Scientists in Canada are urging serious discussions on the use of genetic modification as a new technique in pest control. In a recent report by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, a branch of Health Canada that regulates pesticide use, experts argue that genetic modification could become a powerful tool as older insecticides lose their effectiveness and climate change leads to new infestations.
Already, such techniques are being tested to prevent mosquitoes from spreading malaria. However, the authors of the report caution that there are many unknown variables. They claim that the consequences of releasing synthetic versions of natural organisms could be harmful and permanent.
Scientists are using genetic modification to turn the tables on harmful insects by altering their genomes, providing farmers and doctors with new ways to combat them. This rapidly advancing field offers new hope against age-old pests like malaria and could provide innovative solutions as familiar insecticides become less effective and climate change reshapes ecosystems. But concerns are buzzing around this new technology like a swarm of gnats. “Questions persist regarding the effectiveness, safety, and relevance of these tools,” states a new report from the Canadian Council of Academies. “Is it appropriate to deploy genetic editing in the natural environment, and how will genetic editing integrate into the broader toolbox of pest control?”
Released last week, the report was commissioned by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, a branch of Health Canada that regulates chemicals used in pest control. Its authors hope that it will kickstart an urgent and thoughtful debate about the potential role of this new method in eliminating these insects. “Genetic pest control tools could radically alter our relationship with the environment, not only due to their potential impact on the ecosystem we are a part of, but also in challenging the social and cultural values that shape decisions surrounding their use,” the report highlights.
Resistance and Climate Change
There are several reasons why genetic pest control is being considered, according to Mark Belmonte, co-author and biologist at the University of Manitoba. “Traditional pesticides are becoming less effective, either because insects are developing resistance or because communities are searching for what I consider safer alternatives,” he explains. Climate change adds its own pressures. “We used to have very cold winters which were excellent for combating insects,” Mr. Belmonte said. “Now we are seeing a huge shift where cold periods don’t last as long or disappear completely. We’re finding that insect populations are changing quite rapidly.”
Additionally, this technique reduces the use of chemicals and, unlike pesticides, it specifically targets a single species.
Genetic responses to these challenges involve modifying a genome to sterilize the harmful organism or altering something else to make it less effective, such as reducing its ability to survive in the cold. These strategies can be used in two ways. In one approach, a modified population of sterile males is introduced in large numbers to reduce and control an infestation. The modified insects would need to be periodically reintroduced. In the other approach, the insect — perhaps through a change that makes it vulnerable to a chemical — is modified in such a way that its genome replaces the original in the overall population. The newcomer becomes the new norm.
Although humans have been selectively breeding animals for desired traits for centuries, co-author Ben Matthews, a zoologist at the University of Manitoba, says this is something fundamentally different. Breeding animals for desired characteristics provides years to evaluate their behavior and impacts, whereas releasing a genetically modified organism from the laboratory doesn’t offer the same luxury. Many people feel uneasy about “playing God,” he added.
Genetically modified mosquitoes are already being tested in Africa to combat malaria, a disease that claimed nearly 620,000 lives last year. This track record provides a compelling argument for further research, according to Robert Slater, a professor of public policy at Carleton University and the chair of the committee that wrote the report.
Canada is just beginning to discuss how to regulate genetically modified insects, says Mr. Slater. It won’t be easy. “The regulatory system operates based on evidence. It needs to weigh the risks and benefits. This is an entirely new technology, and we have limited evidence of what it can do and its long-term effects,” he emphasizes.
1. What is genetic modification in pest control?
Genetic modification in pest control involves altering the genes of harmful insects to reduce their population or weaken their ability to survive. This technique offers new solutions as traditional insecticides become less effective and climate change leads to new infestations.
2. How are genetically modified insects being used to combat malaria?
Scientists have been testing genetically modified mosquitoes in Africa to prevent the spread of malaria. By altering the mosquitoes’ genes, they aim to reduce the population of malaria-carrying mosquitoes and ultimately eliminate the disease.
3. What are the concerns surrounding genetic modification in pest control?
There are concerns about the unknown consequences of releasing synthetic versions of natural organisms. Critics worry that these modifications could have harmful and permanent effects on ecosystems. There are also ethical concerns about the potential for unintended consequences and the manipulation of nature.
4. How does genetic pest control differ from traditional pesticides?
Genetic pest control techniques specifically target a single species, reducing the use of broad-spectrum pesticides. This approach can be more environmentally friendly and effective in controlling pests.
5. What role does climate change play in genetic pest control?
Climate change affects insect populations by altering their habitats and survival conditions. Genetic pest control techniques offer potential solutions to combat the changing dynamics of pest populations caused by climate change.