Insect Apocalypse

A British biotech company has approval to release genetically modified mosquitoes into the Florida Keys. Next year they plan a similar event in Houston. The company, called Oxitec, has the approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which said America “needs to facilitate innovation and advance the science around new tools and approaches to better protect the health of all Americans.”

Oxitec created a male GMO mosquito with a special gene that prevents female offspring from surviving to adulthood. That’s key because only female mosquitoes feed on blood from animals to grow their eggs. In theory, then, large-scale release of Oxitec’s male GMO mosquitoes “should eventually cause the temporary collapse of a wild population.”

If successful long-term, GMO mosquitoes could literally save millions of lives. Diseases like Zika, dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever are all carried by mosquitoes, and the World Health Organization says more than a million people die from those diseases each year.

While promising, the effectiveness of GMO mosquitoes is far from settled, and environmental groups remain skeptical about GMO mosquitoes just as they are about GMOs in general. Indeed, many activists are worried about more than just mosquitoes, and your business is often identified as the culprit of the coming “Insect Apocalypse.”

That’s the phrase some media outlets use to describe the coming “ecosystem collapse” and “food crisis” that is the result of modern farming practices. A recent New York Times article “warned of the dark ages about to be ushered in by pesticides.” The author says we should preserve “weedy” backyards filled with mosquitoes and other insects of various species. The author suggests that if the global insect die-off continues there will be no insects left a hundred years from now.

That would be a problem as insects are responsible for pollinating roughly one-third of the human food supply. John Entine, however, founder of the Genetic Literacy Project, an organization dedicated to promoting public awareness and discussion of genetics, biotechnology and science literacy, says the activists are just plain wrong about the “Insect Apocalypse.”

“We should all be frightened…if there are even a few ounces of truth to the common wisdom presented in the Times’ essay,” Entine wrote. He says a widely accepted study by German scientists analyzed almost a century’s worth of data from 166 long-term insect surveys.

“Overall, terrestrial insects are declining much less rapidly (3 to 6-fold less) than other recent high-profile studies had suggested, and even this likely overstates the trend. Freshwater insect populations are actually increasing,” Entine writes.

“’Crop cover,’” which means things like corn, soybeans, sorghum, cotton, wheat, alfalfa and hay, is associated with increases in insect populations. There is no association between insect population trends and global warming.

“The only clear association with insect declines,” Entine says, “is with urbanization, likely caused by habitat destruction, light pollution and waste pollution.”