A team of scientists has just published an ominous warning in a new Science Policy Forum report about a disconcerting DARPA program that would use swarms of insects carrying genetically modified viruses that would be turned loose into the environment. The program would use insects’ natural ability to spread crop diseases, but instead of carrying disease-causing genes, they would carry viruses that would modify the crops genetics, giving them plant-protective traits.
Critics claim that “the DARPA program is easily weaponized.”
The program, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has a warm and fuzzy name: “Insect Allies.” But some critics find the whole thing creepy.
A team of skeptical scientists and legal scholars published an article in the journal Science on Thursday arguing that the Insect Allies program opens a “Pandora’s box” and involves technology that “may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery.” A website created by the critics puts their objection more bluntly: “The DARPA program is easily weaponized.”
It's called the “Insect Allies” program and the technology, known as Horizontal Environmental Genetic Alteration Agents (HEGAA), is an entirely new method of genetically modifying crops.
Richard Guy Reeves from the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology calls the program disturbing and claims that it's an example of research being used by the US government to create a bioweapon under the pretense of aiding farmers.
Insect Allies is reportedly backed by $27 million of funding. According to Gizmodo, there are four academic research teams currently working on the project, including researchers at the Boyce Thompson Institute in New York, Pennsylvania State University, Ohio State University and the University of Texas at Austin. DARPA maintains that “all work is conducted inside closed laboratories, greenhouses, or other secured facilities,” and that the insects have built-in lifespans to limit their spread. By 2020 or 2021, DARPA is planning on testing the virus-infected insects on crops inside greenhouses at undisclosed locations.
Reeves said the use of insects as a vehicle for genetic modification is a horrible idea because they cannot be controlled and indicates that traditional overhead sprays to deliver HEGAAs is the safest bet. DARPA says insects are the only practical solution, as overhead spraying of HEGAAs would require increased farming infrastructure — something that is not available to all farmers.
The report specifies how there is currently no global regulatory framework to support this new way of transporting HEGAAs to crops, which if not supervised correctly, could lead to potential mishaps.
The scientists of the report interpret DARPA's insect program as “an intention to develop a means of delivery of HEGAAs for offensive purposes,” such as conducting biological warfare.
These genetically modified bugs could be implanted with a dangerous plant-killing disease that the Trump adminstration could unleash over farmland in Venezuela, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and or even China, that would decimate the countries' food supply.
The introduction of this potentially dangerous technology, the scientists argue, would usher in an entirely new class of biological, insect-dispatched weapons that could be considered weapons of mass destruction. Scientists warn that this technology would spur rival nations to develop similar insect programs.
In response to a Gizmodo question, a spokesperson for DARPA said it welcomes academic dialogue about the Insect Allies program, but criticizes the conclusion of the report, saying it is “misleading and peppered with inaccuracies.”
Sources: Washington Post,