interview (sorry, didn’t keep a record of source) on the post WW2 “Green revolution” which – in its deep history – turns out to have been significantly motivated and supported by hydrocarbon giants. Scientific ingenuity in matters of synthetic fertilizers, etc., and hydro-carbon fueled machinery for large tract production, all ‘dovetailed’ toward enthusiastic promotion of mono-culture. I suspect not ‘devious’ so much as ‘obvious’ to those who wanted to maximize development of all the possibilities in a profit-focused economy?

    It so often seems to me we need to pause and reflect on what it is that we’re trying to achieve – to what purpose, what ultimate end?

    • I’ve tried to post as much about the La Via Campensina International Peasant Movement as I can. They’ve published a report from their most recent conference that I haven’t had time to read all the way through, but I am very excited about their organization and the things they are trying to accomplish to not only feed their communities, but to combat climate change and dismantle the WTO and the free trade regime. I wish our news reporting was actually informative. I also came across an article from India where they have passed legislation to force companies to contribute 2% of their profits to charity. Hooray for India!

  3. Yes – Hooray for India! I’ve found it confusing to sort out what political/economic dynamics are in play there overall, but it seems to have strong developments that are on the right track!

  4. I could also have said, re La Via Campensina International Peasant Movement – movements like this are deeply encouraging for me on many counts, including food and low or mixed hi-low technological innovations and explorations in more inclusive, consensus-style, problem identification and solution finding.

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