Today’s report from the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee argues that GM insects could control diseases – but overlooks the risks of the technology
The new report on GM insects by the UK House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee reads like an advertisement for the British GM insect company Oxitec. It is also a crude lobbying attempt at weakening Europe’s GMO regulations.
The report says Britain has a “moral duty” to carry out a field trial of GM insects, which could be a weapon against some infectious diseases and agricultural pests. It attacks Europe’s GMO regulations as holding back progress in this field.
In fact GM insects are proving far less popular with governments around the world than with these irresponsible House of Lords committee members.
Out of several countries that have hosted Oxitec’s open air GM insect trials, only Brazil appears to be continuing with them, according to a Genewatch UK report.
So it’s understandable that Oxitec is desperate to open up new markets for its unpopular and risky technology. But it’s disappointing that the Select Committee is operating in the role of the company’s salesman.
GM insects and moral blackmail
Jack Stilgoe and Sarah Hartley
The Guardian, 17 Dec 2015
* Today’s report from the House of Lords argues that GM insects have the potential to, among other things, control diseases like malaria and dengue. But, in overlooking the uncertainties of the technology, it is irresponsibly lopsided
In October this year, we were both called as witnesses to the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee. The committee was looking at the potential of genetically modified insects and asking, among other questions, “Is there a role for responsible innovation approaches?” From their answer, it would appear that they think not. In choosing to swallow the promise of this technology without questioning its downsides, their report represents an unsophisticated form of moral blackmail.
The Lords have been persuaded that GM insects have the ability to save countless lives. They argue that we have a ‘moral duty’ to support the technology and clear out any regulation that might slow its development, as Tim Radford reports this morning. The report is framed in terms of supporting ‘UK plc’ (Oxitec, the world’s leading GM insect company, is a spin-off from Oxford University). They are motivated by the ‘presence of a pioneering company based in the UK, and the world class research being conducted in our universities and institutes’. Their version of the public interest is thin and undemocratic, even by Lords’ standards, and their scrutiny does not even scratch the surface.
We are not against GM insects. Our point is that we do not know enough. Nobody knows enough. As with any new technology, it raises new questions and creates new uncertainties. An important role for scientific institutions in these circumstances is to act as what Harvey Brooks called ‘the conscience of technology’ (pdf). We should expect experts to navigate both the opportunities and uncertainties of new technology. No new technology lives up to all of its promises, and they all bring risks. To only invest in the hope without considering the rest is far from ‘responsible innovation’.
Some of the hard questions are being asked by the scientists themselves. Take gene drives, one of the more radical approaches proposed. CRISPR/Cas9 gene drives, which force evolutionary changes through populations, are developing at a staggering speed and look set to revolutionise biotechnology. CRISPR is a technique that precisely and reliably edits any gene. A recent article in Science News describes the science and history behind gene drive technology and Andrew Maynard has a video explanation here. Essentially, the novelty of CRISPR gene drives is the ability to spread any type of genomic alteration through entire wild populations and ecosystems. For insects, this can happen quickly thanks to their short life cycle.
GM insects are currently being developed, tested or deployed as pest management or disease vector control tools in the UK, US, Brazil, Panama, Mexico and the Cayman Islands. At present, these are self-limiting GM insects; genetically modified so female insects die during the larvae stage. However, CRISPR gene drive research is now being conducted to suppress mosquito populations and a UK project at the Pirbright Institute, funded by the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, starts in January 2016.
Scientists have raised concerns about extreme and potentially existential environmental and security risks, including the extinction of species and/or ecosystems and the accidental or deliberate release of modified organisms noting that ‘theoretically, even one gene-drive–engineered organism could crash an entire population’. In 2015, the World Economic Forum recognised gene drives as a potential global risk. There is a sense in the scientific community that this technology must be handled with great care. In 2014, 27 scientists issued guidelines for safe laboratory use. Scientists involved with developing gene drive technology have called for ‘thoughtful, informed, and fully inclusive public discussions’ and public involvement in decisions that ‘determine if, when, and how gene drives should be used’.
With such international focus on the potential risks of crisp gene drives in insect populations, it is surprising that the Lords report does not mention the potential risks. The report instead emphasises the risks from malaria and dengue as a reason to develop and deploy GM insects. The potential is described in terms of lives saved – 390 million people have dengue and 3.2 billion have malaria – and economic savings from agricultural pest control – potentially US$ 17.7 billion in food, fibre and biofuels production in Brazil alone, according to the report. And then there is the risk that that the European regulatory regime for GM crops results in benefits from GM insects ‘being squandered’. If we do not develop and deploy GM insects, ‘the UK risks losing its world-leading talent’. The Committee nods to public engagement, but this is entirely paternalistic, to avoid ‘uninformed, polarised views [becoming] entrenched before the debate has barely begun’.
Framed in this way, their report is poorly-constructed moral blackmail. It is easy to see how, if difficult questions are ignored, assessments of new technology can become cheerleading. Technologies are always hyped, and the younger they are the more hype they attract. The difficulties of making them work in the real world are realised later, and their troubles often become clear only in hindsight. Steven Pinker’s recent comments on gene editing and bioethics (‘Get out of the way’) follow this pattern. And we are reminded of the comments of one US policymaker during the peak of nanotechnology hype:
“Given nanotechnology’s extraordinary economic and societal potential, it would be unethical, in my view, to attempt to halt scientific and technological progress in nanotechnology… Given this fantastic potential, how can our attempt to harness nanotechnology’s power at the earliest opportunity… be anything other than ethical?”
The Royal Society, among others, chose not to take such promises at face value. Their 2004 report on nanotechnologies covered a range of opportunities and uncertainties, setting a new benchmark for thoughtful technology assessment. Compared with this, the Lords’ attempt to evaluate GM insects looks paltry. If we were scientists in a university or a company working with GM insects, this would not be the sort of support we would welcome.
Jack Stilgoe is senior lecturer in science policy at University College London. Sarah Hartley is a research fellow at the University of Nottingham