A pest-eating ladybug attacks an aphid.
As angry debates about genetic modification continue, GM crops are quietly going about their business—and producing some positive side effects. In China, with Bt cotton reducing the need for insecticides, pest-eating bugs have rebounded and brought natural pest control with them.
China’s genetically modified cotton is not new. Farmers used to spray their cotton with a protein, naturally produced by the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria, which is toxic to certain insects. As research into genetically modified crops advanced, scientists implanted the cotton itself with the Bt genes that code for production of the insect toxin, creating so-called “Bt cotton” and alleviating the need for the sprayed insecticide. Since China approved its use in 1997, Bt cotton has proved itself particularly effective against the cotton bollworm moth, reducing the costs and side effects of spraying pesticides, but it has had may also decrease the number of non-pest insects compared with organic fields.
With the advent of Bt cotton, pesticide use became specialized, only affecting insects that both were vulnerable to Bt’s toxin and that fed on cotton, which allowed the populations of other insect species to rebound. Some of the now-thriving species, like mirids, are pests, but others eat pests, and their recovery is making natural bug control possible.
The AquAdvantage salmon.
When most people say “genetically modified organism,” they usually mean a plant—corn, perhaps, or an eggplant. But that may soon change. The FDA has completed its analysis of the first genetically modified animal likely to hit supermarket shelves: the AquAdvantage salmon, made by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies, Inc. Thanks to some added genes, the salmon grows 2-6 times the size of a normal Atlantic salmon in half the time, promising some respite for the planet’s heavily taxed natural fish stocks, a third of which are near extinction or exhaustion. Talking Points Memo’s IdeaLab reports that a source close to the review process says that the FDA’s environmental impact statement, which looks at what effect the salmon will have on the environment and seems to be favorable, has been passed on to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
As always with genetically modified organisms, there are questions about how the salmon’s manufacturers plan to keep its genes from getting loose in the environment. AquaBounty has developed a way to make the fish sterile, which would make spreading their genes quite tricky. At the moment, however, it only works on 98% of the salmon. Additionally, the company is only seeking approval for growing the fish in large, land-locked tanks with double-thick walls. While giant nets teeming with fish in the middle of the ocean are a sight more commonly associated with aquaculture, inland tanks make the risk of modified fish escaping much smaller.