Government-backed researchers in America are aiming to use virus-carrying insects to genetically engineer crops – raising fears the technology could be used for biological weapons.
A new article in the journal Science explores the shadowy program funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).
The program aims to disperse infectious, genetically modified viruses that have been engineered to alter the chromosomes of crops – using insects to spread the viruses to the plants.
Researchers have budgeted more than $45m to pursue the genetic engineering scheme, in a program dubbed Insect Allies.
The agency describes the research as a way to improve crop security: bugs like aphids, leafhoppers and whiteflies will be used to spread a virus to plants including corn and tomatoes, which will then impart beneficial genes making the plants resistant to disease or drought.
But in the Science article, an international team of scientists and lawyers warn that the technology could be put to more nefarious purposes, including military applications.
“It is our opinion that the knowledge to be gained from this program appears very limited in its capacity to enhance US agriculture or respond to natural emergencies,” they write. “As a result, the program may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery.”
If true, that would violate the international Biological Weapons Convention, say the authors, who include Guy Reeves, a biologist and researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, and Silja Voeneky, co-director of the Institute for Public Law at the University of Freiburg.
“It’s much easier to develop a biological weapon than to develop something that could maybe be used in agriculture,” Reeves said.
Scientists at universities including Ohio State, Penn State, the University of California, Davis and many others are working on the research.
The program is the first of its kind. Experiments have been conducted only in sealed greenhouses and labs, not in the open.
The researchers argue that the agency’s claims that the program could be useful for “routine peacetime agriculture” does not add up, since the genetic agents could be spread by spraying, the same way farmers spray pesticides.
Instead, they are using insects – meaning that in order to use the genetic agents to respond to an emergency, officials would somehow have to find a way to distribute living, infected insects to farmers around the country.
“The idea that you’re protecting American farmers seems to be more than a bit of a stretch,” Reeves said.
At the same time, the spread of virus-carrying insects could be hard to control.
“Easy simplifications … of the described work program could be used to generate a new class of biological weapons,” the authors write in the Science article.
“The program is primarily a bad idea because obvious simplifications of the work plan with already-existing technology can generate predictable and fast-acting weapons, along with their means of delivery, capable of threatening virtually any crop species.”
They warn that the mere announcement of the Insect Allies program, regardless of its true motives, could spur other countries to create similar technologies capable of being used as biological weapons. “Indeed, it may already have done so,” they write.
Darpa says there is nothing to fear from the program.
“Darpa created Insect Allies to provide new capabilities to protect the United States, specifically the ability to respond rapidly to threats to the food supply. A wide range of threats may jeopardize food security, including intentional attack by an adversary, natural pathogens and pests, as well as by environmental phenomena such as drought and flooding,” said Dr Blake Bextine, the Darpa program manager for Insect Allies.
He called spraying treatments “impractical” and said traditional selective breeding methods take years, making insects a new method worth studying. Researchers in the program are required to include three separate “kill switches” to shut down their technology, in addition to using biosecure greenhouses for the demonstrations.
“Darpa is producing neither biological weapons nor the means for their delivery. We do accept and agree with concerns about potential dual use of technology, an issue that comes up with virtually every new powerful technology,” Bextine said. “Those concerns are precisely why we structured the Insect Allies program the way we did, as a transparent, university-led, fundamental research effort that benefits from the active participation of regulators and ethicists, and proactive communication to policymakers and the public. We also have numerous, layered safeguards in place to maintain biosecurity and ensure the systems we’re developing function only as intended.”
The program has also taken “extra precautions” to identify any unintended consequences, making sure only the targeted plants and insects are affected by the viruses, he said.
Darpa says that if its program successfully develops the insect technology, it will be up to other agencies to decide whether and how it is used in the real world.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 04 Oct 2018.