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Genetically Modified Mosquitoes in the Florida Keys

March 28, 2015

Lately, I’ve been tuning into the hoopla surrounding the possible release of a genetically modified mosquito called the Oxitec mosquito, creepily named after the corporation that created it. I’ve read several articles and papers (My favorite being a New Yorker article titled “The Mosquito Solution.”) I’ve joined in on a few arguments on social media. I’ve read a lot of the pro-release info provided on the Oxitec and Florida Keys Mosquito Control website. I’ve also perused anti-release literature by GeneWatch, and watched the trailer for the documentary Scratching Beneath the Surface on YouTube.

None of this is the end-all of research on the matter, but I’ve seen enough to form a tentative opinion.

Given that we don’t actually have malaria, yellow fever, dengue or chikungunya currently in the Keys, many residents, myself included, feel unmotivated to experiment with releasing genetically modified mosquito into our densely populated neighborhoods and the delicate ecosystem upon which our economy depends. We already know the effects of the pesticides used by Mosquito Control, and so far, we’ve been mostly willing to endure them for the sake of less bug bites. It’s the devil we know.

Supporters of the Oxitec release accuse protesting Keys’ residents of having a knee-jerk response to the words “genetically modified.” They’ve called protestors “ignorant” and “anti-science.” It’s an effective bullying strategy: no one wants to get lumped in among the climate-change naysayers, anti-vaxxers, and creationists; I certainly don’t. But I think we are right not to trust blindly trust any corporation that tell us their product is good for us. I think we are correct not to trust our personal safety, or the safety of the environment, to the FDA or any other government entity. The U.S. government has all too often sided with big corporations at the expense of the environment and the people. Scientists don’t always have our best interests at heart, and corporation rarely do. The Oxitec mosquito isn’t about humanitarianism: it’s about making money for Oxitec.

But what if these genetically modified mosquitoes do exactly what they’re meant to do: target a particular species of disease-carrying mosquito more effectively than pesticides, and with less environmental damage? So far, in places where Oxitec mosquitoes have already been released (Malaysia, Brazil, and Caymen Islands) and there’s been no obvious health or environmental backlash. But it’s only been a year or so, so we don’t really know if they’re effective, safe, or cost-efficient in the long term.

One argument in favor of releasing the Oxitec mosquitoes is that they may cause less ecological damage than chemical pesticides currently used to curb mosquitoes. But since only one species of mosquito is affected (Aedes aegypti,the most likely mosquito to carry disease) release of the Oxitec ‘skeeter will probably not equal any less chemical pesticides in the Keys. Let’s be honest: we want to kill all the mosquitoes. Mosquito control isn’t just about disease prevention, it’s about tourism and quality of life.

Frankly, I don’t like the idea of humans genetically modifying living things, period. I’m heartsickened by the idea of animals in laboratories for any reason, but I know many people feel there’s nothing wrong with harming other creatures for the benefit of humans. Admittedly, even I don’t balk at the killing of a mosquito.

Some biologists say the loss of the mosquito worldwide would not have much impact on the food chain or the environment. No animals have a diet of strictly ‘skeeters, and mosquitoes aren’t pollinators or soil-turners. As far as we can see, whatever created the universe also created these bloodsucking, illness-carrying, useless creatures whose only function is to to torment mammals. But say we succeed with the Aedes aegypti, what other species will we decide to eliminate?

How far should humans go in the way we alter the planet for our own comfort? Is it right that we expect all other organisms on the planet to adapt, stretch, or be devoured to sustain all our wonderful, long human lives?

I certainly wouldn’t wish dengue or malaria or chikungunya on anyone. Perhaps this technology could save lives, perhaps not here where we don’t really have a problem (yet?), but in third-world countries where death rates from mosquito-borne illnesses are high. I hate to say “experiment on third-worlders, not us!” But I would think that in places where mosquito-borne illness is a large problem, the rewards would outweigh the risk, while I’m not convinced that’s the case here in the Florida Keys.

Michael Doyle, Entomologist and head of Mosquito Control, very much wants the release. I assume he has tons more knowledge on the topic than I. Unfortunately, many of the more vocal protesters of the Oxitec release don’t have very impressive credentials. The Florida Keys Environmental Commission are a very passionate group of Florida Keys Community college students. Then there’s Mila de Mier, the real estate agent who authored the petition “Say No to Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Release in the Florida Keys.”  No offense to de Mier, but many of the fears stated in the petition are bogus. Most scientists agree that any bird or bat that eats an Oxitec ‘skeeter should be fine, and even if a female mosquito escapes into the ecosystem and bites a human, we should all be fine.

A far more thoughtfully written petition appears on the Friends of the Earth website: Tell the FDA: Say NO to GMO Mosquitos!   So far, the most impressive voice against the Oxitec release may be scientist and mathematician Helen Wallace, Executive Director of the British organization GeneWatch. Her paper titled “Genetically Modified Mosquitoes: Ongoing Concerns,” intelligently presents plenty of reasons we might object to Oxitec.

 The technology may not be particularly effective in suppressing mosquito populations and may even, especially in cases of limited efficacy, worsen the dengue problem. There is also uncertainty over the extent to which some of the GM mosquitoes’ offspring do survive into adulthood. More generally, the potential adverse effects of this technology are still not fully understood, given the complex interactions in the ecosystem between Aedes aegypti, other mosquito species, the viruses they carry and the humans they bite.

— Helen Wallace, GeneWatch

It is entirely possible that we citizens in the Florida Keys will have to quell our ill-ease at the thought of sterile, genetically-modified mosquitoes with glowing green eyes flying around. Frankly, I don’t think it will make or break our ecosystem, but I really don’t see how it will benefit us in any way.

If the Oxitec mosquito were to be used in combination with more natural solutions, and we really could do away with chemical pesticides, I’d say go for it. Mosquito control already gives out Gambusia fish to people with ponds and birdbaths. I love the idea of doing more to attract native predators, such as bats and frogs, or using native species of dragonfly nymphs, which eat mosquito larvae, then become adult dragonflies that eat mosquitoes. Doing more to eliminate standing water through education, code-enforcement, and better drainage could also help mitigate the need for chemicals.

I don’t see the Oxitec mosquito as inherently good or bad. It’s one method of mosquito control in arsenal, better than some, and worse than others. So I haven’t signed any petitions yet, nor do I wholeheartedly support the release of Oxitec mosquitoes. I would simply like to see more information and research all the way around before deciding anything.

 

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