While many people scrupulously strive to keep genetically modified food items from their dinner plates, the geneticists who are playing God continue to push in more GMOs. The British company Oxitec is all set to release genetically modified male olive flies into the fields for the biological control of the species. The insect, Bactrocera oleae, is a pest in olive plantations, significantly affecting oil production. Its transgenic variation is projected as a better alternative to chemical control measures, but haven’t we heard this story before?!
Biological control of pests is nothing new. Farmers from time immemorial have promoted naturally occurring enemies of common agricultural pests. Efforts to identify and introduce specific predators such as beetles and, in some cases, certain parasitic bacteria and fungi, have been successful pest control measures. In fact, the genetic material used in the development of Monsanto’s bt. cotton came from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that has been previously used as a spray for controlling many insect pests of cotton.
Bt. corn and Bt. potato were soon to follow, making tall claims of reducing harmful pesticide residue in food stuffs. Extensive field studies in China have shown that, within seven years, pesticide requirement in Bt. cotton fields have reached the same level as the amount used prior to the cultivation of the genetically modified cotton! Nevertheless, biotech companies, emboldened by the profits gained by genetically modified substances, continue to tamper with nature, with very little regard for the long-term environmental and health implications.
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While the race to patent such transgenic plants still continues, the British biotech company Oxytec have already released GM mosquitoes, first in the Cayman Islands, and later in Brazil and Malaysia, too. The modified genes in these male mosquitoes cause their female offspring to die prematurely, well before they can fly and bite. However, the affected females can develop and reproduce normally, if they are treated with the antibiotic tetracycline in the lab. This has raised legitimate concerns that the female can also survive in the wild, if it comes across animals that have traces of tetracycline in their blood, with the potential of spreading the genetic modification like wildfire.
In the case of mosquito control, the alternative to using genetically modified ones included the introduction of male mosquitoes sterilized through chemical castration or gamma radiation. When released into the wild, these impotent males would compete with normal males, eventually causing a decline in the mosquito population. The effects were self-limiting, because the sterile males themselves died out at the end of their natural life spans. This required repeat releases to maintain the effectiveness. So geneticists have come up with transgenic mosquitoes as a more economically viable, long-term solution.
As opposed to the stiff resistance Oxytec had faced when it proposed to release the GM mosquito in Florida’s Key West, major olive oil producing countries like Spain and Italy have understandably expressed their interest in this new GM olive fly, named OX3097D. When GM mosquitoes were first released into the wild, the excuse was the noble cause of saving millions of lives lost in the tropical countries due to diseases like dengue and yellow fever spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Now, no such lofty claims can be made in the case of transgenic olive flies. This is a definite step to monetize the GMOs, as admitted by Hadyn Parry, the CEO of Oxytec.
The first controlled field trials, to take place in a limited number of olive trees covered in netting in an olive producing region of Catalonia, may be the first step towards gaining acceptance for the modified fly. Oxitec proposes to release only male flies whose female progeny would die out before attaining adulthood. Their experiments in greenhouses have supposedly proven that the OX3097D strain is capable of achieving complete elimination of olive fly populations in the wild within just two months. But studies in the lab, or under the glass or the nets, can never really duplicate the predatory and mating interactions that exist in the wild.
Even though Hadyn Perry insists that “they can’t mate and the plague gradually disappears”, the genetic modification escaping into the wild, and wreaking unforeseen havoc in the ecosystem by horizontal gene transfer, cannot be ruled out. To borrow the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm of Jurassic Park, “If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free; it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously.” This is especially true in the case of organisms that cannot be contained within geographical barriers, like microorganisms, and insects that fly.
Apart from benefiting genetic engineering companies and large corporations involved in food production, GMOs have little to offer to the common good of mankind or to the environment, especially when this field of science is promoted at the expense of developing other, more sustainable, and less damaging, methods of pest control. GMOs could very well be the legendary “Pandora’s Box” that we have unwittingly opened, but the fear and concern of the common man, voiced through a few organizations like the GeneWatch and the Testbiotech are often brushed aside by those who wield the wand with impunity.