On August 5, 2016 the Food and Drug Administration approved field trials on genetically modified mosquitoes that could help fight the growing pandemic caused by Zika virus. Despite progress, the road forward could be halted; like so many useful genetically modified products before, solutions to the Zika crisis could be rendered dead in the water by anti-GMO activists and environmentalists.
These GMO mosquitoes have been developed by Oxitec and will be released in Key Haven, Florida to see if they suppress the local mosquito population. The FDA has stated that the proposed field trial will not have significant impacts on the ecosystem and Oxitec is responsible for all requirements to be met. These GMO mosquitoes are not available for commercial use and strictly used for trials.
Though still in pre-field trials, if these new genetically modified mosquitoes achieve the goal of fighting Zika carrying mosquitoes, it could be a game changer in this growing pandemic. According to the World Health Organization, Zika is primarily carried by the Aedes mosquito, and less commonly transferred by sexual contact and blood transfusions. The virus was first identified in Uganda and has now been recorded throughout Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific. Despite the spread, symptoms only tend to last around two to seven days usually encompassing fever, headaches, and rashes. The focus, though, is around pregnant women who have been shown to deliver children with neurological complications like microcephaly. This is especially troubling since abortion is highly restricted or illegal in nations where Zika is prevalent.
Despite the spreading of the virus and neurological risks faced by unborn babies, the new GMO mosquitoes will likely be opposed by the environmentalist crowd who often reject any usage of GMOs. Anti-GMO groups range from international nonprofits like Greenpeace to community activists that fight under names like March Against Monsanto. Some conspiracy theorists are even claiming Oxitec GM mosquitoes are to blame for the spread of Zika. This is not to say that GMO companies like Monsanto are beyond criticism, rather that arguments claiming GMOs are unsafe and harmful to the environment are not supported by the research.
Since the first GMO was developed, there have been over 2000 studies showing that they are safe for human use. The few studies that have shown issues in animals like the study where rats were fed GM corn and later developed tumors, have been retracted due to lack of scientific backing. Despite the lack of evidence that GMOs are bad for humans, many activists and even governments in the EU have banned or seek bans on GMO products. This not only hinders innovation, but could now jeopardize the pregnancies of countless women.
One such project that was blocked by activists was the Enviropig, a genetically engineered pig developed at the University of Guelph, that has a gene which allows it to release less phosphorous in its manure. This could have helped reduce the environmental impact caused by manure runoff which causes things like algal blooms and dead zones. The project was ended and all remaining pigs were slaughtered because the Canadian government was opposed to the pigs entering the food supply. Many environmentalists supported the measure, fearing it would increase industrialized agriculture, despite the fact this is already the norm and externalities could have been reduced thanks to the Enviropig. Despite the failure of market viability of the Enviropig, this has not ended the push for GMOs being developed.
The first GMO animal was approved to be put into the food supply in 2015 in the form of a GM salmon which grows faster than a non-GM salmon. However, due to GMO fear many stores refuse to sell the product. Other projects that have been developed range from apples that never brown to mosquitoes that could prevent dengue fever.
These genetic breakthroughs are just the start to a better world that could help in the fight against disease, hunger and environmental destruction. These Zika fighting mosquitos are a symbol of the potential benefit of GMOs in the name of helping humanity. Though if the anti-GMO and environmental crowds continue their unscientific fight against these innovations, we may never see the benefits.
Sam Dunkovich is a political science major with a communication minor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He is a Young Voices advocate.