Q.  Is there a connection between the Zika virus and global food security?

A.   Yes. Genetic engineering has an important role to play in meeting both challenges. 

The mosquito is the deadliest animal on earth. According to the World Health Organization, mosquitoes are the greatest menace spreading malaria, dengue, yellow fever and, now, the Zika disease. These are all vector-borne diseases meaning they are transmitted by an insect or parasite. 

The dengue virus is the fastest growing vector-borne disease. The global cost of dengue is estimated to be $17 billion including vector control, mortality and healthcare. The Zika virus was first identified in Uganda (in the Zika Forest) then jumping to islands in the Pacific. Zika is now present in multiple countries throughout the Americas.

U.S. health officials have issued a travel warning for 14 countries and territories in the Caribbean and Latin America where infection from the Zika virus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cautioned pregnant women not to travel to those areas as Zika has been linked to serious birth defects, such as microcephaly.

There is no vaccine to fight the Zika virus. The most promising technology to control the Zika disease is through the genetic engineering of mosquitoes. The private sector, led by the Intrexon Corporation, has developed a way to modify male mosquitoes such that when they mate with the females their offspring die before they can transmit the disease. The technology has been approved in Brazil and last year Piracicaba, Brazil became the world’s first city to release the modified mosquitoes. The technology is pending approval in the United States. Hopefully, that will happen in the very near future.

Interestingly, a new survey done by Purdue University shows that he U.S. public overwhelmingly supports introducing genetically engineered mosquitoes to help control the spread of the Zika virus. The researchers said they were surprised by the findings because of the public debate over GMOs in food and agriculture.

"Yet when it comes to fighting the Zika virus, public sentiment comes out pretty strong in favor of using these technologies to our advantage," said Nicole Widman, of Purdue University's Department of Agricultural Economics and lead researcher on the study.

"It's too soon to say what all the implications of our findings mean, but we are already conducting further data analysis," said Wallace Tyner, co-researcher in the Department of Agricultural Economics. "We can certainly say that what we've discovered is startling, and we're pleased that the U.S. public has demonstrated a willingness to be open to all the tools we've got in fighting this outbreak."

The Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi, has called upon the federal government, working in conjunction with the scientific community, to take swift and proactive steps to eradicate or at least substantially reduce the population of mosquitoes in Puerto Rico and other U.S. jurisdictions.

The application of genetic engineering to medicine is not confined to mosquitoes. Many of the drugs we consume are the product of genetic engineering. A familiar example is insulin.

During my first trip to Africa for the World Food Program many years ago I was surprised to see medical doctors in the fields farming. When I inquired, they explained that the AIDS medications would not work without food so they were learning how to farm. The program was being run by the University of Indiana Medical School, headed by Dr. Joe Mamlin.

In short, there is a strong relationship between health care, nutrition and food security yet the public (or a very vocal minority of the public) seems to have a different standard for, and acceptance of, genetic engineering when it comes to health care as compared to the production of food. Yet both medicines and food are consumed and enter the human body.

Why the difference? Maybe it’s a secret that drugs are frequently produced through genetic engineering. Maybe we just trust medical doctors more than plant biologists. Or, maybe when we’re sick we just want to get better and don’t ask questions.

The public understands there is a process for testing and approving the safety and efficacy of drugs, including drugs that are genetically engineered. The public doesn’t seem to know that there is a similar process for the clearance of agriculture biotechnology.

The medical profession does not have to defend genetically engineered drugs because there is no effort underway to challenge the effectiveness of the products. That is not the case when it comes to agriculture. The use of genetic engineering for the production food is being attacked and its efficacy called into question. The reason for the attack is simply economic competition, which is fine, but that is not understood. Therefore, there must be a much broader effort by a wider range of experts and scientists, including medical doctors, explaining the benefits of genetic engineering and debunking the myths. And the messaging should include a blunt discussion of the economic motive to being anti-genetic engineering. of being anti-GMO.

The Zika epidemic can become a teachable moment for all forms of biotechnology. Biotechnology will surely not solve all of the world’s problems. The challenges we face are very complex, with an still-growing world population, climate change and increased resistance to some existing drugs. We will need all the available tools to address these most serious issues. The scientific community can help by speaking with one voice across disciplines in an effort to assure the public on the safety of all genetically engineered products and the rigor of the government’s clearance process.

Finally, the Congress must pre-empt multiple state labeling systems that could lead to the labeling of genetically modified food products with different schemes more in the nature of a “warning” than factual information. Transparency on biotechnology would help inspire consumer confidence, but fifty different labeling systems would be as confusing as having fifty different nutrition labels or fifty rules for health claims.

Secrets make people nervous, but multiple state labeling systems will impede commerce. As the Safe Affordable Food Coalition recently wrote to Congress, “The application of biotechnology to agricultural production has led to increased crop yields, decreased use of pesticides, and lower food costs for consumers. Congress must ensure we avoid senseless (state) mandates that will thwart agricultural advancement and hurt consumers—especially those low income Americans who can least afford to pay more to feed their families.”

The federal government must step into the breach. Last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack yet again called for Congress to solve the dispute over genetic labeling, warning that failure to block state labeling laws will "create real chaos in the market." He is right on target.


Marshall Matz specializes in agriculture and global food security at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.


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