Food and Technology Blog

Key West community raises concerns with GE mosquito release plan

Posted Mar. 21, 2012 / Posted by: Eric Hoffman

On March 15th, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District hosted a town hall meeting to discuss the proposed release of genetically engineered mosquitoes in Key West. We organized our Friends of the Earth activists in the Keys to help ensure tough questions were asked to the genetically engineered mosquito company, Oxitec, and FKMCD -- and the public came out in full force.

According to Friends of the Earth activist and Florida Keys resident Heidi Golightly, "The town hall meeting was very well attended by those who are against being used as a laboratory for Oxitec. The citizenry was very vocal in their feelings that this is very premature as there is not enough scientific data behind this experiment to prove that there will not be any adverse affects on the environment or the people."

As the Key West Citizen reported, Oxitec and the FKMCD “faced strong opposition and tough questions from Keys residents about the genetically engineered mosquitoes…Some people questioned Oxitec's success with releasing genetically altered mosquitoes for the sole purposes of eradicating the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries dengue fever. They asked for peer-reviewed science rating Oxitec's success with past releases and research on whether it would be successful here. Still others questioned investing in the technology as there has not been a case of dengue fever in the Keys since 2010.

Unfortunately, only Oxitec executives presented at the town hall meeting (more like a business pitch!) and no independent experts were brought in to discuss the risks of genetically engineered mosquitoes. Even so, we hear from our members that of the 50-plus people who attended ever person seemed against the proposed release of genetically engineered mosquitoes.

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District appears to be stuck in regulatory limbo as no federal or state agency has agreed to take the lead in overseeing the field release of Oxitec’s genetically engineered mosquitoes. Thankfully, as the Citizen reported, the release “won't happen unless a federal or state regulatory agency will oversee it, the mosquito control officials and [Oxitec] agreed.”

Also, thankfully, releasing the first-ever genetically engineered mosquitoes in the U.S. is not just something the FKMCD and Oxitec can simply “agree” to as an unregulated release would be legally dubious at best and would delegitimize the entire effort in the U.S. and abroad.

But the most important thing to come out of last week’s town hall meeting, despite the lack of independent scientists, is the first step of community engagement. Questions have been raised around the lack of (or perceived lack of) community engagement before Oxitec’s previous releases of genetically engineered mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands and Malaysia. FKMCD has made it clear the town hall meeting was just the first step in a broader plan to engage the community, which should be applauded.

More community engagement -- including ways for the community to provide consent for the experiment or to call for its cancellation -- is a must if Keys residents are  to have a real say in what happens in their community.

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