Guest Column: Is there such a thing as a good GMO?

By Julie Drake
Special to the Herald Times
RBC | Are GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) as evil as they are made out to be? Many people fear tinkering with genetics is a slippery slope toward unnatural beings and catastrophic unintended consequences. Others are excited about the possibility.
Ever heard of Zika virus? Yes, that really bad one you get from infected mosquitoes that cause microcephaly in newborn babies and subsequent intellectual impairment, developmental delays, deformity and years of special education, doctor visits and heartache for parents. Zika is here in the United States with nearly all cases from travelers returning from affected areas. The need to be prepared is apparent.
With any outbreak there are several options for control, including vaccinations and exposure preventions. The other is to aggressively attack the problem virus or bacteria. With Zika, prevention is extremely hard because an infected person is generally asymptomatic and transmission can happen in many ways beyond the mosquito bite. However, attacking the problem has a much easier scientific solution. Releasing modified male mosquitoes that then mate with females (the ones that bite and spread the virus) giving hatch to non-viable eggs stops reproduction of the mosquito. No mosquitos, no bites, no infection. Early studies on this technique show more than a 90 percent reduction on Dengue Fever, which is also carried by the urban mosquito Aedes aegypti. It works.
The possibility of near complete eradication of Zika is within our reach, environmentally safe and highly effective. However, these male mosquitoes are considered GMO’s and thus subject to endless red tape and regulations in the US. A scientifically undereducated population created yet another hurdle with perpetuation of public outrage and paranoia in Florida recently when field testing was attempted.
Did this pique your interest? Take a listen to the May 2017 TED talk by scientist Nina Fedoroff. Then learn more in the April 6, 2016, editorial she and former Secretary of Agriculture John Block wrote in the New York Times.
Be careful of global statements, totally for or totally against GMO’s. You will undoubtedly find an exception and may need to re-evaluate your opinions on a case by case basis. As for me, I sure hope the governmental bureaucracy, and public opinion courts will get behind this GMO and put Zika fever on the same list as smallpox and polio. Our nations pregnant mothers and children can’t wait.

Julie Drake is the director of public health for Rio Blanco County.


  1. It seems the Director of health, is similar to the one we have here, the FL Keys, in their conclusions. Unfortunately, we found ours extremely biased yet not significantly knowledgeable in regard to the very technique they are promoting. To go into the local bias isn’t the point, but it is important to point out since public health should be a scientific exercise, not a political one.

    Monroe County, FL, known as the FL Keys, is the only location in the US at this point under consideration for any GM Mosquito release. Any hope of deploying this technology is likely years out for any other specific area of the country and it would be a very controlled trial to look at efficacy and protocol methodology at this point, not a program that could be deployed to actually have a significant affect on mosquito populations across any large areas. The techniques of interest in this discussion are strictly limited to one type of mosquito that can transmit diseases, the Aedes Aegypti. There are numerous other types of mosquitoes that can transmit diseases in the surrounding area where you live likely (Aedes Albopictus and Cullex varieties) and beyond that the GMM techniques will not address those that are just pest.

    In the Keys we revealed many issues that should raise the concern of health officials. The one that screams loudest is the very likely possibility that the use of Oxitec OX513A Genetically Modified Mosquito (GMM), is that antibiotic resistant bacteria could be promoted. This is due to the fact the GMM is based on a “lethal gene” technique, where the mosquitoes and their larva are designed to die without access to the antibiotic tetracycline.

    Nearly 750,000 people die each year from mosquito borne disease. Mosquitoes are the deadliest animals on the planet by far. Closely behind are antibiotic resistant bacteria, attributed to the death of approximately 700,000 per year and growing rapidly. Tetracycline is the most widely used antibiotic on the planet and it’s compromise as an effective agent against bacteria has given rise to microbes that are difficult to cure, leading to amputations and long term illness and death. The projections for death from antibiotic resistant bacteria is staggering 30 years from now, and more than 10 fold that of mosquito born infectious disease, based on current practices in farming and new unnecessary uses, like creating species dependent on it, as a pesticide technique. Oxitec produces several other insects with this “lethal gene” technique, further adding risk to the antibiotic resistance issue.

