GMO Food

New York Organic Farmers Oppose Release of Genetically Modified Moths

On the other hand, Google's Verily is debugging Fresno.


Shelton Lab

All too predictably, organic farmers in the and their anti-science allies are asking the state of New York to halt the release of genetically modified diamondback moths that pass on a gene that is lethal to female moths of that species.

Researchers at Cornell University who created the moths intend to release the moths created by the biotech company Oxitec into a 10-acre test field where brassica crops including cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli are being grown. Diamondback moths are a major pest for brassica crops.

The idea is that male moths that carry a trait lethal to female moths will breed with unengineered females infesting the fields. Their female progeny will never develop and so over time the number of moth larva in the fields should decline considerably.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has issued an environmental assessment that finds that any signficant impacts from field release of the genetically engineered moths on the physical, biological, and human health environment are unlikely.

Organic farmers are allied with such groups as the Consumers Union, Food and Water Watch, Center for Food Safety, and Friends of the Earth who have sent a letter to New York's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) urging that the agency hold up the field trial on the grounds that the genetically engineered moths might have some effect on their crops.

Diamondback moths breed only with other members of their species. Assuming that some of the moths did escape, the chief effect would be to reduce the pests in their fields. Basically, engineered female lethality in moths is a way to achieve one of the chief goals of organic agriculture—the reduction of pesticide use.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country Google's Verily division, Kentucky-based MosquitoMate and Fresno County's Consolidated Mosquito Abatement District have teamed up to Debug Fresno of invasive Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

That species of mosquito transmits nasty human diseases like Zika, chikungunya, and dengue fever. The debugging is achieved by releasing male mosquitos infected with Wolbachia bacteria to breed with wild female mosquitoes. Wolbachia inhibits reproduction and the transmission of viruses.

Verily has devised an automated mosquito rearing and sexing system that produces 25 times more male mosquitoes than earlier systems. This is a work-around that does not seem to have aroused the ire of anti-GMO activists.

On the other hand, why not just release genetically engineered mosquitoes that are already proven to reduce disease carrying mosquito species by 90 percent in Brazil, Panama, Grand Cayman, and India?