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The same company has submitted — and withdrawn — applications for field trials of GE insects in Spain and elsewhere to battle the olive fruit fly.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