Ethics of Genetically Modified Insects

Image result for ethicsNeuhaus and Caplan (2017) have published a letter to the editor of Nature Biotechnology in which they describe important lessons from two recent efforts to conduct field releases of genetically modified insects in the United States. Their bottom line is that community engagement and support are critical.

“what level of control should community members and other stakeholders have over the decision to release GM insects as part of a field trial?”

As the authors say in the first sentence of their letter, “genetically modified insects have arrived.”

The diamond back moth, Plutella xylostella. Image credit Olaf Leillinger

As noted strongly by the authors and recognized by most genetically modified insect researchers and product developers is that community engagement is an essential ingredient in preparing for a successful field trial.

The ethical question posed by the authors is:

“what level of control should community members and other stakeholders have over the decision to release GM insects as part of a field trial?”

This is an interesting and important question and the authors use two less than successful attempts to conduct field trials of GM insects in the United States as examples of, essentially, what not to do.

Aedes aegypti, a target of Oxitec’s genetically modified insect technology

The cases involved Oxitec’s transgenic mosquitoes to be field trialed in the Florida Keys and their GM diamondback moths to be field trialed in New York in collaboration with Cornell University.

The authors’ ethical analysis of these two cases led them to conclude that the current regulations and guidance “miss the mark when it comes to public engagement in the approval process…

First the authors review the cases and show how existing federal laws that cover the requirements for public outreach and engagement are inadequate for ensuring meaningful engagement. They identify three ways the laws are inadequate.

Finally, the authors make three positive suggestions for how the decision-making process vis a vis GM insect field trials could be improved. It is worth reading the details of their suggestions but in short their recommendations relate “to ecological risk assessments, incorporating community feedback into field trial design and community authorization for field trials”.

IAP2-symbols of public engagement

This is the International Association for Public Participation’s model for community engagement.  Not specifically endorsed by the authors but illustrative of the general process.

Genetically modified insects have great potential for reducing some of the more vexing insect related problems we face in public health and agriculture. While all of the science may say at some point that great benefits will be had with the deployment of these new tools and technologies, if the public simply say “no” then these technologies will remain in the laboratory. Good community engagement will not guarantee the public will say ‘yes’ but it should improve the probability that they will.

Engaging in meaningful engagement early and often in the research and development of these technologies is important.

This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking letter that is worth carefully reading and considering.

Carolyn P Neuhaus& Arthur L Caplan, Ethical lessons from a tale of two genetically modified insects. Nature Biotechnology 35, 713–716 (2017) doi:10.1038/nbt.3927, Published online 08 August 2017


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