A Genetically Modified Insect May be Field Tested in Europe
Oxitec, a British ag-biotech company, has applied to Spanish regulatory authorities for permission to carry out a netted field evaluation of its genetically-modified olive fly strain. If approved, the study would be the first outdoor trial of a GM insect in the EU.
In Oxitec’s pest control approach, the company’s engineered males are released to mate with wild females, resulting in the death of all the female offspring. In earlier indoor caged trials, Oxitec’s approach was able to completely eliminate wild-type olive flies in less than two months. It has also completed extensive laboratory and greenhouse testing.
Oxitec’s approach has already been successful in trials with mosquitoes. Dengue fever is a growing global threat and is transmitted by the bite of an infected mosquito (Aedes aegypti). A recent trial in Brazil carried out in an urban environment achieved a 96% suppression of this dengue mosquito. They are also waiting approval to release the mosquitoes in Key West, Florida.
The olive fly (Bactrocera oleae) is the single major pest for olives, causing widespread crop damage and significant financial losses to Europe’s olive farmers. It is extremely difficult to control using existing methods. John Vontas, Associate Professor of Biotechnology and Applied Biology, University of Crete, Greece, a leading international authority on insecticide resistance, explains the problem: “The control of olive fly has been largely based on the use of chemicals, but the intense use of insecticides has led to the development of insecticide resistance, which makes control problematic. In addition, the new European Union pesticides legislation means that a large number of efficient insecticides have been or are being phased out, or their use is dramatically restricted. Alternative control methods, such as pheromones, traps and biological control have also been employed, but their effectiveness is much less.”
Conventional products tend not to distinguish between the target pest and other insect species, but by using male flies as tools to control their own species, Oxitec’s approach ensures that only the olive fly is targeted. Leading the trial, Dr Martha Koukidou of Oxitec explains, “Olive flies only mate with olive flies. Our approach is aimed not only at controlling the olive fly, but also to avoid harming other species. By using our form of genetic sterility our flies are designed to eliminate the pest and not to stay in the environment. Also, unlike any other control approach, ours contains a marker making monitoring of our flies very accurate and simple.”
Oxitec has now applied to the Catalan regulatory authorities for permission to conduct a field evaluation of its olive fly strain, in accordance with EU regulations. Only when the national biosafety commission has evaluated the application following a period of public comment, and written permission has been received from the Catalan authorities, can any release take place.
Commenting on the Oxitec technology, Victor Perdrix of the biological control company OpenNatur in Spain said, “We have been looking for a highly effective and environmentally sound solution for olive fly. We believe this holds great potential.”
Many olive farmers, such as Paul di Calabiana Willan, have also expressed their support for the Oxitec approach, “I am an olive farmer in Como, northern Italy. On the mountain terraces here, agriculture depends on the success of olive plantations, but in recent years the olive fly pest has wiped out several harvests. The main weapon against the olive fly is a chemical which has been banned in some countries. Nothing else is effective. In my view the use of GM insects to eradicate this pest is a necessary step towards achieving zero pesticide use.”
“European agriculture is facing some severe challenges,” said Hadyn Parry, Oxitec Chief Executive. “The burden of agricultural pests is ever present while the number of control approaches is shrinking in the face of insecticide resistance and de-registration of existing chemical treatments. To survive and prosper, European farming will need to evaluate and embrace new solutions and new technologies which are effective, sustainable and safe. If approved, this evaluation will be an important step to bringing an exciting new approach to the farmers who need it.”