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There's No Need for Genetically Modified Mosquitoes in The Keys

Submitted by Food Democracy Now on December 3, 2014 - 4:20pm

There were no cases of dengue fever in the Keys this year Or last year. Or the year before.

In fact, the last case of dengue fever in the Keys was in 2009. But the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District continues to aggressively push a program to breed and release genetically modified mosquitoes on our islands to prevent something that isn't happening.

To further fan the flames of public and media hysteria and, thereby, promote its plan, Mosquito Control hauled out a warning about chikungunya, a very serious and painful disease that mosquitoes spread.

The Florida Department of Health reported that during the summer of 2014, chikungunya infected 18 people in the entire state, none in the Keys.

Florida has a population of 18 million people, making the combined disease rate for both diseases .00025 percent, which doesn't warrant such fear-mongering. It would be like inoculating the entire country against Ebola because of the three cases that have occurred.

To facilitate this misguided effort, Mosquito Control has contracted with Oxitec (www.oxitec.com/) to breed frankenskeeters in leased space in the Marathon headquarters of Mosquito Control. It's not clear what taxpayers are shelling out to Oxitec, how long the contract will last or what the entire project will cost.

In brief, Oxitec has figured out how to implant a gene in Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the main transmitter of the dengue virus, that will kill them unless the insects are given tetracycline. Males are released into the wild where tetracycline is not available. They mate but their offspring die before adulthood.

It sounds great on paper: Reducing the use of toxic pesticides that indiscriminately kill mosquitoes and beneficial insects such as bees and butterflies, as well as aquatic life. But the technique raises many troubling questions about why Mosquito Control is on this path.

Does releasing genetically modified mosquitoes actually reduce the incidence of disease? 

According to Genewatch in the United Kingdom, "Experiments using Oxitec's GM mosquitoes [continue] in Brazil but the authorities have indicated they would need evidence that the technology actually reduces the impact of the tropical disease dengue fever before approving Oxitec's application for commercial use.

"Impacts on dengue fever are uncertain because small numbers of mosquitoes can still transmit disease and complex effects on human immunity mean that a partial or temporary reduction in mosquito numbers can sometimes worsen the impacts of the virus."

Oxitec has never shown that reduced mosquito populations result in reduced disease transmission. Why is Mosquito Control pushing so hard to conduct this experiment in the Keys when dengue is not a problem?

According to a 2011 article in The New York Times, "critics say that Oxitec has rushed into field testing without sufficient review and public consultation, sometimes in countries with weak regulations."

The article added that Oxitec's Luke Alphey said the company left the review to authorities in the host countries. How will the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District be able to evaluate the effectiveness of these bugs when they plan to release them in Key Haven in February, a time when there are very few mosquitoes around and when Mosquito Control already supports the effort?

Is objecting to genetically modified organisms anti-science?

Opponents of Mosquito Control's plan have been criticized for objecting to a scientifically sound technology that will reduce pesticide use. But once these frankenskeeters are released, they can't be taken back and Oxitec will be releasing 3 million to 4 million of them.

According to a paper from the Extreme Risk Initiative at the New York University School of Engineering, GMOs offer a classic case of unforeseeable systemic ruin. We will know we are ruined by this untried technology after the ruin happens. The authors reject the notion that modern genetic engineering of organisms is no more dangerous than traditional selective breeding.

The European Union practices the Precautionary Principle, which demands proof that an innovation is not broadly harmful to humans or our environment before it is deployed, a policy that should be applied in the Keys.

It all boils down to this: Why risk the introduction of GM mosquitoes in an area that isn't particularly threatened by dengue fever? The Keys have a fragile environment and this experiment just isn't worth it, financially or scientifically. 

Concerned? Then attend a public information session being staged by Mosquito Control and Oxitec in Key West Dec. 4 at 6 p.m. at the Harvey Government Center. The board is determined to undertake this radical experiment and may not be stopped even by strong public opinion. Nevertheless, it's urgent that residents become informed about the potential risk of genetically modified organisms to our very fragile environment.

Originally Published: Keys Net

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