|19 October 2018
THIRD WORLD NETWORK BIOSAFETY INFORMATION SERVICE
Dear Friends and Colleagues
US military research that disperses GM viruses to plants could be misused as bioweapon
An ongoing research programme called the Insect Allies Program, funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), aims to use insects to disperse infectious viruses that have been genetically engineered to alter the chromosomes of plants through ‘genome editing’ directly in field. (Item 1). Until now, genetic engineering of commercial seeds occurred only in laboratories, introducing modifications in the targeted crops. The new DARPA approach would allow for genetic modifications to be implemented quickly and at a large scale on crops that are already growing in fields.Maize and tomato plants are reportedly being used in current experiments, while dispersal insect species include leafhoppers, whiteflies, and aphids. The DARPA work plan will culminate in large-scale greenhouse demonstrations of the fully functional system including insect-dispersed viruses (Item 2).
DARPA asserts that developments resulting from the Insect Allies Program are intended for routine agricultural use, for example for protecting crops against droughts, frost, flooding, pesticides or diseases. An opinion paper published in the journal Science, however, warns that the regulatory, biological, economic, and societal implications of dispersing such horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents (HEGAAs) into ecosystems are profound, and call for a broad social, scientific and legal debate of the issue. The authors highlight that the programme is largely unknown, even in expert circles.
The authors contend that the knowledge to be gained from this programme appears very limited in its capacity to enhance U.S. agriculture or respond to national emergencies in either the short or long term. They express concern about the lack of discussion in official Insect Allies materials on the regulation of both the viral technology and the recipient crops. They cite concerns that it could affect the seeds of plants and disrupt future growing seasons(Item 3). The authors also suggest that releasing genetically modified viruses could potentially infect organisms beyond those they are aimed at.
The lead author describes the technology as being actually more feasible as a weapon to kill plants than as an agricultural tool. The authors highlight the UN’s Biological Weapons Convention(BWC), which prevents the development and stockpiling of biological weapons. They explain that the technology in the Insect Allies programme could be harnessed as a weapon to, say, disrupt crop production, by simply removing the safeguards DARPA requires, for instance, that insect vectors die within a few weeks of their release. The authors warn that if its research cannot be justified, the Insect Allies programme may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and a breach of the BWC (Item 4). They urge the US government to make proactive efforts to avoid any suspicion of engaging technologies that have the alarming potential for use in biological warfare.
With best wishes,