Warnings on GM insects

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A new independent report from an Expert Panel appointed by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) urges caution on releasing genetically engineered insects for pest control. The report also shows the importance of independent scientific analysis.

The report was commissioned by Health Canada’s Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency to investigate the scientific, ethical and regulatory challenges posed by genetically engineering (genetically modified or GM) insects for pest control. The report focuses on the question of releasing gene-edited insects and “gene drive” organisms in particular, designed to replace or change whole insect populations in the wild. The Expert Panel concludes that the complexity and uncertainties of using genetically engineered insects raise profound questions and require serious attention from the federal government.

“Releasing genetically engineered insects into the wild is a dangerous proposal for ecosystem engineering. This would be a massive open-air experiment that we cannot control. Gene editing makes new types of dangerous genetic engineering possible, with more types of organisms,” said Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network in a November 8th press release.

More information

The CCA Expert Panel on Regulating Gene-Edited Organisms for Pest Control report is called Framing Challenges and Opportunities for Canada. The report focuses on the use of the new genetic engineering techniques of gene editing that can be used to alter the genomes of insects for the purpose of eliminating insect populations in the wild or modifying their characteristics. The gene editing tool of CRISPR/Cas allows scientists to genetically engineer a pest to be a “gene drive organism” which can pass traits through an entire wild population, far beyond what nature allows via Mendelian inheritance.

The Expert Panel finds that, “the novelty of genetic pest-control tools, combined with uncertainty about their implementation and the diversity of target organisms, creates a variety of potential risks.” The report states that, “A key ethical challenge in the use of genetic pest control is to determine when and whether these technologies should be used. Ethical issues also arise concerning how the technology is developed. How should humans intervene in nature?

The Panel report acknowledges that the processes of gene editing can result in unintended effects and uncertainties:It also remains unclear whether off-target effects or other long-term consequences resulting from gene editing will significantly affect the safety and efficacy of these products.

CBAN, Friends of the Earth Canada, Nature Canada, and Vigilance OGM are demanding that the government not approve any genetically engineered organisms for release into the wild. The Canadian government is completely unprepared to assess the risks of releasing genetically engineered insects, forest trees, and microorganisms into the environment. Canadian regulation is not set up for holistic evaluation of risks or to examine the big questions. Instead, it focuses on assessing the risks of each product one by one, asking only narrow questions about environmental and human health safety.

The Expert Panel report follows recent decisions by Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to allow companies to release some of their gene-edited plants and foods without any government safety assessments, and comes just months after a media report revealed close collaboration between the regulatory departments and the biotechnology and pesticide industry lobby group CropLife Canada in designing this corporate self-regulation. Join the call for the government to reinstate regulation for all GMOs. Click here for more information and to send your action letter.

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