Genetically Engineered Moth Trials

By Lori Fontanes, August 8, New York

According to Liana Hoodes, Policy Advisor, Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY), Cornell University plans to begin open-air trials of genetically modified diamondback moths at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) in Geneva, New York, sometime this month. Hoodes received notice of the pending first-time release of the novel species from a representative at Cornell a few days before the university’s sole public forum regarding the field release experiments. The public meeting, to be held today (August 9), will feature a panel of experts headed by Cornell entomologist Dr. Anthony Shelton and NYSAES interim director Dr. Jan Nyrop as well as a representative from U.K.-based Oxitec Ltd., the manufacturer of the imported GE insect. Oxitec is the company that also engineered the modified Aedes aegypti mosquito that has been at the center of a similar debate in the Florida Keys.

Although not listed as an invasive species in New York by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, diamondback moth is a serious scourge of cruciferous crops around the world. As Shelton and Nyrop wrote recently in Finger Lakes Times, the tiny moth is “one of the world’s worst agricultural pests,” causing global damages estimated at “up to $5 billion each year.” Organic farmers in New York, however, have also expressed concerns about the possible negative economic impacts from a GE version of the insect. NOFA-NY, in particular, has continually raised the issue of risks to organic growers’ federal certifications as well as to their livelihoods if GE insects eventually come to market.

Cornell received the federal permit to conduct the open release trials concurrent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Service (APHIS) announcement of the availability of a final environmental assessment (EA) and finding of no significant impact (FONSI), as published in the Federal Register on July 7, 2017. On the its website, USDA-APHIS states that “[b]ased on its FONSI, APHIS has determined that an environmental impact statement need not be prepared.” But in addition to NOFA-NY, watchdog groups such as Friends of the Earth, Food & Water Watch, GeneWatch UK, and Center for Food Safety have questioned the sufficiency of the federal government’s conclusions. Furthermore, although the experiments will take place in New York, the state’s regulatory body, NYS-DEC, did not require any additional environmental assessments in advance of the open-air trials. In an undated letter to NOFA-NY, Kathleen Moser, NYS-DEC Deputy Commissioner for Natural Resources, asserted that “issuance of a permit for the open-air release of genetically modified (engineered) diamondback moths falls outside of DEC’s current regulatory authority.” This purported lack of jurisdiction leaves many critics unsatisfied.

“You need a permit to release butterflies at your wedding in New York State,” Senior Policy Analyst Jaydee Hanson of Center for Food Safety wrote in an email, “but not genetically engineered diamondback moths!”

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