Genetically Modified Insects

GM has been a hot topic in the past few weeks, with Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales joining over half of the European Union in opting out of future Genetically Modified crop planting approvals, and advances in gene-editing technique ‘CRISPR’ making gene drive a realistic tool for the proliferation of genetic modifications throughout a population.

The recent House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry on GM insects was therefore aptly timed. The BES submitted a response highlighting the ecological considerations of GM insects, and President Elect Professor Sue Hartley was invited to give evidence on our behalf today at the Committee’s evidence session on public perception and engagement.

Why GM Insects?

The most advanced applied research on genetically modified (GM) insects is being undertaken with the aim to control insect vectors of human diseases such as mosquitoes in the spread of malaria and dengue, and to control populations of crop pests, including the diamondback moth, olive fruit fly, and Mediterranean fruit fly. There is also potential for GM insects to be used to control insect-borne diseases in livestock including bluetongue and Schmallenberg virus , and in wildlife conservation, such as the control of avian malaria (Plasmodium relictum) which continues to threaten multiple native species in Hawaii after the introduction of mosquitoes in the early 19th century .

What did the Lords say?

The House of Lords evidence session today focussed on the public perception of GM, and how public engagement can shape regulation and adoption of the technology. They were keen to know if we can learn any lessons from public engagement with GM crops, and if the ecological impacts of GM insects were sufficiently well understood.

Professor Hartley spoke about the importance of an open, honest and transparent communication with the public about what GM technology can, and can’t do. She said that scientists need to communicate clearly and effectively with the public, and that a climate of scepticism is healthy –for scientists, being challenged on their research is a good thing.

The panel talked about science being just one aspect of public dialogue. In the past, public engagement on GM crops has focussed almost exclusively on the science, which has not made it possible for publics to discuss other concerns such as ethics and governance. The panel were also keen to emphasise that constructive public dialogue should start with addressing the problem in hand, and the product used to solve that problem, rather than focussing on the technology per se.

What are the Ecological Impacts?

A lot of our understanding about the ecological impacts of GM insects is based on theoretical modelling and lab experiments. Very few field trials have taken place, but we can learn from releases that have taken place in Brazil for instance. However, for any release of GM insects, the ecological impacts will be dependant on a number of factors, including the type of genetic modification, the reproductive behaviour of the insect and the ’receiving environment’. Any releases should therefore be assessed on a case by case basis. There is some research on potential impacts such as inter-specific competition and migration of insects outside of the target area. These should be looked at in comparison to the impact of current technologies, such as the use of insecticides, and again, be assessed on a case by case basis.

Tell us what you think…

We would love to hear your thoughts on this topic and on GM issues more widely. Leave a comment, tweet us, or send us an email. We’ll also be exploring this further at a public debate in Scotland on 16th December 2015 at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Check out the annual meeting Fringe Event pages for more details and to register.

Watch the Evidence Session: