Genetically Modified PestsHumanity’s ability to feed itself by farming crops is a skill that has existed for millennia. Agriculture has long served humans’ need for nourishment and has allowed the growth and expansion of populations across the world. However, the same agricultural problems that plagued early farmers’ crop fields such as weeds, insects and weather still plague modern farmers today. Modern solutions like genetically modified pests are emerging to increase crop yield and food security for millions.

Issues Facing Farming

One key problem farmers face is pests. Pests such as the diamondback moth and the medfly are extremely dangerous to the health of key crops globally, and pests in general cause crop damage in one of two ways: they either eat or burrow into the plant, or they carry a disease that threatens the plant’s health. On a global scale, pests and the pathogens they carry are reducing crop yields major food crops by 10 to 40%. Furthermore, the resulting dead or inedible crops around the field lead to lower crop yields. In poverty-stricken areas, every crop is critical in preventing families from going hungry. For this reason, crop loss to pests is a massive problem that must be addressed.

Current Solutions and Room for Improvement

Farmers currently attempt to combat these insects with many types of pesticides, including insecticides. Insecticides are chemicals used in both rich and poor countries worldwide to kill the insects that threaten crops. Pesticides are utilized particularly heavily in South America, with insecticides comprising a significant component of total use: in fact, as of 2017, countries like Ecuador have used as many as 4,700 tons of insecticide on their crops to protect against dangerous insects.

With the heavy use of insecticides permeating agriculture globally, a major problem is on the horizon. The very insects these chemicals are designed to protect against are beginning to grow resistant to pesticides’ effects. This resistance leads to chemicals being unnecessarily sprayed on food crops, adversely affecting human health without protecting crops from any damage. Given the issues emerging from insecticide use, an innovative new solution is desperately needed.

A New Solution: Genetically Modified Pests

Valiant scientific efforts are emerging to curtail the issue of insecticide immunity. Oxitec, a company based in the U.K., has created a healthy and environmentally friendly solution to the pest dilemma. Their methods involve the “friendly” genetic modification of male pests to include a “self-limiting” gene. This gene is then passed on to wild females in affected areas. This gene kills off the female’s offspring before they can reach a mature enough age to reproduce, restricting population growth. The gene modification process ultimately shrinks the insect population, protecting more plants and increasing crop yield.

The benefits of Oxitec’s technology extend beyond plant protection. This gene also helps protect other insects, such as bees, that are vital to the agricultural process by killing off their predators. With a robust population, these insects can more efficiently pollinate and increase overall crop yields. Genetically modified pests are also beneficial to environmental and human health. Once properly implemented, this method completely replaces the insecticides that have been known to cause pollution and illness when applied in high volumes.

Impact of Genetically Modified Pests

Genetically modified pest control presents positive implications for poor farmers worldwide. This technique is cost-effective, as the work to defend against pests is done by the insects themselves in nature. Thus, participating farmers save money by no longer having to purchase insecticides and can use the extra funding to help increase crop yields, food supply and income. Additionally, the health benefits of removing insecticides from crops mean farmers and consumers alike benefit nutritionally. This is especially useful in regions where healthcare quality is poor or inaccessible. By removing the health risks of insecticide ingestion, those lacking adequate healthcare could experience a reduction in medical concerns.

By providing a plethora of agricultural, environmental and financial protections, genetically modified pests have the potential to improve the quality of life for millions of farmers. Better yet, this new method of pest control empowers farmers by allowing them to focus on improving other aspects of agriculture, which could increase food security and health for consumers across the globe.

– Domenic Scalora
Photo: Flickr

Insecticide Resistance in Anopheles MosquitoesThe consistent and widespread use of insecticides has significantly reduced the incidence of malaria by eliminating the disease’s vector, Anopheles mosquitoes. Unfortunately, this progress is threatened, as 60 countries have reported the existence of insecticide resistance in Anopheles mosquitoes. In 2012, the World Health Organization launched the Global Plan for Insecticide Resistance Management in Malaria Vectors to monitor this problem and try to generate solutions.

Some Anopheles mosquitoes have changed to better withstand the effects of insecticides. This resistance can be passed from one generation to the next, increasing the prevalence of resistant mosquitoes. These mosquitoes can come in contact with treated bed nets or homes and proceed to infect people with malaria.

Scientists have observed resistance to insecticides since the introduction of malaria vector control methods in the 1940s. However, the impact of this resistance has become greater. Over the past decade, global health workers have relied on one type of insecticide, pyrethroids, because it is safe and affordable. This reliance has led to the prominence of mosquitoes resistant to this particular type of insecticide.

Many scientists are developing new vector control methods that do not involve pyrethroids. The Innovative Vector Control Consortium, for example, is inventing non-pyrethroid, long-lasting insecticide nets which may be available in two to five years.

Researchers are also testing attract-and-kill trapping systems with different repellents and attractants. The purpose of these traps is to kill pregnant female mosquitoes before they can lay their eggs. Scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that cedrol, a naturally occurring compound, attracts pregnant mosquitoes to egg-laying sites. In the future scientist can develop traps utilizing this compound.

