More than 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes are going to be released in the Florida Keys over the next two years in an effort to reduce the use of pesticides needed to combat the invasive Aedes aegypti mosquito.
The mosquitoes were designed by Oxitec, a UK-based biotechnology company working on insect control through genetic modification. The genetically modified populations act as a “living insecticide,” aimed at reducing invasive populations by sabotaging breeding.
It’s a move that’s bringing backlash as consumers are largely wary of GMO technology, historically used on crops (and one type of salmon). This would be the first genetically modified insect released into the wild in the U.S.
What’s Wrong With GMOs?
Concerns around GMO crops center on three main areas: first, the technology itself has been questioned over whether or not it poses risks like turning on dormant allergens or toxins in certain foods. The main GMO crops in our food supply are corn, soy, canola, and cotton.
The second issue with GMO crops lies in the use of pesticides or herbicides the crops are designed to resist. The most common of these is Monsanto’s (Bayer) glyphosate-based herbicide, Roundup. It was implicated as the cause of a California man’s terminal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in a landmark 2018 case. His victory — the jury awarded him $289 million — was unprecedented. A number of lawsuits claiming cancer as a result of exposure to the chemicals have followed. Although it was reduced, a California jury awarded more than 13,000 plaintiffs $2 billion in a class-action suit against Bayer last year over cancer claims connected to glyphosate exposure.
There’s also genetically modified Bt cotton, which is registered as a pesticide; the crop is modified to kill bollworms, making it its own pesticide.
The third issue centers on farmers who grow GMO crops. A growing number of farmers say Roundup often fails after a few seasons as weeds become resistant to the herbicide, forcing them to employ stronger chemicals like dicamba. Bayer has since released new GMO seeds, like XtendFlex soy, resistant to both glyphosate and a stronger herbicide, dicamba. Farmers also face issues like violating the Monsanto seed patents; under contract, farmers can’t save seeds for the next season and crop drift can lead to penalties for unsuspecting farmers. This has forced many farmers into bankruptcy. A number of GMO cotton crops in India that failed to meet predicted yields may have also led to hundreds of farmer suicides.
GMO Mosquitoes Pose New Concerns
“With all the urgent crises facing our nation and the State of Florida — the Covid-19 pandemic, racial injustice, climate change — the administration has used tax dollars and government resources for a Jurassic Park experiment,” Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety, said in a statement.“Now the Monroe County Mosquito Control District has given the final permission needed. What could possibly go wrong? We don’t know, because EPA unlawfully refused to seriously analyze environmental risks, now without further review of the risks, the experiment can proceed,” she added.
The GMO mosquitoes, named OX5034, is altered to prevent female mosquitoes (the ones that do the biting) from developing past the larvae stages. But a similar experiment failed last year in Brazil. Mosquitoes targeted by GMO insects were not destroyed in the larvae stage and many made it to adulthood. Those that proliferated began inbreeding, a step scientists say could strengthen local populations, having the reverse of the intended effect. The trial promised a 95 percent kill-rate and came nowhere close.
While the safety of GMO mosquitoes isn’t fully understood yet, what is known is the Aedes aegypti mosquito poses serious human health risks; it can transmit deadly diseases including Zika, chikungunya, dengue, and yellow fever.
The plan to bring GMO mosquitoes to Florida’s Keys has been battling approval for the better part of the last decade. Locals and environmental experts worry the engineered insects could have a negative impact on birds, insects, and mammals that feed on the mosquitoes, further threatening some endangered or threatened species.
“The release of genetically engineered mosquitoes will needlessly put Floridians, the environment and endangered species at risk in the midst of a pandemic,” Dana Perls, food and technology program manager at Friends of the Earth, said in a statement.
Mosquitoes have few friends among the warm-blooded, but wiping them completely off the planet wouldn’t be as perfect as it sounds (even in the middle of summer). The insect is prolific; there are more than 3,500 species of mosquitoes and efforts to eradicate them could have dire environmental consequences.
“I think, in trying to eradicate mosquitoes, we would probably cause too much environmental damage, collateral damage in doing it,” Joseph M. Conlon, the technical Advisor American Mosquito Control Association, told Vice in 2016. “I’m not saying that if we eradicated mosquitoes their predators would all die off because there is no predator on the planet that has mosquitoes as their sole or even primary food source. But there is going to be some environmental damage and possibly in ways we couldn’t even predict.”
Experts suggest a more targeted approach may make more sense.
“A small minority of the species play a serious role in transmitting the pathogens that cause diseases in humans, so it makes perfect sense from a public health standpoint to devise ways to keep those mosquitoes from biting people,” Dan Strickman, a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation told Vice. “We believe that we can be smart about mosquito control by targeting those locations where the disease problems occur and by using surveillance to tell us where we need to do a better job.”
For Florida, though, it looks like there’s only one road ahead, and for the next two years, at least, it’s paved with GMO mosquitoes.