“Genetic Manipulation of Pest Species: Ecological and Social Challenges.”

We propose to convene a conference titled “Genetic Manipulation of Pest Species: Ecological and Social Challenges.” In the past 10 years major advances have been made in our ability to build transgenic insects that are conditionally sterile, harbor selfish genetic elements, and express anti-pathogen genes. Strategies are being developed that will involve release into the environment of transgenic pest strains with such characteristics. These releases could provide more environmentally benign pest management, but steps must be taken to insure that this is the case and that there are no significant health or environmental risks associated with these releases. Our conference will foster discussion of risks and benefits of these technologies among scientists who are developing transgenic techniques, ecologists working with the pest organisms, representatives of government agencies, and citizen groups who have concerns about application of transgenic methods. The conference will start with presentations that address the general science and technology, and that discuss details of specific case studies. Each set of presentations will be followed by panel and audience discussion of ecological and social concerns. We are planning for 90 attendees from universities, government, public-interest groups, and industry. Of these invitees, we expect at least 15 to have roles in speaking, panel discussions, and moderating roundtable discussions. The ultimate goal of our conference is a “Proposed Plan of Action” that identifies areas of consensus for evaluating genetic pest management programs, and also identifies how unresolved concerns about these methods and strategies may be addressed in an inclusive manner.

Rationale and Significance:
Over the past decade, biotechnology has had a major impact on agriculture based on genetic engineering of crops that renders them resistant to major groups of insect pests (Ferry et al. 2006) and tolerant of environmentally non-persistent herbicides (Sydorovych and Marra 2007). Our proposed conference is aimed at addressing the next frontier in genetic pest management, one targeted at the pests themselves. While genetic engineering of crops is expected to provide control of a broader array of insect pests in the future (e.g. Huang et al. 2006, Mao et al. 2007, Baum et al. 2007), there are many insects and other organisms that cause economic, health, and environmental harm that cannot be efficiently managed through manipulation of crop plants. For example, it would not be feasible to engineer the oak trees in forests to be resistant to gypsy moths. Ticks and mosquitoes that vector diseases of livestock and humans never feed on crops, so a toxin in a crop would have no impact on them. Furthermore there are other pests and invasive species in taxa other than insects that could be managed through use of these strategies. Mice and rats in agricultural and non-agricultural settings may emerge as key targets (Gould 2008).

Entomologists, molecular biologists, ecologist, and evolutionary biologists have been working together in developing novel biotechnology strategies for managing non-crop pests (e.g. Alphey et al 2002, Scott et al. 2002, James 2005, Sinkins and Gould 2006). In the past two years, breakthroughs in molecular biology have made the development of these strategies more feasible (Gong et al. 2005, Franz et al. 2006, Chen et al. 2007). Most of the work in this area has focused on mosquito species that vector malaria and dengue fever (James 2005), but some efforts directed toward agricultural pests have been successful (e.g. Gong et al. 2005). Some small field releases of genetically engineered, sterile pink bollworm, a cotton pest, have already been conducted in Arizona.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently contributed over $40,000,000 to efforts aimed at developing mosquitoes that cannot transmit dengue or malaria. Field cage trials of some of these engineered mosquitoes are planned in 2009 (http://www.gcgh.org/Projects/ControlInsectVectors/GeneticStrategy/default.htm).

In this new frontier of genetic pest management, we feel that there is an opportunity to be proactive in addressing health and environmental concerns about genetically engineered pests and invasive organisms, and to actively educate and involve citizen groups and scientists who don’t work directly with pest management. The commercialization of transgenic crops was met by a great deal of informed and uninformed debate. In many cases, the public viewed actions by the federal government, academia, and industry to address concerns over the health and environmental impacts of these crops as a late response to citizens who pushed the issue. Our conference attempts to engage various stakeholders from the outset.

We contend that not enough engagement of the public and external scientists has been developed to date, and that multiple meeting formats are needed that clearly explain the science to government and citizen groups, as well as the broader scientific community, in order to prepare for potential environmental releases in the next 10 years. There have been some useful meetings that are related to our goal. The USDA-APHIS conducted a number of public meetings prior to experiments with engineered pink bollworm, although attendance was low. The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology held a meeting specifically about genetically modified insects in 2004 (Pew Initiative 2004; also http://www.isb.vt.edu/articles/nov0404.htm ) that had some attendance from citizen groups and ecologists. Issues about risks related to transgenic insects have also been addressed at a number of scientific meetings (e.g. Asilomar, Keystone, Entomological Society of America). Still, we need more diverse types of meetings to engage the public.

At this point, the issue of releasing genetically engineered insects seems to be a small blip on the radar screen of citizen groups, academic ecologists, and environmental scientists. Government regulators are only now beginning to deal with this issue. If release of genetically engineered insects is a blip on the radar screen, the issue of environmental release of genetically engineered mice, rats, and weeds is not within 100 miles of the radius of that screen. Instead of waiting for these issues to grab public attention after they have moved ahead in development, we feel that more should be done to engage the general public and scientific community. This is not easy to accomplish. However, if it is not done, there is a good chance that years from now government agencies will be faced with a public that feels that it was left out of the process, and that could lead to emotional rather than rational assessment of risks and benefits.

Connected with, but distinct from issues of biology are the economic and social implications of genetic pest management. While the efficacy and direct costs of genetic pest management can be understood largely from knowledge of the genetic manipulation technology, the benefits to be reaped are tied to the economic and cultural institutions of the places where genetically modified organisms are released. It is vital, therefore, to understand the new technologies in the geographic and social contexts where they will be applied.

If genetic pest management is successful in changing the health of livestock, crops, and humans, then these changes will shift the prices and costs of production in agricultural industries and trigger chains of effects in related markets. To understand the direct and indirect effects will require economic analysis of these induced changes. In some cases, transmission of prices from directly affected to indirectly affected markets will amplify the net-benefits of GPM and in other cases, this transmission will dampen them. We intend to involve both biological scientists and social scientists in the symposium to encourage cross-disciplinary thinking on the new technology’s ultimate effects.

Why we feel that BRAG could benefit by funding this effort:
Our conference is not entirely about research, as it involves multiple stakeholders that are outside the agricultural community. Yet, we feel that biotechnology risk assessment research has as much to gain from a broad meeting like this as from meetings where academic researchers exchange ideas only with each other. Research scientists in the Land Grant System regularly receive input from farmers and agricultural consultants about what types of new research and information are needed to improve crop production and pest management, as well as what types of strategies can actually work at the farm level. These farmers and consultants are major stakeholders, and they often provide novel observations and ideas that help initiate new and useful research. A direct goal of our conference is engagement of the public and scientists not directly involved in agriculture. They are stakeholders with whom we often lack direct communication. The ultimate goal of our conference is a “Proposed Action Plan” that takes into account the concerns of a broad array of scientists and the public.

A second goal of our conference will be to identify needs from the scientific research community that will be critical to evaluate the potential harmful effects of genetically modified pests. We expect the action plan to include a number of useful new research ideas that will help advance novel transgenic pest management technologies. We especially expect that inputs from scientists who do not work in the area of pest management will broaden our vision of research priorities.

Need for partial funding:
We are requesting only a portion of our funding from BRAG. We are asking BRAG for support of the portion of this conference that is related to agricultural pests. We have secured nearly ½ of our anticipated funding. To date, we have received $5,000 in funding from the NCSU Provost’s office, another $5,000 from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and $3,000 from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. We are submitting a proposal to the USDA NRI program for supplemental funds. Our expectation is that total costs for running our conference will be $30,000.

Conference Details

This conference will bring together leaders from science and public-interest groups to identify ecological, economic, and social challenges raised by the prospects of genetic manipulation of pest species. While it is difficult to predict the major concerns that will be addressed by the conference, a general list follows:

Stability of transgene insertions:
Current approaches for transgene insertion into insect genomes involve the use of transposons and transient expression of transposases. Concerns have been raised over the possibility that endogenous transposases will remobilize transgenes in the target organism. This could lead to trait instability and could also make cross-species transfers more likely. Although new methods have been developed to address this problem (Handler et al. 2004, Dafa’alla et al. 2006) it is not clear that remobilization poses an ecological risk and requires these safeguards (Sethuraman et al. 2007).

Cross-species movement of active transposons and novel Wolbachia strains
Some gene-drive strategies involve the use of active transposons that are built synthetically to carry sequences coding for anti-pathogen genes (Gould and Schliekelman 2004). This could be useful for driving genes into target populations but it could also result in a much higher likelihood of cross-species movement than expected from other gene-drive methods that rely on stably inserted genes (e.g. underdominance, synthetic Medea genes). As with transposons, Wolbachia spp, which are highly obligate symbiotic/parasitic microbes, have been proposed as a means of driving genes into populations. Recent work on the spread of Wolbachia into a new Drosophila species in California brings up concerns of cross-species movement.

Off-target impacts of RNAi approaches
Mosquito strains transformed to express specific sequences of RNAi in the midguts of female mosquitoes after blood meals can interfere with reproduction of dengue viruses (Franz et al. 2006). A question has arisen about whether this use of the mosquito cells’ endogenous RNAi machinery to fight dengue could leave these mosquitoes less defended against transmission of other pathogens (some people worry that this will lead to mosquito transmission of HIV virus). Such tradeoffs could also be found with RNAi approaches for control of insects that vector plant pathogens. There are empirical approaches to address this issue, but such work has not been conducted.

Risks associated with population or species eradication.
Although not addressed during the screwworm eradication efforts, pre-trial and post trial analyses indicated that local eradication of the screwworm fly were predicted to and did result in increased populations of wild pigs and deer in Texas (Reichard 2002). If similar issues were predicted to be associated with an eradication effort in the 21st century, there would at least be the need for NEPA assessments. Before any attempt at eradication of a pest species it would be critical to insure that other pests would not subsequently fill the vacant niche. The general question is “How much and what kinds of ecological analyses would be needed before specific local or regional eradication efforts?”

Are transgenic methods cost effective?
Questions have arisen in the malaria control community regarding the siphoning off of funds from conventional bednet programs to fund transgenic research. These specific charges may not be true, but in all pest management programs, economic cost:benefit analyses should be conducted prior to major changes in the balance of funding. Such analyses should include the calculation of spillover, or indirect, effects transmitted to markets and locations only indirectly affected by the release of genetically modified strains.

Are there dangers that follow major successes?
An important issue with any program that impacts the fitness of a pest is whether or not the pest is expected to adapt to the control measure. With transgenic methods that directly decrease pest fitness, the immediate concern is that the wild population will evolve to cease mating with the transgenic strain and the trait/mortality will not spread. Indeed, this may be less of a problem than expected if it is only the single transgene that differentiates the wild from engineered strains, but we must determine how much and what types of research are adequate to address this issue.

The above are only a subset of issues likely to be addressed at the proposed conference, but they provide a general picture of the problems that will be dealt with. Our hope is that other issues that have never been considered will emerge from the discussions, and this will enable researchers to deal with the issues well in advance of planned releases.

Proposed Plan of Action:
The ultimate goal of the workshop is to develop a Proposed Plan of Action. This plan will identify areas of consensus for evaluating genetic pest management programs, and will also identify how unresolved concerns about these methods and strategies may be addressed in an inclusive manner. It is critical to recognize that the group assembled at our conference will not include all stakeholders and will not have the authority of any government agency. It is far too early to codify a plan of action, but there is a definite need for proposed plans of action. Researchers have already proposed plans of action (Scott et al. 2002, Knols et al. 2007). Although these plans were developed solely by researchers working with mosquitoes, they provide valuable ideas and we will use these as a starting point in our discussions. Following the conference, we will revise the text of our proposed plan to produce a manuscript for publication in a broadly disseminated journal.

Tentative agenda
In the first ½ day of the conference, we will be to bring all participants up to speed on the state of the science (general education materials will also be sent out prior to the conference). In the following 1.5 days, we will describe and discuss challenges associated with specific cases studies. The format of the case studies will be to have an academic scientist present applications of genetic pest management, and then have other speakers discuss social and economic challenges. Each case study will be followed by a panel discussion and audience participation. The final morning will be devoted to developing a consensus “Proposed Plan of Action”. The current speaker list is tentative although each proposed speaker has been contacted.

P = Tentative agreement to participate; I = Invited

Day 1
The science of genetic pest control

Fred Gould, Entomology, North Carolina State University, P
Tony James, Molecular Biology, UC Irvine, P

General Discussion and breakout sessions at differing technical levels;
Discussion leaders—to be determined.

Case study I. Malaria and dengue-vectoring mosquitoes

Bart Knols, International Atomic Energy Agency, P
Yeya Toure, UN World Health Organization, I
Laura Harrington, Entomology, Cornell University, P
Jim Lavery, Sociology, University of Toronto, I

Panel Discussion
Doug Gurian-Sherman, Union of Concerned Scientists, I
Susan Jarvi, University of Hawaii, I
Janine Ramsey, Director CRISP, Chiapas, Mexico P
Chris Curtis, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, P
Tom Scott, Entomology UC-Davis, P
Charles Godfray, Biology, Oxford University, UK P

Case Study II. Medfly

Susan McCombs, Emergency Programs, APHIS, P
Alan Hruska. FAO, Chile, P
Peter Kareiva, Director of Research,The Nature Conservancy, I
David Andow, University of Minnesota, I

