WASHINGTON, May 18, 2016 - The Zika virus doesn’t present a direct threat to agriculture, but several U.S. farm and food groups are united in their support of combating the disease with genetically engineered mosquitoes.

The issue for groups like the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) is more a show of support for biotechnology – a science that farmers depend on to produce most of their corn, cotton and soybean seeds – than anything else.

There are no commercial varieties of genetically modified wheat being planted in the U.S. now, but many farmers hope that will change in the future.

“Genetic engineering can be a very valuable tool in combating disease and also expanding food production to achieve global food security,” NAWG said in written comments sent to the FDA as the agency considers the use of genetically modified mosquitoes bred by the U.K.-based Oxitec.

NAWG President Gordon Stoner told Agri-Pulse, “As agriculture and human health continue to use GE technology, it is vital the U.S. government continue to approve these technologies as safe and sound based on science and not fearmongering in both aspects."

Similarly, the Grocery Manufacturers Association offered to the FDA its support of the Oxitec mosquito defense and stressed its belief in biotechnology as key to U.S. agricultural production.

“GMA has always been, and will continue to be, a strong and vocal advocate for rigorously evaluated applications of biotechnology to help address public health and agricultural issues in sustainable ways,” a spokesman for the group said.

While the FDA is now considering a draft environmental assessment and a preliminary finding of no significant impact on using the Oxitec mosquitoes to fight Zika, Oxitec is mainly focused on finding solutions to agricultural pests.

“Insect pests cost the global economy billions every year,” the company says. “An estimated $8 billion is spent each year on pesticides to control insect pests, but despite this, insects continue to damage crops, reducing yields and quality.”

Here’s how Oxitec’s plan works: A male pest – the Aedes aegypti mosquito – is genetically engineered to not bite and be sterile. Those bugs then mate with females, but unlike normal couplings, there will be no offspring or offspring that quickly die. Previous experimental trials show that introducing the genetically engineered mosquitoes reduced an entire population of the disease carriers by 96 percent, the company said.

If the FDA gives the plan a green light, the next trial will be in Key Haven, Florida, an island about a mile east of Key West. Oxitec, under the supervision of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, would release its mosquitoes into the environment.

While not directly addressing the mosquito defense, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy vowed Tuesday to increase funding for taking on the virus, which has been linked by the CDC to microcephaly and other severe brain defects in unborn children.

“We’ll have $622 million added to the almost $600 million already funded for (fiscal year 2016),” McCarthy said, noting that there were 113 pregnant women in the U.S. infected with the virus at the last count. “This is something that we have to continue to make sure we have the funding for to do the research. This will be more than a billion, $1.2 billion, just in this year. We want to get to the appropriations process that we’re starting this week, funding into (FY 2017). We want to make sure that we’re able to find the cure that is needed to deal with Zika.”

The Senate is set to beat that, though. It voted on Tuesday to move forward on legislation to fund an additional $1.1 billion to fight Zika. That would bring the FY 2016 total to $1.8 billion.

In its comments to FDA, the American Farm Bureau Federation stressed that its support for allowing the agency’s mosquito to go forward was based in supporting biotechnology in general and the advancement of science.

“To remain internationally competitive and lead the world in achieving the productivity and efficiency gains required to meet the food, fiber and energy demands and environmental challenges of the 21st century, U.S. agriculture must stay on the cutting edge of technology,” wrote Dale Moore, Farm Bureau’s executive director of public policy. “With all the challenges facing humanity today and in the future, technologies and tools must be available to combat pests, diseases or other environmental challenges. Genetic engineering provides a host of benefits for addressing these challenges while also lessening environmental impacts by reducing the use of pesticides. It is imperative that the FDA and all federal agencies support the use of genetic engineering.”

Not all of those who wrote to the FDA are in full support.

Ryan Berghoff, legal fellow for the Center for Food Safety, said the group has concerns and would like more time to study the potential environmental impact of releasing genetically modified mosquitoes to breed with the traditional bugs.

But the American Bird Conservancy sees immediate and substantial environmental benefits.

“This new method would have immense ecological, human health, and financial benefits (estimates are that up to $400,000 will be saved annually) due to the near elimination of pesticide use,” the group said.  “As global climate change increases the amount of the United States exposed to mosquito-vectored diseases, there will be a significant increase in the need for novel, preventative health care solutions. (The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District) and Oxitec’s field trial is the first, critical, yet cautious, step that could lead to longer-term benefits for the entire nation.”


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