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Jody Smith Williams' - "Going Green"
Sunday, February 12, 2012
Fooling Mother Nature with Genetically Modified Mosquitoes

It's usually exciting when national headlines take notice of the Florida Keys.

Sushi's New Year's Eve shoe drop on CNN, for example -- Cool!

Genetically modified mosquitoes coming soon to a backyard near you, as reported in the New York Times? Not so much.

In 2009, genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes were released in the Cayman Islands by the private British firm Oxitec. It was the first time in history that genetically modified insects that can bite humans were released and it happened largely in secret, in a country with no bio-safety laws or regulations. Now Oxitec is planning to initiate the release of the GM mosquitoes in the Florida Keys as early as this spring.

These "suicide" mosquitoes have a gene that causes them to die and this gene is passed on to their offspring who are supposed to die before they reach adulthood. Over time, the mosquito population will decline and with it, the transmission of dengue fever -- or so the theory goes. However, there are many concerns with this theory, not the least of which regards the very nature of genetic modification itself in trying to outsmart Mother Nature. We simply do not know what the unintended consequences of messing around with an organism's DNA will be.

Nobody likes mosquitoes and certainly dengue fever is a concern, but what will happen to the local ecosystem when the mosquito population decreases or is eliminated entirely?

The problem with calling genetically engineered organisms "safe" is that there are no independent risk-assessments being done on them. The only research being done on the health or environmental effects of genetically engineered organisms is being done by the corporations developing and promoting the use of genetically modified organisms -- and their research is held in secret as "proprietary."

In the case of GM mosquitoes, some of Oxitec's own research findings were actually made known just weeks ago. Through a British Freedom of Information request, a confidential internal document showed major flaws in the technology of suicide mosquitoes and also calls into question their effectiveness.

According to GeneWatch U.K., the organization that uncovered the internal document, "the GM mosquitoes described as 'sterile' are, in fact, not sterile and their offspring have a 15 percent survival rate in the presence of the common antibiotic tetracycline. In the study, the mosquitoes were fed cat food containing chicken contaminated with low levels of tetracycline and many of them were able to reproduce, with their offspring surviving to adulthood."

Oxitec actually uses tetracycline as a chemical switch to allow it to breed its GM insects in the lab. Yet by redacting the document, it tried to hide the evidence about the 15 percent survival rate on the grounds of "commercial confidentiality."

The company claims that in the wild there's no risk of any random exposure to tetracycline.

Oh, really? Have you counted the number of cats in the Keys lately? Do you think any of them might be eating cat food with chicken that might have consumed antibiotics including tetracycline?

Conventional animal agriculture uses 80 percent of the antibiotics in the United States and the use of tetracycline is widespread. It is also present in sewage as well as in industrially-farmed chicken and other meat. Mosquitoes that carry dengue fever are known to breed in environments contaminated with sewage, including septic tanks.

Given this information, it is highly unlikely there will be no surviving offspring of the GM mosquitoes. Even in the absence of tetracycline contamination, GM mosquitoes are known to survive in the laboratory at rates of around 3 percent. If this experiment fails and biting GM females survive, we could be facing a rebound -- not a decrease -- in cases of tropical disease.

We who live in this beta testing playground should have a choice in whether we're subject to the inevitable bites of GM mosquitoes and their unknown consequences to the ecosystem, just as we should have a choice, through labeling disclosure, of whether to consume GM foods.

Like Monsanto, the malevolent granddaddy of GM seeds, Oxitec appears to be another corporation claiming to be acting in the public's best interest while practicing subterfuge that, in the interest of profit, presents potentially grave risks to public health.

Are we tired of this story yet? (And is it just me, or does the name Oxitec sound ominously like a scrambled version of "Corexit," the BP-produced "remediation" chemical for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster that appears to have been more harmful to wildlife and ecosystems than the spill itself?)