WASHINGTON, July 6, 2017 - A proposal to release genetically engineered diamondback moths in cabbage fields in upstate New York has received a green light from USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
APHIS released a final environmental assessment (EA) and FONSI – a Finding of No Significant Impact – and said it will issue a permit to Tony Shelton, an entomologist at Cornell University conducting the research, because the proposed field trial is unlikely to harm the environment or human health.
The plan is to release up to 10,000 GE male moths each week during the cabbage planting cycle (about three to four months). The males are genetically engineered with a lethal gene that they pass on to females when they mate. Experiments already conducted show that the female offspring then die, usually as caterpillars.
“Successful mating between GE male and non-GE female diamondback moths produced only 9 percent female survival to pupation and no more than 1 percent female survival to adult,” according to the EA. The idea is to continue releasing the GE male moths so that they overwhelm the non-GE population, resulting in a gradual decrease of the moth population.
Funding for the experiments comes from Oxitec, a biotech company in the United Kingdom owned by Intrexon, based in Germantown, Md. Oxitec says the GE moths could provide a viable alternative to the use of insecticides.
The moth “is well-known for its ability to develop resistance to synthetic and organic insecticides,” Oxitec says. “New control methods for the diamondback moth are needed that are effective, sustainable and do not disrupt environmentally sensitive species like pollinators.”
Groups such as the Center for Food Safety and Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA/NY) have criticized the proposal, expressing concerns ranging from the possibility that GE caterpillars will end up in growers' cabbages to the possibility of moths leaving the experimental area. They contend there is no guarantee the moths will not stray from the 10-acre site where the field trial will be carried out, or from the entire 870-acre New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) at Cornell.
“It is unrealistic to believe that all released moths will confine themselves to the NYSAES property,” NOFA/NY said in its comments on the April draft EA. “Barriers to ‘dispersal’ noted in the EA include the fact that diamondback moths are not good flyers, they are unable to over-winter due to temperature, or that there will be a proposed permit condition that will cease the release if there are reports of an imminent hurricane.
“We disagree: the action area does include a larger radius, and therefore requires significant attention to what activities (human and otherwise) occur outside of the NYSAES property.”
Both Liana Hoodes of NOFA/NY and Jaydee Hanson of Center for Food Safety contend that the moths are better at traveling than APHIS gives them credit for. “They’re not, to my mind, doing enough to make sure there’s no possibility of these animals moving off site,” says Hanson, a senior policy analyst at CFS. “These (moths) are not native to the New York area. They come in from somewhere else.”
The EA, however, calls the diamondback moth a “weak flyer, a characteristic that strongly limits its ability to disperse long distances. Observations from the peer-reviewed literature that long-distance dispersal of diamondback moth, when and where it occurs, is typically facilitated by strong wind currents across geographic regions, and wind conditions at the area of origin during infestation.”
The EA acknowledges that a hurricane near the release site “may temporarily shift the directionality of predominant winds,” which could result in “long-distance dispersal” of GE moths toward areas where it may be able to survive the winter.
Hoodes says that the New York Department of Environmental Conservation still has to grant a permit for the experiments. NOFA/NY has asked NYDEC to conduct a comprehensive environmental analysis of the proposal.
The EA cites a 2012 study to show that the moth, which feeds on cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, is a significant crop pest. But it appears to misreport the results of that study, which estimated worldwide costs of management and crop damage at $4-$5 billion per year. The EA, however, says those costs apply to the United States alone.
The proposal received support from the New York Farm Bureau, American Farm Bureau Federation, National Association of Wheat Growers and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, among others. The vast majority of the 673 commenters were opposed, though APHIS classified 5.9 percent of the comments as “substantively” opposed, and 4.9 percent as “substantively” in support.
Jack Bobo, chief communications officer for Intrexon, reiterated the company’s support for APHIS’s analysis. “The concerns raised by farmers and other organizations have been carefully evaluated by USDA,” he said.
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