Photo: Oxitec

British biotech firm Oxitec hopes a world-first field trial of its genetically-modified olive fly will still go ahead in Catalonia this year despite recently withdrawing its application for the experiment.

There were Spanish media reports that the trial had been shelved amid “multiple obstacles and safeguards sought by the Spanish authorities”, while GeneWatch UK claimed it was because Oxitec lacked answers to questions on the potential impacts of the insects “on humans and the environment.”

But Oxitec CEO Hadyn Parry told Olive Oil Times the withdrawal was “nothing major” and came after Spain’s National Biosafety Commission requested that predator studies be held. “Otherwise everything is very positive,” he said.

The studies, now underway, will look at the impact of the olive fly on spider species and olive fly parasitoids (which lay their eggs in the olive fly) and are expected to take a couple of months.

“We asked whether they (the commission) would keep the file open or whether we should withdraw and resubmit – and they preferred the latter. So we’ll complete the work in the first quarter of the year and then resubmit. Hopefully we will still be okay for a trial in the autumn,” Parry said.

Catalan authority was awaiting information from Oxitec

The commission has yet to reply to a request for comment but a spokeswoman for the Catalan Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries, Food and Environment said Oxitec had advised it was withdrawing its application in a letter dated December 2.

“The Catalan Biosafety Commission had asked for the submission of additional information on the (trial) proposal, a request that had not been attended to,” she said.

Fears about impact on health and environmental impacts

Oxitec’s proposal was to do the trial in collaboration with – and on land belonging to – the Catalan agriculture, food and aquaculture research institute IRTA.

Parry said last year it would involve six plots on one site – each plot being about 0.14ha and having four trees – about 8 km from the port in Tarragona, one of Catalonia’s main olive oil production regions.

The olive fly is one of the key pests affecting olive cultivation and is managed mainly via pesticides. Oxitec believes its modified olive fly strain — called OX3097D‐Bol and developed about three years ago — offers a more effective, chemical-free solution.

But GeneWatch UK Director Helen Wallace said the group’s concerns about the experiment included the impact on the food chain, and on human and animal health, “of large numbers of dead GM maggots in olives, and the environmental impacts of releasing large numbers of non-native GM flies which cannot be contained.”


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