Panel Discussion
Rebecca Goldberg, Environmental Defense I
Hannah Barrack, Extension Entomologist, North Carolina State University, I
Wally Thurman, Economist, North Carolina State University, P
Pedro Rendon, APHIS- Guatamalan fruit fly rearing facility, I

Day 2
Case Study III. Mice and rats

Hopi Hoekstra, Zoology, Harvard University, I
Jane Rissler or Margaret Mellon, Union of Concerned Scientists, I

Panel Discussion
Nils Stenseth, University of Oslo, I
Jane Rissler or Margaret Mellon, Union of Concerned Scientists, I

Case Study IV. Invasive Plants and Agricultural Weeds

Jonathan Gressel, Weeds Science, Weizman Institute, Israel P
Norman Ellstrand, Botany, UC-Riverside, P

Panel Discussion
Bernd Blossey, Biocontrol, Cornell University, P
Peter McEvoy, Biology, University of Oregon, I

Roundtable discussions to synthesize issues of concern

Nick Haddad, Zoology, North Carolina State University, P
Paul Thompson, Rural Scociology, Michigan State University, I
Janine Ramsey, CRISP, P
Yeye Toure, UN World Health Organization, I

Day 3

Development of Proposed Plan of Action

Meeting adjourned at noon


Bernd Blossey has had a long history of research on the ecology and impacts of invasive species. He is now director of Cornell’s Ecology and Management of Invasive Plants Program. The goal of this program is “to assemble multidisciplinary teams of students and other professionals to engage in scientific research and the collection of sound data on the impact of invasive plant species.”

Norman Ellstrand, “has been conducting research on the environmental risks of agricultural biotechnology for more than a decade, focusing on the movement of transgenes into natural weed populations to produce crop-weed hybrids. He participated in a National Research Council study on the environmental impacts associated with commercialization of transgenic crops”. He is now the Director of the Biotechnology Impact Center at UC Riverside that aims to be “an ‘honest broker’ forum to identify the relevant policy issues, act as a clearinghouse for credible information on those issues and to initiate research that addresses the potential benefits and consequences of the genomics revolution.

Jonathan Gressel has conducted research on weed management for over 30 years. This work includes collaborations in dealing with parasitic weeds, especially in Africa. “He has been conducting research in areas of transgenic biosafety, especially developing methods for preventing transgene movement from crops or biocontrol agents, and its mitigation. Prof. Gressel’s latest edited books are entitled Crop Ferality and Volunteerism (2005), Novel Biotechnologies for Biocontrol Agent Enhancement and Management (2007), Integrating New Technologies for Striga Control: Ending the Witch-hunt (2007) and his single authored books are Molecular Biology of Weed Control (2002) and Genetic Glass Ceilings - Transgenics for Crop Biodiversity (2007).

Peter McEvoy, conducts research on the ecology of invasive plant species and their biological control using insects and pathogens. His work links field observations, experiments, and mathematical modeling to test assumptions and predictions of ecological theories applied to biological invasions and biological pest control. Peter has worked collaboratively to implement biological control programs on state, regional, and national scales. He has also worked on public policy issues surrounding invasions and release of new organisms into the environment, “as reflected in studies conducted for the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), the National Research Council (NRC), and other government and non-government organizations”.

Jane Rissler or Margaret Mellon. As staff members at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Drs. Rissler and Mellon have worked on issues related to genetically modified crops for over 15 years. They have published books on the topic and have appeared before many NRC, USDA and EPA committees charged with assessing environmental impacts of transgenic plants. They have often called for more stringent regulation and more public involvement. Their backgrounds in molecular biology enable them to grasp the technical issues involved in transgenic methods.

Nils Stenseth, research focuses on ecology and evolution of lemmings and other rodents. He is the leader of the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis at the University of Oslo. He and his co-authors recently published an article entitled “Mice, Rats and People: the bio-economics of agricultural rodent pests” where they review and synthesize the data on rodent impacts and the ecological factors that influence these impacts.

Paul Thompson was recently selected for the W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Food, Agricultural and Community Ethics. This chair was created by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to “strengthen Michigan State University's efforts to address the ethical, social and political challenges related to natural resources, public policy and agriculture.” Paul has been involved with issues related to genetically modified organisms and serve on the NAS National Resources Councils committee that wrote the 2002 report on “Environmental effects of transgenic plants: The scope and adequacy of regulation”. Paul has a diverse background in philosophy, agriculture, and public trust issues.