For several years now, we’ve watched the quarrel over genetically modified organisms and their use in the food industry to make products more disease resistant, enhance their flavor and give them longer shelf life.
Opponents have argued there are health risks to the surge in GMOs: that they can trigger allergic reactions; some say they can cause cancer — although the American Cancer Society says there is no evidence of that — or lower resistance to fight over illness.
In just a few decades the scales have tipped in favor of GMOs. By 2014, 94 percent of soybean crops in the United States were genetically modified; 90 percent of the domestic corn crop and 91 percent of cotton crops. Close behind are apples, squash, potatoes and papayas. They’re used for corn starch, corn syrup, along with corn, canola and soybean oil.
Farmers like them because they can increase productivity; consumers like them because they lower food costs and they can also ensure that more people have access to top quality food.
Given that recent record, we were a bit surprised to read that there was a ruckus over genetically modified mosquitoes going on in the Florida Keys.
Local officials recently approved the release of 750 million modified mosquitoes next year in an effort to reduce the number of mosquitoes that carry diseases like the Zika virus, dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya.
The 750 million mosquitoes are an all-male army. According to news reports, the female mosquito is the one that bites humans because they need blood to produce eggs. Males only feed on nectar. The modified males, developed by Oxitec, a British-based company, carry a protein that will kill off any female offspring before the reach a mature biting age.
The plan is to have the modified mosquitoes mate with females and, over time, reduce the biting female mosquito population.
That seems like a good idea to us, but the approval from the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District was quickly denounced by environmental groups who labeled it a public “Jurassic Park experiment” that could damage the environment and possibly end up creating hybrid, insecticide-resistant breed of mosquito. Some call them “robo-squitoes.”
The environmental group Friends of the Earth said the board’s action would “needlessly put Floridians, the environment and endangered species at risk in the midst of a pandemic.” In short order, environmental groups gathered 240,000 signatures on a petition opposing the plan.
Oxitec maintains government studies show there is no adverse risk to humans or the environment and has already gotten positive results from field trials in Brazil and they have released more than a billion mosquitoes over the years. The company is also seeking to gain approval to expand to Texas next year.
The Oxitec modified mosquitoes are male Aedes aegypti species, not the Culex species which are common in the Midwest and can carry the West Nile virus. Still, we’ll be watching the Florida Keys test and hope that the technique can be replicated to fight our northern variety.
Until then, we’ll continue to arm ourselves with Off! and stay indoors after sunset if we have to.
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