GeneWatch UK PR: Planned releases of genetically modified (GM) fruit flies should be halted until food contamination issues are addressed

Wednesday 4th September 2013 

GeneWatch UK today called for a moratorium on proposed releases of genetically modified (GM) fruit flies and other agricultural pests into the environment, until the issue of GM insects in fruit and vegetable supplies has been properly addressed.

Earlier this year, UK company Oxitec applied to make mass experimental releases of millions of male GM olive fruit flies in Spain and GM Mediterranean fruit flies (Medfly) in Brazil. The company has also stated that it plans to release GM olive flies in Italy, Greece and Morocco. The female offspring of the flies are genetically programmed to die at the larval stage, in an attempt to crash the numbers of wild pests. However, large numbers of dead larvae (maggots) are expected to remain inside olives and fruit, where fruit flies lay their eggs, and to enter the food chain. The use of a "female-killing" approach means live male larvae (and any surviving female larvae) could also be transported around the world in contaminated fruit.

"Releasing Oxitec'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" said Dr Helen Wallace. "Not only does this fail to protect the crop, millions of GM fruit fly maggots (most dead, but some alive) 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".

GeneWatch UK today published its response to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) as part of an ongoing complaint to the European Ombudsman about the EFSA's development of Guidance on risk assessments for GM animals, including GM insects (1). EFSA failed to include any information about GM insects in the food chain in its consultation, breaching its own guidelines and requirements under the Aarhus convention to consult fully on environmental issues. Consumers, retailers and producers therefore remain unaware of potential impacts on the food chain, human health and global trade of releasing GM insects into the environment. GeneWatch UK is calling for full consultation, then implementation of the rules, followed by the necessary safety testing.

GeneWatch UK's complaint also covers conflicts-of-interest on EFSA's GM insects working group, especially the role of scientists at Oxford University, which is an investor in the company.

Releases of GM fruit flies could also have negative environmental impacts, many of which are covered by the EFSA Environmental Risk Assessment Guidance. One concern is a potential surge in other types of pest, such as olive moths and black scale insects.

For further information contact:
Dr Helen Wallace: 01298-24300 (office); 07903-311584 (mobile).

Notes for Editors:
(1) GeneWatch UK letter to European Ombudsman.30th August 2013.

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