Replacing Pesticides with Genetics

Researchers have recently discovered a way to control populations of agricultural pests such as the diamondback moth without using pesticides – genetic engineering. In short, they genetically modify insects to kill off their own species within a few generations. Although it provides an alternative to sprays, it is still very controversial, and has both positives and negatives. In this current event, researchers examine work done by UK-based Oxitec in eradicating moth larvae from cabbage plants, and what it means for the future of food.

Background: Diamondback moths are an invasive species to North America. They are predators of cabbage, kale, and broccoli plants grown for human consumption. They feed off the leaves of the plant, eventually killing it from lack of nutrition from the sun. In a study done through Oxford, the solution to this agricultural annoyance might be in genetic modification and using the animal’s natural instincts against them. Researchers have altered genes in some male moths to kill female larvae (babies) after they’ve mated. If these moths are released, they are predicted to outcompete natural male moths and kill off the whole species population in an area in just a few generations.

UntitledKilling off pests through genetic engineering seems to have a lot of benefits for humans. Because insects – in this case, the diamondback moths – are gotten rid of without the use of pesticides, human consumers can eat a nice-looking, pesticide-free vegetable, for a cheap price. This could bring healthier foods to people who cannot normally afford the steep prices of organic vegetables. It could also give farmers an alternative to pesticides and the highly destructive market surrounding them. After the horror stories surrounding companies like Monsanto and others, it is reassuring to a consumer that their food could come from an independent farmer.

But, there are drawbacks as well. For one thing, this technology is just starting to be tested outside of the lab, and we all know that the outside world is a much more complicated environment. After other experiments in genetic modification, such as the Golden Rice initiative, Monsantos “Roundup-Ready” seed spillage into organic farms, and controversy surrounding Florida’s genetically altered mosquitoes, it seems naïve to think there is complete certainty in this experiment. It is also naïve to believe that companies surrounding genetic manipulation are more conscientious of farmers and the publics concerns than pesticide companies. Also, while human impacts are few (or at least few measured), the effect on the moth species, and the ecological environment surrounding them, is a definitive negative. The diamondback moth, though small to us, has a huge effect on other species in its food web, and ecological processes it’s involved in. For example, the diamondback moth is prey to Microplitis plutellae, a very picky wasp. For the wasp to survive, it needs to feed on the copious amounts of diamondback larvae in the summer to store up for the winter. Without the diamondback moth, this species, and the species dependent on them, will all be hurt.

This particular concern confused me. When I found the New York Times article, I expected it to address effects on the ecological environment – and how they would manage without a huge food source, but it did not, it only addressed whether or not the introduced gene would hurt the species directly. When asked how it would affect the other species, the chief executive of Oxitec (the company that owns the technology) said this:

“We fed the protein to mosquitoes, fish, beetles, spiders and parasitoids. It’s nontoxic.” (Haydn Parry).

There were some other shady things going on behind the scenes that worried me as well, and caused me to do some more research for myself in gene manipulation. For one thing, the UK stopped supporting these trial experiments in 2012, and considering that Oxitec is a shoot-off company of Oxford University, based in the UK, this says a lot. Also, according to a report done by UK-based “Sustainable Pulse” newspaper, Oxitec has a reputation for conducting uncontrolled environmental experiments in countries that don’t require a lot of conscious oversight, such as Brazil and the United States.

This is in issue that will keep coming up, some say it is the future of food and medicine. It is your decision to agree or disagree with genetic manipulation and who is doing it, in your food, in your ecosystem, and in your body. Here are some links to get involved if you’re interested!

Written by Isabel Rummell, ESLLC 2015-2016

Learn more about the Diamondback Moth:

GeneWatch, a non-profit newsgroup:

Labiotech, a for-profit newsgroup:

Oxitec and Monsanto websites *warning – very biased*:

Scholars take on GM insects:

Some good documentaries and conversations: *the full version can be found at the DU library*

TED talks:

Hayden Parry

GMO food-related TED talks:


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