Fly away with transgenic mosquitos

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Update from the GM-Free Brazil Campaign

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Brazil | Rio de Janeiro | July 2012

Advertising is the soul of the business. The transgene industry knows it and drives the old adage into the ground. The latest path to redemption, in Brazil, answers to the name of transgenic mosquitos.

Before the method’s efficacy was even tested, these novel mosquitoes took to national and international news programs. A new mosquito plant was inaugurated with pomp and circumstance, before no less than the Minister of Health and the governor of Bahia, both surrounded by entourages of other authorities. The plant cost nearly a million dollars and is run by Moscamed, an NGO-type outfit connected to the Ministry of Agriculture and the Bahia State government. Only a party-pooper could think of bursting their bubble with questions about how risky millions of transgenic mosquitos might be, released since 2011 into populous neighborhoods of the city of Juazeiro, Bahia.

The “dominant lethal” technique developed by British biotech company Oxitec, in theory, mates laboratory-bred modified males with wild female mosquitos, and thereby transmits the males’ transgenic sterility gene to the larvae offspring, which will also be sterile, as long as the larvae are not in contact with the antibiotic tetracycline.

Yet doubts also hover in the air. Do all the offspring of female mosquitoes mating with modified males actually die? Oxitec does admit a 3% survival rate. What happens to the survivors, considering that test areas are inhabited by people? The partial report on field trials presented to the National Biosafety Commission (CTNBio) last November, to which AS-PTA gained access, says nothing to this concern. It states simply that “the transgene construct is designed so the transgene will not stabilize in the environment under any hypothesis.”

The labs produce both males and females and, supposedly, only males are released into the environment. What are the chances of modified females also being released? Is the separation method 100% effective?

What are the ecological impacts of reducing the population of Aedes aegypti, which also transmits yellow fever? Can other vectors occupy their niche? Might a more effective strategy involve replacing the mosquito, in order to avoid an ecological void?

In the presence of the antibiotic tetracycline, transgenic larvae survive. Studies have shown that some of this chemical is found in mud and in urban wetlands. Might there be enough there to stop the transgene that suppresses the larvae? The report mentions that the neighborhoods where trials took place have precarious sewage treatment.

What impact has been observed in the field following suppression of the larvae? What is the rate of reduction of the presence of mosquitoes? How does this correlate with disease rates in the area?

Was the local population told about potential risks of the technology or only about the project’s potential benefits, through jingles and promotional inserts on local radio and TV stations? Were they at least told that a transgenic insect was being used?

The 17-page report offers no conclusions at all and much less answers to these questions, in a total black-out for the party poopers. Meanwhile, the “winged transgenics of the backlands” – as they were dubbed on a recent front page of the O Globo newspaper – are in the air. Transgenic promises may fly in all directions, but who knows where the real impacts will come down? By then, though, the fanfare will be heralding next month’s wonders.


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GM-FREE BRAZIL – Published by AS-PTA Agricultura Familiar e Agroecologia. The GM-Free Brazil Campaign is a collective of Brazilian NGOs, social movements and individuals.

AS-PTA an independent, not-for-profit Brazilian organisation dedicated to promoting the sustainable rural development. Head office: Rua das Palmeiras, 90 | CEP: 22.270-070, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. Phone: 0055-21-2253-8317 Fax: 0055-21-2233-363

This article can be found on the AS-PTA website at http://aspta.org.br/itens-de-campanha/gm-free-brazil/

Should you have any comments, suggestions or questions, feel free to contact us at boletim@aspta.org.br

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