Despite all of the fears surrounding the birth defects that the Zika virus carries with it, there is something a lot scarier on the horizon if biotechnology companies get their way in terms of how they propose to combat the virus: by releasing non-biting, genetically-engineered mosquitos into the wild. The biotech firm Oxitec has genetically modified a species of mosquito to produce offspring which do not survive after mating with wild females, thereby dramatically reducing mosquito populations within a few generations. The mosquitos are also allegedly engineered to not bite, in order to stem the spread of disease-carrying mosquitos who are implicated in the epidemics of malaria, West Nile, Zika virus and others.
This controversial biotechnology has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to be released this season but before this is set to take place, scientists from around the continent have been weighing in on the issue with a great many voicing their concerns and outright opposition to the understudied technology.
According to the Chicago Tribune, critics raise the potential consequences to human health and the environment of releasing GMO mosquitoes without more long-term research, arguing that the risks are too high even amid a global health crisis.
“We are the citizens, as are you, and the last thing we deserve is a rushed process when it is so deeply concerning and non-controversial, more effective alternatives exist,” writes Barry Wray of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, which has led protests against Oxitec. Wray and other opponents favor infecting mosquitoes with bacteria that curb their ability to transmit viruses, arguing that the technique is more effective and less polarizing.
There are plenty of informed, objective comments as well as passionate statements on both sides, but emotional pleas are far more common among opponents, who fear unwilling U.S. citizens will become guinea pigs. Some call the plan “insanity” and cite the “Jurassic Park” film series in warning against genetic tinkering. Others say little more than, “HELL NO GMO!” Others compare Oxitec’s proposal to GMO crops created by Monsanto (which isn’t involved) and beg the government to stop approving any genetic engineering in food or insects.
While residents of the state of Florida have been consulted on the issue and are expected to lobby the FDA with their concerns, the issue is of more than regional importance. Airborne insects do not necessarily remain in the areas meant for their containment and the introduction of these genetically modified species into the natural environment poses a global threat to ecosystems beyond the boundaries of Florida. We recommend getting in touch with your Member of Parliament to voice your concerns and fight for Canadian ecological rights – our health should not be determined by what is happening south of the border, beyond our ability to control, particularly when the introduction of such species into the environment could have devastation on us as well. While scientists have studied species of mosquitos for a considerable amount of time, it is unclear what can occur when genetically engineered versions are released into the natural environment en masse and the effects on plants and other species could be too great to determine at this time.