Genetically-Engineered Moths Spark Debate Over Biotech Bugs

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By Tiffany Stecker

Upstate New York is closer to seeing the release of moths that have been genetically engineered to produce non-viable larvae, a move that will likely stoke concerns over the regulation of bioengineered insects this summer.

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, unveiled a draft environmental assessment April 18 supporting a permit application for open-air trials for the genetically-engineered diamondback moth. The agency withdrew its last environmental assessment in November due to a technical misstep: APHIS didn’t publish the required notification in the Federal Register, failing to formally advise the public of the decision.

The goal is to reduce populations of the moth, a pest that has caused significant damage to certain food crops.

The diamondback moth is particularly problematic for broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and other crops in the brassica family. The proposed permit would allow for up to 30,000 sterile male moths to be released per week.

The assessment for the moths, which reproduce non-viable larvae, would allow researchers at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y., to elevate their research from confined, netted enclosures to an open environment.

On a larger scale, it could reignite the debate on the release and regulation of genetically-engineered insects. Oxitec, the British company that developed the engineered diamondback moth, has used similar technology to develop genetically-engineered mosquitoes, touted as a vector control solution in the fight against the Zika virus last year.

Same technology, multiple agencies

The White House completed its coordinated framework on biotechnology in January to clarify the roles that the USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration have in regulating bioengineered plants, insects and animals. The insect technologies are overseen by different federal agencies.

The diamondback moth and Oxitec’s engineered pink bollworm, which destroys cotton crops, are regulated by APHIS. The GE mosquito’s experimental release last year was approved by the FDA, while the EPA’s role is limited to pesticides, including pest controls that are engineered inside a plant, and the management of insect resistance.

The mosquito’s threat to human health differentiates it from the moth, Rick Coker, a spokesman for APHIS spokesman, told Bloomberg BNA in an email.

“Diamondback moths are plant pests and mosquitoes are not,” he said.

With authority to protect health and the environment, the EPA should have oversight over these insects, according to Jaydee Hanson, a senior policy analyst for the environmental nonprofit Center for Food Safety.

The agency should also issue rules on the use of genetically-engineered insects, Hanson said.

“The only claim that USDA has over regulating [the moth and the bollworm] is that they eat plants,” he told Bloomberg BNA. The Plant Protection Act, which dictates APHIS’s approval of bioengineered products, “is the wrong authority for them to use.”

‘Another tool in the toolbox’ of pest control

Though the coordinated framework helped clarify agencies’ roles, it lacked the teeth of a regulation on allowing genetically-engineered insects in the environment. The FDA issued draft guidance in January that detailed how the EPA could oversee genetically-engineered mosquitoes, but the document does not require actions from industry.

“In the current climate that’s an uphill battle,” Hanson said about regulations.

The latest environmental assessment was published in December, but required a review by the new administration before it was publicly released, Coker said.

“We’ve had serious outbreaks of this pest in New York and globally,” Tony Shelton, a professor of entomology at Cornell University and the principal investigator of the Diamondback Moth Project at the school, told Bloomberg BNA. “We are hoping this will be another tool in the toolbox to manage this difficult and important pest.”

The project has attracted opposition from the local organic farming association, who say the dead larvae produced when genetically-engineered males mate with female moths could stay on the vegetables and pose potential risks to the environment and health.

“The release of any novel organism into the open is a significant issue,” Liana Hoodes, policy adviser for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York told Bloomberg BNA.

“Clearly, insects don’t stay in the borders of the land that’s owned by Cornell.”

The environmental assessment rules out implications to species listed under the Endangered Species Act, finding no evidence of stressors that could affect the reproduction, numbers or distribution.

Shelton said he has organized a forum at a local college to explain the technology and research trials to the community, and that he works with organic farmers on pest control issues.

“This particular trial is really geared toward assessing whether the technology works under larger conditions,” he said. “We expect that if it’s successful, all farmers will see potential on their own farms.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Washington at tstecker@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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