Millions of genetically modified mosquitoes might soon be released in Florida. The biotech company Oxitec and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) are moving ahead with their plan to introduce these insects into the area to, according to them, help stop the spread of multiple tropical diseases.
One of the diseases is called Chikungunya, another is dengue, and both are spread by Aedes mosquitoes. An infection with Chikungunya can lead to fever and joint pain which is sometimes severe, but rarely causes death. In 2014, only 11 individuals actually contracted this disease in Florida, so it makes one wonder if this type of “tinkering with nature” is really necessary? (source)
When it comes to the dengue virus, severe cases may progress into dengue hemorrhagic fever, complications from which may eventually result in death. Over 100 million cases of dengue occur every year, but according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is rare to find a case of it in the United States.
The mosquitoes released would all be male, and are genetically modified to carry a “genetic kill switch.” This means that when they mate with wild female mosquitoes, the “kill switch” gene is passed on to the offspring and therefore cannot survive.
Millions Of Genetically Modified Insects Have Already Been Released
Oxitec has already released a large number of GM olive flies that were used to kill off wild pests that damage crops. In the Cayman Islands, 3 million GM mosquitoes were released, and in this case over 90 percent of the original natural native mosquito population was suppressed. The same results were also seen in Brazil.
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.
Concerns With This Approach
There are various concerns, such as, what happens if someone receives a bite from one of these mosquitoes?
“Will their GM DNA be injected into your arm or leg? Oxitec has counteracted this objection by stating they only plan to release male mosquitoes, which don’t bite. This again sounds good intheory… but in reality, sorting millions of insects according to sex is no small feat. And even FKMCD notes that although ‘every effort is made to release only males,’ Oxitec trials show that .03 percent of the mosquitoes released are female” -Dr. Joseph Mercola (source)
If you think about it, with millions of mosquitoes released, we are still talking about thousands of mosquitoes that can bite. Estimates of genetically modified insects that have been released into the environment are between 50-100 million. What about the environmental health impacts report? Again, what about the synthetic DNA from the bites? Who is tracking all of this stuff, and how exactly do you track it? Why are we just assuming everything is okay, without any evidence to back it up?
The potential exists for these genes, which hop from one place to another, to infect human blood by finding entry through skin lesions or inhaled dust. Such transmission could potentially wreak havoc with the human genome by creating “insertion mutations” and other unpredictable types of DNA damage. (source)
According to Alfred Handler, a geneticist at the Agriculture Department in Hawaii, mosquitoes can develop resistance to the lethal gene and might then be released inadvertently. (source)
Todd Shelly, an entomologist for the Agriculture Department in Hawaii, said 3.5 percent of the insects in a laboratory test survived to adulthood, despite presumably carrying the lethal gene. (source)
Another factor to consider is this:
“Tetracycline and other antibiotics are now showing up in the environment, in soil and surface water samples. These GM mosquitoes were designed to die in the absence of tetracycline (which is introduced in the lab in order to keep them alive long enough to breed). They were designed this way assuming they would NOT have access to that drug in the wild. With tetracycline exposure (for example, in a lake) these mutant insects could actually thrive in the wild, potentially creating a nightmarish scenario.” (source)
Dr Helen Wallace, director of GeneWatch UK, warned about the GM fruit flies that were released a couple of years ago:
“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.” (source)
It’s also important to note that there is there is no specific regulatory process for GM insects anywhere in the world.
Wallace went on to state that:
“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.” (source)(source)
“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 (source)
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.
- 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: (source)
- 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
- Exclude 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
What are your thoughts on these developments? You would think this would be big news, but it remains largely unreported. There are so many concerns and questions that have been left unanswered. Feel free to share your opinion in the comments section below.