    This is a serious issue that the local doctors, close to the trial area in the Keys, objected to quickly and loudly in a petition with 28 signatures, asking to perform a non-invasive test to identify if any antibiotic resistance was being promoted during the trial. Oxitec attempted to hide behind the regulatory process, stating that the FDA, the regulatory authority at that time, would not permit any testing of their mosquitoes, or people during the trial release program. This was a non-invasive test and doubtful the FDA, would be able to stand in the way, or desire to. It was Oxitec that resisted and did not approach the FDA for comment. Since the trial will not go forward for the foreseeable future, we will not have a study of how the GMMs promote antibiotic resistant bacteria yet in the US. We will be part of the voices demanding it if any place in Monroe County, or beyond, is to subjected to this experimentation in the future.

    In the Keys we have battled the merits and concerns of this technology for nearly 6 years. Many amongst us have developed significant knowledge on the subject of GMMs, especially in the proposed experimentation neighborhood, where the community rejected the release in a 2:1 ratio in a Nov 8, 2017 referendum. The County technically voted in favor, by a 58% to 42% margin, but that was with only a 2 month notice before the referendum and a classic “David and Goliath” battle of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition with zero funding, combating the financial resources and onslaught of 3 marketing firms engaged by a $4B company, Intrexon.

    Suffice it to say, this is only one of many significant issues routinely glossed over by those who want to solve the growing mosquito borne infectious disease issues in a warming world. Oxitec routinely glosses over the details, even under oath to the US Congress. Yet, science matters, as do even small percentages when releasing 100s of millions of GMMs per year, even in small areas like the Keys with a population of 85,000. Concerns are plenty in this nascent science, but the lack of process control is evident in the 1% of mosquitoes where the GM process didn’t quite work right and can survive without access to tetracycline. Both both born and released GMMs are able to pass their uncharacterized, mutated DNA into the wild populations. 50% of the born are biting females. Feeling better about what you know of GMMs? Most would call this type of product promotion “Snake Oil” sales!

    There is an alternative that does not present the concerns that the GMM solution does, it is made in the US, with the most advanced techniques coming out of the Univ. of KY and Dr. Stephen Dobson. All the programs to date have been supported by the National Institute of Health, NIH, and numerous EPA approved trials have been run in the US since 2015, including the Keys without any objection, due to the non-concerning risk level with this technique.

    Wolbachia is a bacterium that is harmless to humans,. When Wolbachia infected male mosquitoes mate with uninfected females, all of the offspring are non-viable and do not reach maturity. 100% is a much greater success rate than the GMMs and without the other side effect concerns. In short it takes about 10% of the Wolbachia infected mosquitoes to do the same job as the GMMs. The Wolbachia technique is available now for Aedes Albopictus, Aedes Aegypti and is in development for some Cullex mosquitoes, so a much more mature technique than GMMs as well. The sole reason the GMMs get promoted, is awareness, due to the marketing dollars behind Oxitec. The US based Wolbachia technology has little funding and NIH funds cannot be used for marketing. Wolbachia does however, represent a much better, and homegrown, solution.

    As a community, we encourage all to reach out and learn. These are critical issues and we should not react to advancing technology with an unqualified fearful reaction. We applauded Oxitec’s goals , but feel that the corporate culture is market driven and of little concern to valid issue raised within our community. Their continuous resistance to transparency and use of dubious marking techniques right down to “unbiased” but coercive surveys, is a story within itself. They are truly representative of Snake Oil sales techniques and we don’t feel they, should be, or need to be. They just need to be honest, so that risks are well understood by the consumers! Unfortunately, the science is deep and novel, and Oxitec continues to use their marketing dollars to dupe even the best intentions of concerned health officials!

  2. There are a lot of dead folks. A lot of people that have died of cancers. These people work around Glyphosphate. The herbicide that works withe the vast majority of GMO products. Corn soy, etc. These deaths are minimized by people in the industry that see them as percentages and statistics. But there are dogs, cats, children and adults that are exposed to these herbicides daily that will not see their full years. If it were a natural occurrence I would stay silent, bt we all know there is something very toxic about these poisons. Proof? We played this game with Big Tobacco. We had the same advertisers telling us the same thing for 70 years, while people died. Do we really have to play this out the same way. Do we have to have hundreds of millions die? Do we, in the end, when all is proven and the lawsuits paid, still have the products on the market? Will we continue to be used by the mega corporations, as fodders for the profits of the rich?

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