The full effects of insecticide resistance in Anopheles mosquitoes are not yet known. It is crucial for countries to continue monitoring their prevalence and whether traditional vector control methods are still as effective as they once were. Development of new control methods takes time, but many promising ideas are in the pipeline.

Sarah Denning

Photo: Google

Chagas disease is a disease caused by the bite of triatomines. These are large, beetle-like bugs known to locals as vinchucas, or “kissing bugs,” that reside in the thatched roofs and mud walls used in traditional Latin American homes. Families who live in such homes are often forced to sleep outside to escape being bitten, and potentially infected, at night. Chagas disease has become endemic throughout Latin America; however, more than 1 million of those infected live in the United States, many of them immigrants.

If the infection is caught early it can be cured, but Chagas disease often goes undetected because those most vulnerable to infection lack access to adequate health care. Left untreated, the disease can become chronic and is often fatal.

The recent rising rates and spread of Chagas disease have been compared to the early years of the AIDS pandemic. It is one of the major health problems in South America, but because this is a disease of the poor, little money is being spent on treating, curing or preventing it. There are shortages of drugs that help those who have been infected and barely any research on exploring a cure. This is why prevention needs to be the solution.

Pilar Mateo is a Spanish chemist who has engineered a paint formula that eliminates infestations of bugs, including vinchucas, mosquitos, spiders, ticks, bedbugs, fleas and ants. Her idea to vaccinate homes instead of people led to the creation of her company, Inesfly Corp. One coat of Inesfly paint almost entirely eliminates the presence of creepy crawlers, reducing the rate of vinchucas infestations in many Bolivian villages from 90 percent to virtually zero.

The way Inesfly paint works is simple. Within the water-based paint are “microcapsules” of vinchucas-killing pesticides that are slowly released. The paint — and its pesticide — remains effective for several years. Moreover, the microcapsules have insect growth regulators; they not only kill full-grown insects but also eliminate eggs and newly-hatched insects that are resistant to pesticides. As if that isn’t enough, because Inesfly paint releases bug-killing chemicals in such small doses, it is safer than fumigation for both people’s health and the environment.

Mateo’s solution to disease-spreading bugs stemmed from her experience in Bolivia, where she first tested her new paint mixture in 1998. She contends that poverty, instead of insects, is the real source of disease. After building relationships with the indigenous women in Bolivia and witnessing the difference her paint made on their lives and the lives of their children, Mateo realized that a new coat of paint could mean a renewed chance at a better, longer life. Eradicating deadly diseases takes more than pest control; there is a strong link between poverty and disease and in order to eliminate diseases like Chagas disease, there needs to be a continued effort to eradicate poverty.

Brittney Dimond

Sources: MNN, NYT 1, NYT 2
Photo: MNN

The question of whether the food we eat should be engineered by scientists, and sold to farmers by tremendously wealthy corporations is a controversial topic. Owen Paterson, an MP and Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from the United Kingdom has recently pleaded his case for supporting GM crops: “The farmer benefits. The consumer benefits. The environment benefits.”

The top chemical industries and their vocal supporters are proposing that the use of GM crops could produce more food for the world, thus ending world hunger. Can genetically modified crops revolutionize farming worldwide and end global hunger?

In the short term, revamping farms to produce high yielding GM crops could result in more food. However, GM crops require long term reliance on pesticides and machinery, which might be too expensive for an african farmer living on less than a dollar a day. Not only that, but the seed itself can be very expensive, since GM companies have made it illegal to save seeds to plant next season. That means that farmers in Africa, 80% of whom currently save their seeds, would need to start paying for them. Esther Bett, a Kenyan farmer, also points out that “farmers in America can only make a living from GM crops if they have big farms, covering hundreds of hectares.” She also informs us that in Kenya “we can feed hundreds of families off the same area of land using our own seed and techniques, and many different crops.”

When addressing the needs of the world’s poor, it is important to listen to what they have to say. Africans already have traditional methods of farming that have been developed over generations. Over the course of thousands of years, a variety of seeds has been bred to thrive in diverse environments, and to resist the regional blights that are unique to Africa. The genetically modified crops that have been developed so far are actually quite limited in the kinds of pests that they are resistant to. There are different farming practices to suit different environments, and crops that thrive in certain regions may not fare so well in others. According to a long term study, farmers in Ethiopia who conserved their soil and water by farming on compost-treated land were more food secure than their neighbors who relied on imported seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. It was not genetic engineering, but ingenious breeding techniques that have resulted in new strains of hardy plants like drought tolerant corn, which is used by thousands of African farmers who enjoy 30% higher yields.

What if entire continents were to replace their heirloom seed stock with a single strain of GM crop? Such heavy reliance on one type of crop could be a disaster waiting to happen, if that crop were to fail due to blight or climate change. A new study from Food and Water Watch, an NGO focused on food and water safety and sustainability, has recently discovered that over time the widespread use of herbicides on GM crops has caused weeds to develop tolerance. The last thing that impoverished farmers need are superweeds! As of now, the only thing that can be done about herbicide resistant weeds is to use more herbicide.

– Jennifer Bills

Sources: Express, The Borgen Project, The Guardian, Co Exist, Third World Network, The Guardian