Genetically modified (GM) insects could be trialled in the UK to prevent the transmission of disease and reduce agricultural pests. That’s if the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee get their way.
The Committee’s report, released on Thursday 17 December 2015, discusses the results of an inquiry into the science and potential benefits and risks of using genetically modified insects as a tool to tackle major challenges of food security and human and animal health.
The committee concluded that the UK’s considerable expertise in this area and the potential of the technology, which has already been shown in overseas field trials (for example, by University of Oxford spin-out Oxitec), warrants a UK-based field trial.
Stamping out malaria
Several species of biting mosquitoes can carry malaria, which is one of the world’s greatest causes of severe illness and death. Although we don’t currently see people getting infected with malaria in the UK, climate change is making the habitat more favourable for this to happen.
The only way to be sure of preventing malaria, as well as other mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue and chikungunya viruses, is to avoid being bitten by a mosquito in an area where the disease is circulating. And that is the aim of scientists creating GM mosquitoes that are sterile (either the male, in the case of Oxitec, or the female, in a technique developed by Imperial College London) and have been successful in reducing local populations of the insects by up to 95% in overseas trials.
There are preventative drugs available, but the malaria parasite is becoming resistant and, although there was a successful trial of a vaccine reported in summer 2015, it will still be a while before it is available. Even then, this is only about 30% effective.
Other measures are in place, including bed nets and insecticides. There are also biological control methods, using fish or crustaceans which eat the larval stage of the mosquito; or infectious agents that kill the mosquitoes, such as certain species of fungi.
GM mosquitoes probably won’t be, as the report rightly concludes, a “silver bullet”, but they are already proving effective and could be a very important weapon in the arsenal against the rising tide of malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases.
GM insects in agriculture
With a food security crisis already in progress in many parts of the world and becoming more of a threat to us as our population is set to soar to 9 billion by 2050, agriculture must be made more sustainable. Currently 10-16% of agricultural crops are lost to pests, and climate change is thought to be making the problem worse.
The techniques where GM is used to control agricultural pests are similar to those aimed at bringing down the population of disease-carrying insects. The idea is that you release sterile individuals into a wild population and within a fairly short period the failure in reproduction leads to the reduction of numbers, without the use of costly and potentially harmful pesticides.
Oxitec has applied its technology to agriculture, including a GM bollworm (a pest that destroys cotton), which has been in field trials in the USA for three years and will soon be ready for commercialisation.
Impact on ecosystems
Clearly, a dramatic reduction in a population that is low in the food chain could have an impact. However, in the field trials that have been carried out, the environmental impact has been negligible, which usually means that another relatively benign species fills the gap left behind, or possibly that the mosquito doesn’t occupy a “niche” position in the first place.
The committee’s report focuses largely on issues of regulation.
The EU approach to regulation of GM organisms has been fraught with problems. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee has recently ruled that the precautionary principle has been misused by the EU in the case of GM foods.
It is unlikely that a GM insect trial will go ahead in the UK without considerable movement of the EU position. To that end the House of Lords recommendations are as follows:
- The Government must act to ensure that the current regulatory system is able to work properly, and must commit to working with the EU to address how the system could be improved.
- The science, EU regulatory environment and policies on GM insects need to be tested. Government departments should work together in order to instigate a GM insect field trial.
- Alongside the field trials, the Government should initiate a programme of public engagement.
- The Government, through Innovate UK in partnership with the Research Councils, must support the commercialisation of UK-based GM insect research.
- The EU needs to re-work its regulation to reflect benefits, not just the risks. Given the evolution of new gene-editing techniques, in the long-term trait-based rather than process-based regulation should be explored.
It will be a while before we see any detailed proposal, but the door is now perhaps a little ajar for UK scientists to look at solving UK problems with GM insects.
Featured image via Wikicommons
We need your help to keep speaking the truth
Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.
Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.
We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.
In return, you get:
* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop
Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.
With your help we can continue:
* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do
We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?