GM insects

Researchers have been experimenting with genetically modifying a variety of insects, including mosquitoes, fruit flies, moths and bollworms.

The Oxfordshire-based company Oxitec is the main company working in this area. Oxitec has close links to agri-business Syngenta: most of its senior staff and Board Members are ex-Syngenta staff and it has received a research grant from the company.

Regulation

There are no specific regulations for GM insects in any country: this briefing describes how Oxitec has attempted to influence risk assessments and regulations for GM insects worldwide.

In the EU, the relevant legislation is the same as that for GM crops and food. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has issued guidance for the risk assessment of GM insects (including bees) prior to commercial releases, and held a consultation, but the issue of GM insects in the food chain has still not been addressed. Decisions on experimental releases are made in individual member states.

Under the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety, when exporting GM insect eggs for open release to other countries, Oxitec is supposed to supply a risk assessment that meets EU standards and to copy this to the EU and UK authorities so it can be made publicly available. Oxitec has not followed this process correctly for any of its exports to date.

Oxitec sought to release GM diamond back moths (cabbage moths) in the UK in 2012 without any risk assessment but has been stopped following objections from GeneWatch UK and others. The company sought to bypass regulations by arguing (unsuccessfully) that its insects are "biologically contained" because they are programmed to die and that therefore the requirements for open releases of genetically modified organisms do not apply. There are new plans to revise the Contained Use Regulations for GMOs to allow approval of this kind of application in the future, without a full environmental risk assessment or any public consultation.

GM agricultural pests

Oxitec has developed genetically modified (GM) agricultural pests, including diamond back moths (cabbage moths), olive flies and fruit flies, for open release in large numbers into the environment. The intention is to release GM males (outnumbering wild males by 10 to 1 or more) to mate with wild females. The GM insects are genetically engineered so most of the female offspring die at the caterpillar stage, with the aim of suppressing the wild population. One of Oxitec's aims is to combine GM crops with GM insects, to slow the spread of resistance to the toxins in the GM crops.

In 2013, GM insects company Oxitec made an application to release GM olive flies in Spain and also applied to Brazilian regulators to release GM Mediterranean Fruit Fly (Medfly) there. Oxitec's plan to release GM olive flies in Spain was shelved following requests for further information from the regulators.

A GM pink bollworm moth (a cotton pest) also produced by Oxitec and containing a fluorescent marker gene (but sterilised using radiation) was released in 2006 to 2008 in the US as part of a plant pest control programme. GM bollworms are being developed in response to the development of resistance to the Bt toxin which is engineered into pest-resistant GM crops (Bt crops) such as maize and cotton.

GM mosquitoes

Controversial experimental releases of 3 million GM mosquitoes produced by Oxitec took place in the Cayman Islands (a British Overseas Territory which has no biosafety law) in 2009 and 2010. A smaller number of Oxitec's GM mosquitoes were released in December 2010 in Malaysia. In 2011 experiments began in Brazil, which are still ongoing. According to Oxitec, future experimental releases are planned in other countries. However, Vietnam has stated that it does not intend to release GM mosquitoes and plans in the US have been delayed pending a regulatory assessment.

This briefing summarises GeneWatch UK's concerns about releases of Oxitec's GM mosquitoes to date.

Oxitec and a number of academic research groups are also working on genetically modifying mosquitoes which are resistant to malaria. This approach would require GM mosquitoes to completely replace the wild mosquito population, which is very difficult to achieve.

Other insects

Other insects might be genetically modified in future, including beneficial insects such as bees.

The honey bee genome was completed in 2006 and in May 2011 Nature News reported that this might allow geneticists to "build a better bee". Plans to sequence thousands of insect and other arthropod genomes were announced in June 2011.

In November 2011, scientists reporting the completion of the spider mite genome argued that it could be used to reduce the mite's ability to reproduce. Completion of the Monarch butterfly genome was also announced.

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