(CNS): As the Mosquito Research and Control Unit begins talks about expanding the release of bio-engineered Aedes aegypti mosquitoes across Grand Cayman, given the emerging success of the controlled project in West Bay, those opposed to the use of GM bugs to control the invasive pests have launched a new campaign. CNS has confirmed that the Institute for Responsible Technology in California is financing the efforts, also backed by some local supporters, to raise more opposition and at least stall, if not stop, the wider project that aims to drastically reduce the invasive mosquito in Cayman.
The US-based non-profit institute has hired local attorney Kerrie Cox from HSM, who represented Dwene Ebanks, a local activist from West Bay in a judicial review last year. Ebanks lent his name to the legal challenge to the process, which tried to slow it down to allow for a wider public consultation, more debate and a risk assessment before the release happened in West Bay.
The costly judicial review failed, however, and the MRCU, in partnership with Oxitec, began the release late last summer. The recent results have been impressive, with a massive suppression of the invasive, disease-carrying pest in the release zone compared to surrounding controlled non-release areas. But the technology, which shows great promise because of its efficacy, speed and the lack of toxins involved, has raised some concerns, which were highlighted by Cox at the campaign launch to the press Tuesday, on behalf of his US clients.
Cox said the campaign was going to push for Cayman to sign the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international treaty dealing with the area of GM science, as he claimed the country was one of just 25 nations not signed on. However, the UK is already a signatory, so the Cayman Islands, as a territory is by extension subject to the protocols, which officials from the MRCU said were followed.
Oxitec and the government has come in for criticism over a lack of transparency regarding the project, a reluctance to engage the public more broadly and a failure to conduct a full risk assessment. But the work on the GM bugs has gone on for many years and has been tested and retested, with the scientific findings published and republished in scientific journals, peer-reviewed and scrutinized by global organisations such as the WHO.
Most scientists now working in the field believe this type of bio-engineering is safe and holds great promise for the future eradication of dangerous pests like the Aedes aegypti without poisoning the environment. Although the technology is complicated, all the scientists have done is remove one gene to make the mosquitos sterile.
The male bugs live a very short time and are designed to be self-limiting, leaving no trace of themselves in the environment once they have mated with natural females and died. Oxitec has admitted that a very small percentage of female GM insects are released but they are also sterile, so again self-limiting. Even if they mate with a male natural mosquito, the offspring will be sterile too. On occasion, some larvae are viable for a short period, but even if the tiny fraction that survives for a while was able to mate, the prodigy would still die very quickly.
Environmentalists are divided on the use of this technology, with some supporting the bio-engineered bugs because of what appears to be far less potential for any lingering damage to ecosystems when compared to larvicides and pesticides that poison the environment, while others are concerned about the unknowns surrounding any new technology.
Over the years, governments and corporations have lied to populations the world over about the safety of certain projects and manipulated science for profit or to suit political agendas that have backfired. The fears surrounding genetic modification have been fuelled further by the very real concerns regarding GM food and the misuse by profit-making giant corporations. Given the bad rap GM gets generally, the Oxitec bio-engineered bugs are also a target.
Cox said his clients and locally concerned citizens believe there are many questions still to be answered. The campaign, he said, is moving out of the courtroom and into the public space, where he said he wants to see more discussion and debate and the government engage with the people about whether GM modified mosquitoes are the best way to address the challenges faced by the MRCU in controlling the Aedes aegypti. The publicity campaign will be taken up by local marketing firm, Tower, and a website has been launched to collate the information on the GM bugs.
The lawyer also said that his clients wanted to see debate about other technologies, such as Wolbachia method, which harnesses the bacteria carried by bugs to reduce the Aedes aegypti. However, MRCU Director Bill Petrie said his team has looked closely at that technology and there are more problems with it than the GM method because the bacteria remains in the environment and the method is not ready or available for use yet.