Released last week, the report was commissioned by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, a branch of Health Canada that regulates chemicals used to control insect pests. It's the start of what its authors hope will be an urgent and thoughtful debate about the possible role of a completely new way of eliminating these insects.
Genetic pest control tools could radically change our relationship with the environment, not only because of their potential impact on the ecosystem of which we are a part but also because of their challenge to social and cultural values that shape decisions surrounding their use.
A quote from From the report
Genetic pest control is being considered for several reasons, a said Mark Belmonte, co-author and biologist at the University of Manitoba.
Traditional pesticides are becoming less effective, either because insects are developing resistance or because communities are seeking what I consider safer alternatives.
A quote from Mark Belmonte, co-author and biologist at the x27;University of Manitoba
Climate change adds its own pressures.
We had very cold winters and it was great for insect control, Belmonte said. Now we're seeing a huge change where cold spells don't last as long or disappear altogether. We find that insect populations change quite quickly.
In addition, this technique reduces the use of chemicals and, unlike pesticides, it strongly targets a single species.
Genetic responses to these problems can either modify a genome to sterilize the pest, or modify something else that makes it less effective, for example by reducing its ability to survive the cold.
These two strategies can be used in two ways.
In one, a modified population of sterile males is introduced in numbers large enough to reduce and control an infestation. Modified insects should be periodically reintroduced.
In the other strategy, the insect – perhaps with a change intended to make it vulnerable to a chemical – is modified in such a way that its genome replaces the original genome in the overall population. The new arrival becomes the new norm.
Humans have been modifying animals through selective breeding for centuries. But it seems new, said co-author Ben Matthews, a zoologist at the University of Manitoba.
We're doing something fundamentally different, says -he.
Breeding animals to achieve desired traits gives years to evaluate their behavior and impacts. That's not the case with an organism modified in a lab and released into the wild, Matthews said.
Good specialists are uncomfortable with the idea of playing God, he added.
Genetically modified mosquitoes are already being tested in Africa against malaria, a disease that killed nearly 620,000 people last year. This finding makes a compelling case for continued research, said Robert Slater, professor of public policy at Carleton University and chair of the committee that wrote the report.
Canada is just beginning to discuss how to regulate genetically modified insects, Slater said. This is not going to be easy.
The regulatory system is evidence-based. He must weigh what are the risks and what are the benefits. This is a brand new technology and we have very little evidence, he argued.
Mr. Slater said he and his colleagues recommend a slow approach with lots of what he calls exit ramps. Small field trials would allow regulators to learn how to work with local communities and provide much-needed data on effects and benefits.