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The EFSA’s draft guidance specifically excludes testing whether GM insects and caterpillars are safe to eat.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 Nature will adapt to GM insect releases in complex ways that have been ignored in the draft guidance.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.