GENEVA — The possible release of genetically modified diamondback moths as a method of pest control has drawn objections from environmental and organic farming organizations.
Diamondback moths destroy broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, collards, kale and other cruciferous crops. The species has been genetically modified with the idea that the moth’s offspring would die in the larval stage while on plants, including broccoli and cabbage.
Among the concerns: Field trial sites at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station are too close to certified organic or non-genetically engineered farms, meaning their certification could be lost if the larval stage moths are present.
Cornell officials have said only enclosed-cage indoor trials will be conducted this summer.
Andy Fellenz grows vegetables and small fruits on five acres of Lester Road property in the town of Phelps. His farm has had organic certification from the New York Organic Farming Association since 2005.
“I’m aware of the moth trials, but I’m not well informed on the topic and whether having genetically modified moths on my plants could harm my organic certification,” Fellenz said. “I do think Cornell has not been open on how they would do the trials. They did not give much public notice on the nature of their plans and did not give an opportunity for discussion.”
Fellenz said if pollen from genetically modified corn finds its way to his organic corn, he likely would lose his organic certification. By his own admission, he’s not as sure about genetically modified insects.
In a letter dated June 11, a coalition of groups outlined their concerns to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball, Cornell University President David Skorton and Cornell Agricultural School Associate Dean Susan Brown. The correspondence urged Cornell to release information to the public about the field trials at the Geneva-based Experiment Station and to stop outdoor trials until more information is available.
Kathryn Boor, dean of the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, responded through a statement.
In November 2014, she said, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service issued a permit to Dr. Anthony Shelton, an internationally recognized authority on the diamondback moth and a tenured Cornell entomology faculty member. It allowed Shelton to conduct product tests of England-based Oxitec’s genetically engineered moth, which was designed with pest control in mind.
Oxitec is a major producer of genetically modified or engineered insects.
“Cornell is conducting this independent assessment to determine if this technology is a viable solution to a real-world problem faced by farmers of these crops in New York state and around the globe,” Boor said. “This research could lead to the reduction of the use of pesticides that currently are employed with these types of crops to control these destructive invasive insects.”
Since receiving the permit, Cornell and Shelton have been in regular contact about Shelton’s testing plans.
“Conversations with Dr. Shelton have focused on implementation of a careful, systematic and thorough approach for evaluating the efficacy of Oxitec’s moth in controlling the diamondback moth as an agricultural pest,” Boor said. “Based on these considerations, Dr. Shelton will conduct only enclosed cage trials this summer. This approach will allow the GM moth to be studied in a controlled environment under conditions that closely resemble open field conditions.”
Boor said the proposed trials are governed by regulations outlined in the permit and have been review by Cornell’s Office of Research.
“Although the permit allows for open field release of the moths, Cornell will not proceed with such releases this summer,” Boor said.
After careful consideration, including consultation with an internal scientific advisory committee made up of faculty not engaged in this work but whose research programs provide in-depth expertise in key aspects of this project, Boor said controlled cage trials were determined to be the most prudent approach for testing.
Boor said Cornell will notify key public officials of the trials and provide public information about the research on an ongoing basis.
In September 2014, Sustainable Pulse reported that several of the organizations that wrote the aforementioned letter commented on the USDA’s Environmental Assessment Form about the proposed field release of Oxitec’s GM diamondback moths. The USDA did not contact those organizations to address their many concerns, Sustainable Pulse said.
Months later, according to Sustainable Pulse, the groups found out through a separate correspondence with the USDA that the moth permit had been “quietly approved” without a press release or other public notification.
“The release of genetically engineered autocidal moths is the first of its kind in the United States, and it sets a very poor precedent that they were released with minimal environmental review and transparency,” Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter was quoted as saying in the Sustainable Pulse article.
Helen Wallace, director of GeneWatch UK, said proposals to release GM moths in England were halted in 2012 because of concerns about the risk assessment.
“Many issues that would be closely studied before the moths are released in Europe have not yet been considered in the U.S.,” Wallace told Sustainable Pulse. “Consumers and farmers deserve much better information about GM insects that could up in the food chain.”
“The USDA has dropped the ball by approving this field trial without a thorough review and without notifying New York’s organic farmers,” Anne Ruflin, Executive Director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, said in the Sustainable Pulse article.
The New York Organic Farm Association says there are roughly 750 certified organic farms in the state, including 84 in Ontario, Seneca, Yates and Wayne counties.