The problems caused by infectious disease and agricultural pests are real. Genetically modified (GM) insects have the potential to address both these problems. The UK is a world leader in the development of this technology. The European Union’s regulatory process, however, is likely to hold back progress. There is a moral duty to test the potential of the technology. We therefore support further research and call for action to test the efficiency of the EU process via a trial which should also be used to drive public engagement.
The world’s fastest growing insect-borne disease is dengue. The global incidence of dengue has grown dramatically in recent decades and about half of the world’s population is now at risk. Dengue can be found in tropical and sub-tropical climates across the world. The possibility of an outbreak of dengue, however, now exists in Europe. This mosquito-borne viral infection causes a flu-like illness, and can develop into a potentially lethal complication named severe dengue. Severe dengue is a leading cause of hospitalization and death among children in many Asian and Latin American countries. A recent study estimated there to be 390 million dengue infections per year.
In 2015 there have been approximately 214 million cases of malaria and 438,000 deaths. Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly affected; so far this year, the region has been home to 89% of malaria cases and 91% of malaria deaths. Malaria is both preventable and curable, and increased efforts have seen significant reductions in malaria incidence (the rate of new cases) and deaths. Nevertheless, about 3.2 billion people, nearly half of the world’s population, live in countries, territories and areas where malaria is endemic.
By 2050 the world’s population will likely increase by more than a third to over 9 billion people. World food production will be required to increase by 70% to feed this larger, more urban and richer population. Insect pests affect all aspects of food production, storage, transport and waste. Agricultural losses due to insect damage are high. For example, insect pests cause an average annual loss of 7.7% in production in Brazil, a reduction of approximately 25 million tons of food, fibre and biofuels, with total annual economic losses reaching around US$ 17.7 billion. Insect-borne diseases also have a heavy impact on livestock. Research conducted at the Pirbright Institute in the UK prevented Bluetongue disease becoming endemic in UK sheep and cattle, an estimated saving to the UK economy of £480 million in 2008 alone.
The development and use of GM insects offers significant potential for both the control of infectious diseases and the management of agricultural pests. It is possible to manipulate an insect’s DNA in order to alter its function or reduce its fitness. In this way, insects which transmit diseases or damage crops can be modified. GM insect technologies are a potential form of biological control, in contrast to the use of chemical controls, such as insecticides, which can be harmful to people and the environment.
GM insect technology has already been trialled for dengue transmitting mosquitoes. Developed by the UK company Oxitec Ltd., field evaluations have seen a >90% reduction in numbers of the target species in the Cayman Islands and a 96% reduction in Brazil, which is argued to be sufficient to prevent endemic dengue fever anywhere in the world. From the evidence we heard, it may be the case that GM insect technology is more suited to tackling dengue than malaria.
In November 2015, scientists announced that they had successfully used GM insect technology so that a modified mosquito passes on genes conferring resistance to a pathogen (an organism that causes disease) to almost all of its offspring, not just half, as would normally be expected. This offers the possibility of a gene resistant to the parasite that causes malaria being able to spread quickly through a wild population of mosquitoes. In early December 2015, scientists, including Professor Austin Burt who gave oral evidence to our inquiry, announced findings that could speed up the development of techniques to suppress mosquito populations to levels that would not support malaria transmission.
The potential of GM insect technologies, however, should not be over-stated; an arsenal of strategies is required to tackle insect-borne diseases and crop pests. GM insect technologies do not represent a panacea. They are one of a number of experimental techniques being investigated in order to control insect-borne diseases and reduce agricultural pests.
Nevertheless, despite inevitable uncertainties, we conclude that GM insect technologies should be afforded an opportunity to play a complementary role in helping to meet the global challenges of disease control and food security. The UK, moreover, is a world leader in this area and hosts the only company in the world producing and distributing GM insects (Oxitec Ltd.).
Unfortunately, we are very concerned that the benefits offered by GM insects may not be realised. The EU regulatory regime for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is not functioning effectively. Although no EU-level GM insect applications have been received to date, the regime has seen many applications for GM crops. In these cases, the regime is failing lamentably. The prescribed process is not being followed and the system is gridlocked. Strenuous efforts must be made to ensure that the system operates more efficiently and that future GM insect applications are not stymied unnecessarily. To this end, the UK Government must bring pressure to bear on the European Commission to ensure that the current regime works as intended.
However, ensuring that the current system works as intended is not sufficient. The EU regulatory regime does not take into account the benefits of a technology; regulation is entirely on the basis of risk. Any rational approach to deciding whether or not to pursue a given technology should include an assessment of its net benefits. At the moment, moreover, no consideration is given to the risks of alternatives to the GM application. A potential new GM insect technology to reduce an agricultural pest population, for example, would not be compared alongside the insecticide currently used to tackle the pest. As such, GMOs are effectively considered against an idealised, risk-free alternative. For many GM insect technologies, the alternative may present a number of risks and problems, and, in many cases, such risks and problems (the use of insecticides for instance) may be the imperative behind the development of the GM insect technology in the first place. Consideration of the benefits of a technology, and acknowledgment of the control methods currently in use, should be incorporated into the regulatory regime in order to address this illogical situation.
In order to attempt to break the current impasse, we recommend that the Government invests in a GM insect field trial to test fully the science of GM insects, regulatory processes and policies. This stimulus is required in order to move beyond the current stasis induced by the failings of the EU regulatory regime. Moreover, the pursuit of such a trial should be the catalyst for a public engagement exercise. It is imperative that the public is given the opportunity to understand the development of GM insect technologies in a transparent way so that the polarised debate which has enveloped GM crop technologies is avoided.
GM insect strategies for agricultural use are likely to have greater scope for application within the EU, though there may be future uses for public health purposes that could be applicable in Europe. In all likelihood, however, the main uses of GM insect technologies, particularly for public health purposes, will occur outside the EU. In this regard, we are concerned that the application of GM insect technologies in the countries whose need is greatest may be affected by a lack of international guidance and leadership on the governance and regulation of these technologies. We therefore recommend that the Government, in light of its strong commitment to international development, actively considers how these challenges of international guidance and leadership can be fully achieved.
The application of GM insect technology, together with advances in the broad area of biotechnology, has the potential to provide additional tools for the control of insect-borne diseases and crop pests. The conceivable prize is enormous and the opportunity must not be squandered. Our concern is that unless there is change, and an injection of momentum and urgency, it will be.
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