WASHINGTON, April 19, 2017 - USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has favorably reviewed a permit application to release genetically engineered diamondback moths in New York as a way of reducing populations of the pest, which causes significant damage to cabbage and related vegetable crops annually.
An environmental assessment (EA) released by the agency concludes that effects on the environment or on humans is unlikely. The public comment period on the EA ends May 19.
The GE moths have been developed by Oxitec, the same company that has been testing GE mosquitos, and would be released on a 10-acre plot at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. Cornell entomologist Anthony Shelton has applied for the permit to conduct the trial.
The moths are engineered with a “female autocidal trait” that kills the female offspring of the GE males and non-GE females, usually in the larval stage.
“The female autocidal trait is anticipated to decrease the number of diamondback moth offspring following field release through elimination of female moths,” the EA says. “Any female progeny produced from GE diamondback moth males and non-GE diamondback moth females is likely to die.”
Field cage experiments performed in 2015 were successful, Cornell said, noting that it plans multiple releases of a few thousand GE and non-GE moths, for a total of about 50,000 moths. The release of so many GE male diamondback moths “is anticipated to oversaturate breeding populations of non-GE diamondback moths with GE males,” the APHIS EA says.
Use of the GE moths could reduce growers’ dependence on insecticides, Oxitec says.
Organic growers of cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower near the experiment station are concerned, however, that the trials could result in dead GE caterpillars in their plants, said Liana Hoodes, policy adviser at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York.
“There are a lot of questions still out there about how it will affect the areas outside the test site,” Hoodes said, mentioning potential effects on “non-target species” such as birds and mammals – including people – from eating the larvae.
The Center for Food Safety is raising some of the same concerns about the proposal. “The economic problem is, they’re doing this trial right next to one of the major cabbage-growing areas of the U.S.,” CFS senior policy analyst Jaydee Hanson said.
He also said that APHIS needs to do “a real fulsome review of the environmental impacts of this. There are lots of birds and some mammals that eat moths.”
Hanson also said he thinks the issue should be handled by EPA. “This is really more of a pesticidal trait for plant pests that in my opinion is more appropriately addressed by EPA,” he said.
But Jack Bobo, senior vice president and chief communication officer for Oxitec parent company Intrexon, said APHIS has plenty of experience dealing with the issues raised by the organic growers and CFS.
APHIS granted a permit for a field trial in November 2014 after issuing a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI) but withdrew the permit two years later because the agency had not formally notified the public of the release of the FONSI.
“USDA has had several years to consider concerns” expressed about the field trial, Bobo said. He also said that Oxitec and Intrexon “take (growers’) concerns seriously and we’re doing everything within our power to minimize impacts” of the trial.
Bobo said the GE moths “could provide a new tool” for growers to control the moths and reduce the need to use insecticides “that have limited efficacy today.”
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