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

How the Cayman Islands Defeated the Zika Virus
In 2016, the Grand Cayman faced a Zika outbreak. Curious to find out how the Cayman Islands defeated the Zika virus? Here is some background information that will explain how the Grand Cayman eliminated this threatening outbreak in 2016.

What is the Zika Virus?

The Zika virus a disease that may cause a variety of symptoms. For example, some symptoms include a fever, rash, conjunctivitis, muscle or joint paint and a headache.

This virus is particularly dangerous during pregnancy. If a pregnant mother becomes infected, it can lead to complications, such as the increased risk for pre-term birth and miscarriage.

Certainly, the Cayman Islands government believes that a plan used by a company called Oxitec and the Mosquito Research and Control Unit was a huge factor in how the Cayman Islands defeated the Zika virus.

The Cayman Islands

The Cayman Islands is a territory made up of three different islands. The three islands are:

  1. Grand Cayman
  2. Cayman Brac
  3. Little Cayman

These islands are considered a British Overseas Territory. They are also a part of the overseas territory of the European Union. Grand Cayman is the largest island of the three. The islands are located approximately 150 miles south of Cuba, 460 miles south of Miami, and 167 miles northwest of Jamaica. The capital of these islands is George Town, which is located on the Grand Cayman.

How the Cayman Islands Defeated the Zika Virus

To combat the Zika outbreak, Oxitec deployed Aedes aegypti (male mosquitoes) in an attempt to eradicate the disease. To achieve this, they used genetically-modified males in hope that they would mate with the female disease-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. This tactic was a beneficial step in how the Cayman Islands defeated the Zika virus.

The female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are a species that are non-native to the Cayman Islands. The females are the culprit who spread the Zika virus. The females also spread other diseases such as dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever. Male mosquitoes do not bite. Rather, they eat nectar or honeydew of plants. When the genetically-modified males mate with the females, they produce offspring that will not survive into adulthood. Thus, this reduces the disease-carrying mosquitoes. This strategy helped to reduce the number of females in the region. Furthermore, it was a huge component in how the Cayman Islands defeated the Zika virus.

The project was tested in East End, Grand Cayman in 2009. Furthermore, this technique proved to be very effective. Subsequently, the disease-carrying females were reduced by 90 percent where the genetically modified males were released. In fact, Brazil and Panama employed the same technique, with equal success.

In 2016, Oxitec released hundreds of thousands of genetically-modified males per week on Grand Cayman. This release occurred in June and July and lasted for a total of nine months, according to Glen Glade, Oxitec’s head of business development. Little Cayman and Cayman Brac do not use this technique as they do not have a problem with the female Aedes aegypti.

Zika Virus in Cayman Islands Today

Overall, the Cayman Islands are no longer considered a major risk in regard to contracting the Zika virus, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. On the other hand, some environmentalists may believe that using genetically-modified mosquitoes is controversial. According to the Mosquito Research and Control Unit, the World Health Organization recommends evaluation of this technique.

-Nicholas Bartlett
Photo: Flickr

Prevent the Zika VirusAs notorious as Ebola, the Zika virus has much of the medical field concerned with how to prevent the Zika virus from spreading.

Shortly after labelling the outbreak “a global health emergency,” WHO designed and implemented their Global Emergency Response Plan.

The plan focuses on mobilizing and coordinating with experts to aid in the surveillance of the Zika virus, its development and possibly linked disorders. It also emphasizes educating the public of the risks and proper protection measures.

Since May 2015, WHO’s Regional Office for the Americas has been closely working with affected nations. AMRO/PAHO and partner specialists were organized to assist health ministries in detecting and tracking to prevent the Zika virus from spreading. They also advise on clinical management of Zika and investigate the spikes in microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome.

In a private, joint effort, the U.S. and Great Britain join a few nations taking the matter into their own hands.

The U.S. federal government is beginning to take action by permitting the release of genetically engineered mosquitoes, in the hope of slowing the spread of the virus.

The genetically engineered insects, containing a gene designed to kill their offspring, were developed by the British company Oxitec. The mutants have already shown effectiveness in small tests in Brazil and other countries in suppressing the populations of the mosquitoes that transmit both the Zika virus and dengue fever.

Under federal rules, genetically engineered animals are regulated as animal drugs, giving jurisdiction to the veterinary medicine division of the F.D.A.

The Zika virus was first identified in the Americas in March 2015, when an outbreak of an exanthematous illness occurred in Bahia, Brazil.

Brazil has also created their own initiatives to control mosquito populations and prevent the frequency of mosquito bites.

The Brazilian government created a task force designed to prevent the Zika virus from being transmitted for both short and long-term periods. Approximately 220,000 members from the army, navy and air force have united with 300,000 public agents and volunteers all over Brazil to exterminate breeding grounds.

Peru is also focusing on prevention. As of now, the nation only has one reported case. By fumigating areas from college campuses to bus terminals, government officials are hoping to prevent the establishment of the Zika virus inside their country. Percy Minaya, the Deputy Health Minister for Peru, visited Lima’s International Airport. Here booklets offering information on Zika prevention were handed out, as well as condoms, highlighting the important issue of sexual prevention when it comes to transmitting the virus.

Veronica Ung-Kono