GM Bugs Could Spread in Fruit and Veg Under EU Proposals

by Helen Wallace, GeneWatch

Selling fish, meat and milk from GM animals will be controversial but the new draft rules will also allow billions of GM insect eggs and caterpillars to be spread in fruit and vegetables — claims campaign group.

The European Food Safety Agency’s new draft rules for approving genetically modified insects, fish, farm animals and pets should give farmers, food producers, retailers and consumers pause for thought. Selling fish, meat and milk from GM animals will be controversial but the new draft rules will also allow billions of GM insect eggs and caterpillars to be spread in vegetables and fruit.

British company Oxitec’s GM moths and flies are likely to be approved by the European Union under the new rules. The GM insects have been genetically engineered so their caterpillars die inside olives or tomatoes or on the leaves of cabbages. The company plans to release GM pests across the EU to mate with wild pests, in an attempt to reduce their numbers. Millions of GM pests must be released each week to have any effect on wild populations.

For example, GM olive flies will die as pupae. This will normally be before the adult flies emerge from the olives in which the flies lay their eggs. Oxitec proposes that this should be treated as an "adventitious presence" under EU law — meaning that the presence in food of any dead, dying or surviving insects would be treated as accidental and would not require regulation, traceability or labelling of the olives. Most of the offspring of the GM insects die at the late larval — caterpillar — or pupal stage, but some will survive to adulthood and could also pose environmental risks. The firm is currently working on GM tomato borers, GM diamond back moths — which eat cabbages and broccoli — and GM fruit flies as well as GM olive flies.

The EFSA’s draft guidance specifically excludes testing whether GM insects and caterpillars are safe to eat. It claims that the health risks of GM insects in food were addressed by a previous consultation, which in fact explicitly excluded them. The EFSA also fails to explain how GM fish or insect eggs could be prevented from ending up in the wrong places and causing harm to the environment. Nature will adapt to GM insect releases in complex ways that have been ignored in the draft guidance.

For example, using GM pests to reduce another type of pest can lead to a surge in other types of pest. The impacts of GM insects on human and animal diseases are poorly understood and have not been properly considered. For example, GM flies could spread diseases from faeces onto fruit. There are also plans to release more than one type of GM insect into the same area and to combine releasing GM insects with growing GM crops. The genomes of thousands of different insects are now being sequenced. Many different species could be genetically modified and released in billions into the European countryside under the proposed guidance.

At GeneWatch UK, we have written to the European Commission objecting to the roles of Oxitec and multinational pesticide company Syngenta in drafting the new rules and questioning EFSA’s competence to draft guidance on issues that are not within its remit. Syngenta has funded Oxitec to develop GM agricultural pests and most of Oxitec’s management and board are ex-Syngenta staff. In our response to the consultation, we have highlighted how the draft guidance can be distorted to favour approval of GM insects for commercial use.

Consumers, farmers, retailers and food producers might take a different view from the companies that want to commercialise this new technology. Will anyone want to eat dead or dying GM caterpillars in their olives or tomatoes? And will it be acceptable if GM pests that are still alive end up in people’s gardens or other farmers’ fields? There are many questions yet to be answered.


  1. Just insane. When will it stop? Powdery mildew that self destructs? Will these scientists commit “speciescide” against everything that might constitute a threat to crops?

    So when we wipe out entire trophic levels, will these same scientists develop GM birds, small mammals, and other species so that they can find new sources of food?

    Even if they release “test” batches, I fear that these self-destruction genes will spread well beyond their “intended” zones.

  2. Truly a recipe for disaster. Though I wouldn’t be worried about whole trophic levels permanently disappearing because of GM animals. Nature has a way of counterbalancing imbalances. I just worry about what form that might take. Like explosions in populations of pests that have lost their predators before finally balancing out. Something on the scale of Biblical insect plagues comes to mind.

  3. “GM olive flies will die as pupae”… um, clearly none of the scientists (and I use that term lightly) working on the project took any entomology courses. Insects that undergo the pupal stage canNOT mate until AFTER the stage is completed. Until then, they are not adults, they are not capable of reproduction. So… how is it that they expect them to mate with the native population?! I suppose in a way, I’m glad they have no clue, the threat of spread has already self-destructed.

  4. Great, just what we needed… Forgive the sarcassm, but of course these biotechnology corporations know beyond all doubt that these insects serve no purpose ecologically and that they just happened to evolved over millions of years purely to malign corporate profits of large argibusiness interests and therefore can be eliminated. Why does the story of Frankenstein’s monster come to mind in such instances? I can only wonder…

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