Friends and foe? Reflections on the House of Lords inquiry on GM insects

By Professor Michael Bonsall, Professor of Mathematical Biology, University of Oxford

Insects are both friends and foe.  The pollination, decomposition and aesthetic values of insects are enormously beneficial. Yet insects also inflict massive economic losses and disease burden across the planet. Over half the world’s population live in areas where vector-borne diseases are prevalent: malaria, spread by female Anopheline mosquitoes, still infects over 200 million people each year leading to about ½ million people (mostly kids under the age of five) dying annually from this disease. Similarly, agricultural pests lead to massive economic losses – for instance damage and control costs for diamondback moth are estimated to be $4-5bn each year.

More than ever we need methods for controlling and limiting the devastating impact of these insects. Numerous tools already exist and are rolled out through integrated control programmes but new twists on old techniques are growing. In essence these new approaches involve genetic modification to insect genomes that at an ecological level either aim to replace or suppress a population.

This sort of GM insect biotechnology has wide ranging ecological, ethical and economic implications and through July – December last year I had the opportunity to act as the science advisor to the House of Lords Science & Technology Committee inquiry on GM Insects.

Based on a recent POSTnote on GM Insects and Disease Control, the Committee decided to take a more detailed examination of the science and policy around GM insects. A call for written evidence was drafted in the summer and 30 submissions were received. Witnesses were selected and oral evidence was taken through October and early November on the science, public perception and regulatory aspects of GM insects – the British Ecological Society submitted written evidence and, as witnesses, both Sue Hartley and Rosie Hails gave evidence (in different capacities and different sessions).

The inquiry report was published just before the Christmas recess. It made a number of recommendations (to which a Government response is expected – but the boldest was to call for a field-scale trial on GM insects – to test both the science and the regulatory environment.

The science is rich and multi-faceted: a whole host of approaches for modifying insects that act in a self-limiting (e.g. through induced lethality) or self-sustaining (e.g. gene drive) way to suppress or replace a population are at various stages of development.

However, it would be wrong to simplify this science to the broad epithet: GM insects. Each technology and application has to be evaluated on its own merits and limitations. The ecological consequences of population suppression (driving a population to local elimination) differ from the ecological consequences of driving a modified trait through a population. The recommendation for a field-scale trial is aimed at unpicking some of this science.

Yet equally important is challenging the regulatory environment. Implementation of EU regulations hampers the development of all GM technologies – the current EU directive on the deliberate release of GM organisms is based on evaluating the risk to the environment: human health and wider biodiversity. Basically, it asks – does the modified organism cause more damage (to biodiversity and/or human health) than current control interventions. However, inadequate functioning of this legislation has stifled innovation and restricted the use of all GM technologies in Europe.

Ecology is centre-placed in enacting this sort of risk assessment. Most important, is the question of what is the current environment (let’s call it: status-quo) into which a GM organism (such as a self-limiting population-suppressing insect) is to be released? It is understood (but often neglected when we think about using GM approaches for insect control) that we impact our environment with a whole of host of activities that affect biodiversity and/or human health. We currently use broad-spectrum insecticides and pesticides for controlling agricultural pests and disease vectors that are not without environmental risks (to biodiversity and/or human health).

So actually properly operationalising these risk regulations needs to pay greater attention to the ecology and status-quo for insect control – it is one reason why the Lords report calls for a field-scale trial.

This call for a field trial is also a super opportunity to engage on a broader debate about the biotechnological advances in these sorts of GM insect technologies. During the evidence sessions, the House of Lords Science & Technology committee repeatedly received lots on public perception and responsible innovation. Responsible innovation is a call-to-arms to avoid the sort of GM debates that surrounded the development of GM crops. Each GM organism (and GM insect) technology is scientifically different and distinct that each should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis within the appropriate environmental frame of reference. All of this necessitates carefully stepping through the thorny issues of responsible innovation.

Each receiving environment for a GM technology has value – understanding this value, the status-quo and how the release of alternative control strategies (such as a GM mosquito for malaria control) will impact really does require an informed public debate (actually this debate should be in the place where the control will happen). It is doubtful that this report should be viewed as moral blackmail about these GM insect technologies. But it is morally abhorrent and reprehensible not to intervene to reduce the cost of human misery and (unnecessary) loss of life from infectious diseases and agricultural pests. The ecological sciences should be at the heart of this call for responsible public debates as these GM (insect) technologies in all their guises unfold over the next few years.

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