Byline: Sean Poulter Consumer Affairs Editor
MILLIONS of genetically modified insects designed to destroy food crop pests could be released into the countryside.
The Government is considering plans by a British company for the 'open release' of a GM strain of the diamondback moth, which it has developed.
Diamondback moths attack cabbages, broccoli, cauliflowers and similar crops. With the GM strain a lethal gene is inserted into the male of the species so that when they mate with wild females, their offspring die almost immediately, causing the population to crash.
That could lead to increasing crop yields and profits for farmers.
The company involved, Oxitec, is keen to begin trials next year, but it faces opposition from groups who say the untested technology could threaten wildlife and human health. The idea that man is 'playing God' in this way is also controversial.
Dr Helen Wallace, the director of Gene-Watch UK, who has sat on government advisory bodies, said the release of GM 'Frankenmoths' is potentially disastrous.
'Mass releases of GM insects into the British countryside would be impossible to recall if anything went wrong,' she said.
'Changing one part of an ecosystem can have knock-on effects on others in ways that are poorly understood. This could include an increase in different types of pest. Wildlife that feeds on insects could be harmed if there are changes to their food supply.
'GM insects that bite animals or humans could cause allergies or transmit diseases and new diseases might evolve.'
The Oxitec team of scientists, based in Oxford, insist these modified insects are better for the environment than the harsh chemical sprays currently used to kill pests.
The firm, which is supported by grants from the taxpayer, is developing a number of GM insects that would be used in Britain and around the world to protect crops and combat disease in humans.
Oxitec has contacted the Health and Safety Executive to ask what controls, if any, should be put in place around GM moth trials. A scientific paper written for the HSE's Scientific Advisory Committee on Genetic Modification details how trials would work.
There are a number of scenarios, ranging from open release into fields to a more controlled experiment using polytunnels with insect proof screens at each end.
Dr Wallace has accused Oxitec of trying to sidestep regulations designed to police GM technology.
But the company appears to have the support of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has raised no objections to open field trials.
This raises questions about the role of Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, who is a long-term supporter of GM technology. …