Bugs in the US system

No regulations for GM insects

Published: Sunday 29 February 2004

genetically modified (gm) insects are being developed at a fast pace for a variety of purposes, but the us government fails to develop a regulatory framework to review the safety of releasing the transgenic beings into the environment. This concern has been raised in a report of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a Washington dc-based think tank. "It may be several years before scientists release the transgenic insects on a wide-scale, but the research certainly would outpace the regulatory preparedness," says Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the organisation.

Under existing us laws, three agencies -- the Food and Drug Administration (fda), the Environmental Protection Agency (epa), and the us Department of Agriculture (usda) -- have the authority to regulate the release of gm insects. But to date only the usda has issued regulations covering the insects (the department has mandated approval of any field trials of gm insects that are potential plant pests).

None of the agencies have indicated how they intend to coordinate their respective authorities to provide a comprehensive framework for regulation. Without such a directive, it is difficult to determine if the unique concerns/issues raised by the release of transgenic insects will be addressed in a manner that inspires public confidence and provides the scientists with adequate guidance. The absence of regulatory clarity has implications for the global community as well -- us policies will be an important building block in the development of international regulations on gm insects.

As per the report, the matter should be given importance, as transgenic insects could have lasting effects on the ecosystem and public health. For instance, fertile gm insects could replace wild populations. It is also possible that transgenic insects released to control the spread of diseases could actually have the unintended consequence of enabling an insect to more effectively spread an illness or even become the pathogen of a new disease. Moreover, modifying the genetic composition of honeybees, for instance, could alter the composition of the honey they produce, potentially creating a food safety concern. All of these uncertainties should be addressed prior to the introduction of gm insects.

Species Potential benefits Research status
Honeybee Create insecticide resistant honeybee Laboratory research going on
Mosquitoes Create a mosquito that produces proteins that hinder the development of the malaria parasite within the mosquito Laboratory research going on
Silkworm Create silkworm capable of producing pharmaceutical or other proteins Laboratory research going on
Kissing bug Engineer gut symbionts (bacteria) that live inside the kissing bug to kill the parasite responsible for Chagas’ disease, which also lives inside the kissing bug Greenhouse trials over Field trails to be soon conducted in Guatemala
Engineer a symbiont of the glassy-winged sharpshooter, the vector of Pierce’s disease, to kill the bacteria that causes the disease in grapes Laboratory and preliminary field research over
Source: ‘Bugs in the System’, Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, 2004

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