Cornell Releasing Genetically Modified Moth in Geneva

Categories Agriculture, Environment

By Esther L. Racoosin
WRFI Community Radio News

A Cornell professor has confirmed that genetically engineered [GE] diamondback moths are now being released into an open-air field near Geneva, at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station operated by Cornell.

Cornell scientist Dr. Anthony Shelton is based at the NYS Agricultural Experiment Station and is an expert in the biology of the diamondback moth, an invasive insect that destroys plants in the Brassica family.

“The GE insects are now being tested in the field,” Shelton said via phone on Friday, September 8.

The half-inch long diamondback moth lays eggs on plants such as cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. Once the eggs transform into larvae, this ravenous form of the insect can eat large holes in the leaves and flowers of the important vegetable crops, making the vegetables unsuitable for sale in the supermarket.

According to Shelton, the diamondback moth causes millions of dollars in losses to Brassica crop farmers each year. Conventional farmers can try to treat their crops with pesticides, but the moth has developed resistance to most of them, rendering them useless. So, the entomologist is testing the use of a new “biological approach” to control of the moth. Shelton hopes that the new technology will provide a new tool to farmers who are trying to protect their crops from the destructive moths.

Shelton is collaborating with Oxitec, Inc., a company based in the United Kingdom that has developed a genetically-engineered diamondback moth. The GE moths developed by Oxitec carry a so-called “terminator” gene. When adult male moths carrying the engineered gene mate with normal female moths, eggs that would eventually grow into females will hatch and die in the larval stage. Eventually, all the GE male moths that are released into an area will mate with normal, resident moths until there are no viable eggs left.

In 2015, the GE moths were tested in cage trials, in which they were exposed to populations of normal male and female moths. Shelton says that these tests were successful.

“We are conducting experiments similar to those performed by our group in 2015, where GE male moths were mixed with regular male and female moths inside enclosed cages in the field and then tested for the ability to compete with the regular male moths for females,” Shelton said. “This time, we are doing these tests by releasing the male GE moths into the field with regular male and female moths. We are also testing to see how long the GE moths survive in the field.”

The tests will continue until the end of September, Shelton said.

The Shelton lab’s application to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) states that the GE insects will stay in the field where they are released. When I asked Shelton whether his group has set up sentinel stations outside the test field to see if any GE moths escaped, he said, “Yes, this was required by the USDA in their environmental assessment.”

The USDA’s environmental assessment says that Shelton’s group is required to construct a 10-meter buffer of bare ground outside their test field. Dispersal of the GE moths must be monitored weekly at a minimum by checking traps located in the buffer zone. Some of the traps contain a pheromone that attracts male moths, while other traps do not contain the pheromone. Additional traps with pheromone must be placed in at least four locations along the four compass points out to 1 kilometer from the center of the release site.

Data from the monitoring must be analyzed on a weekly basis at a minimum, and reported as part of a field test report. Shelton stated that since the study began in August, “the group has not detected any moths in the monitoring traps.”

If Shelton’s group detects an unusually high number of GE moths in the traps that are located on the outside edge of the buffer zone, he is required to immediately report this finding to the USDA.

See the entire USDA environmental assessment here.

I previously produced a feature on the planned release of the genetically modified diamondback moth that aired on WRFI Community Radio News on August 16, 2017. In the feature, I talk with Patty Lovera, of the organization Food and Water Watch, and Liana Hoodes, of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York. Both activists are leery of the planned release of GE moths. They think that the USDA overlooked potential harms that could be caused by the GE diamondback moths, and that the New York Department of Environmental Conservation should step in to compel the Cornell group to perform an additional environmental assessment.

The feature also contains part of Dr. Shelton’s presentation at a public meeting about the project held in Geneva New York on Wednesday, August 9, 2017. Also in the piece, Dr. Jason Dombroskie, a Cornell entomologist who is an expert on moths, discusses the behavior of the diamondback moth, and whether GE moths could cause harm to their predators.

Featured photograph via Wikimedia Commons and used by Creative Commons license.

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