Lawmakers call for British trials of genetically modified insects

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain should challenge “woefully inadequate” European regulations and launch field trials of genetically modified insects that are designed to wipe out disease-carrying bugs that harm crops and people, lawmakers said on Thursday.

An influential committee of parliament’s upper house said GM insects, such as mosquitoes altered to be sterile or “self-limiting” diamondback moths, had powerful potential against diseases like malaria and dengue, and in controlling crop pests that cost billions in lost production.

“But the development of GM insect technologies has come to a screeching halt because the EU (European Union) regulatory system is woefully inadequate,” the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee said in a report.

It said the UK government had “a moral duty” to test GM insects’ potential, and should lead public engagement with the idea as well as allowing full field trials in Britain.

One of the world’s leading companies developing GM insects is a British-based Oxford University spin-off company called Oxitec, now owned by the U.S. biotech firm Intrexon Corp.

In what it says could be a pesticide-free and environmentally-friendly way to control insect pests, the company’s scientists have developed GM moths and mosquitoes with a “self-limiting” gene which means they only produce male offspring when they mate.

Among dengue fever-carrying mosquitoes, the GM technique cut their populations by over 90 percent in trials in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands.

But genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are viewed with caution by many governments in Europe, and companies developing insects and GM crop seeds say it is almost impossible to overcome regulatory barriers to conducting field trials.

John Palmer, who chaired the science committee and presented its report at a briefing, said Britain should take the lead and allow safely monitored tests to go ahead.

The committee noted that unlike insecticides, which can affect a range of insects including bees, the GM approach is purely species-specific, only affecting the targeted pest.

The self-limiting gene used in the GM insects is also non-toxic, so birds or other animals eating the bugs get no harmful effects.

“While we acknowledge that the science may not be a silver bullet in the fight against fatal disease and threats to food security, it could prove to be an invaluable addition to our armoury,” he said.

Oxitec’s Head of Regulation, Camilla Beech, welcomed the report and said the firm agreed that GM insect technology’s potential “can only be realised with a functioning regulatory system that considers risk and benefit, and an informed public”.

“We are keen to help countries worldwide evaluate this technology for potential use, including in the EU, and Oxitec would be happy to work with the UK Government to achieve these goals,” she said in a statement.

Kate Kelland