U.S. Approves Release of Genetically Engineered Moths in NY State

Plans to release genetically engineered moths in upstate New York to control invasive pests have been approved by the USDA.

Aug. 14, 2017
By Isabel Putinja

Recent News

A pro­posal to release genet­i­cally engi­neered (GE) moths in an area of upstate New York has been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) pub­lished a notice announc­ing approval for the release of the GE dia­mond­back moths fol­low­ing an envi­ron­men­tal assess­ment that found no sig­nif­i­cant impact.”

The trial is meant to test the effi­cacy of the GE moths in reduc­ing the local dia­mond­back moth pop­u­la­tion. Diamondback moths are con­sid­ered to be an inva­sive pest because they destroy veg­eta­bles like cab­bage, cau­li­flower and broc­coli when they’re at the cater­pil­lar stage of their life cycle.

The genet­i­cally-engi­neered moths are designed to die before adult­hood. After male moths are released into a test site, their gene is passed on to off­spring through mat­ing. The gene causes female moths to die at the cater­pil­lar stage to stop the repro­duc­tive cycle. Scientists have also given the GE moths a flu­o­res­cent pro­tein marker so they can be traced.

The field trial is to be led by a team of researchers from Cornell University who plan to release the moths in a 10-acre field in Geneva, New York, owned by the uni­ver­sity. The fed­eral per­mit allows 30,000 moths to be released per week over a period of three to four months.


According to the U.K. com­pany that pro­duces the GE moths, Oxitec, the GE moths are an alter­na­tive to the use of insec­ti­cides to con­trol pests which also often erad­i­cate other more desir­able insects inte­gral to the ecosys­tem, like bees and other pol­li­na­tors.

The same com­pany has sub­mit­ted — and with­drawn — appli­ca­tions for field tri­als of GE insects in Spain and else­where to bat­tle the olive fruit fly.

However, the Washington-based Center for Food Safety said that genet­i­cally engi­neered insects are a threat to native ecosys­tems and human health” with the poten­tial to cre­ate new prob­lems like harm to other species that rely on them for food.

A group of New York organic farm­ers is also opposed to the exper­i­ment and is call­ing for a full envi­ron­men­tal review. According to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY), the USDA’s envi­ron­men­tal assess­ment has not suf­fi­ciently addressed the poten­tial health and envi­ron­men­tal effects. NOFA-NY’s pol­icy advi­sor, Liana Hoodes, told EcoWatch that it was now up to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to require an envi­ron­men­tal impact assess­ment.

NOFA-NY con­sid­ers the release of a novel genet­i­cally engi­neered organ­ism to be a major activ­ity with poten­tially sig­nif­i­cant and hereto­fore unknown health and envi­ron­men­tal effects,” she cau­tioned. It is now up to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to ensure the safety of its cit­i­zens before grant­ing the nec­es­sary state per­mit. We call on the NYS DEC to require a full envi­ron­men­tal impact state­ment and pub­lic hear­ings dur­ing a com­plete review under State Environmental Quality Review Act.”

NOFA-NY also pointed out that Oxitec had not com­pleted a thor­ough health, safety and envi­ron­men­tal review before export­ing its GE moths.

In 2016, approval was granted for the release in Florida of GE mos­qui­toes, also pro­duced by Oxitec, to test their effec­tive­ness in erad­i­cat­ing the Aedes aegypti mos­quito, respon­si­ble for trans­mit­ting viruses like Zika, dengue fever and chikun­gunya. This pro­posed trial has been delayed fol­low­ing oppo­si­tion from local res­i­dents. However, the com­pany has been suc­cess­ful in releas­ing GE mos­qui­toes in Brazil, the Cayman Islands and Panama with reports of a sub­se­quent decline in the Aedes aegypti mos­quito pop­u­la­tion.

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