Genetically modified organisms were the topic Thursday night at the University of South Florida's Oval Theatre, but this time the focus wasn't only on what we eat.
The biotech company Oxitec has been pushing to release genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys, as part of an experiment aimed at curbing the spread of Dengue Fever. The hope is that the genetically modified mosquitoes, which would be sterilized males, breed and eventually kill off the species. In response, the GMO Free Florida, Food and Water Watch, and the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition have organized a statewide tour intended to inform the public and voice opposition.
Tampa served as the tour's first stop, drawing more than 100 people. The presentation, which was organized locally by Going Green Tampa, featured Dr. Carlos Garcia and prominent consumer advocate Jeffrey M. Smith, author of the worldwide bestseller Seeds of Deception.
Smith devoted the first half of his hour-long speech to the risks of consuming GMOs and familiar foe Monsanto, but pulled no punches in his criticisms of Oxitec's plan, citing the potential for risks and a lack of transparency by the company on the scientific side.
“The idea is to create mosquitoes, to release the males which don't bite, then they create sterile offspring. So you reduce the population of the type of mosquito that may carry Dengue Fever. They didn't tell us that actually 3% are not sterile. Millions will end up in the environment forever. And sometimes it's not actually the males, there's some female that get in there too, but it's okay, they've done it before. And they didn't actually reduce Dengue Fever, but it's in the plans. Their numbers keep changing and most of it's hidden. … The technology is leaky, i've talked to one of the top insect GMO scientists from Florida recently. She created the first genetically modified trial of insects in a lab and she had to talk to all these different agencies. They all showed up. And she said this is what we want. In science, we want transparency, thoroughness, care. What we're seeing with Oxitec and the FDA is hidden information and shoddy science.”
Oxitec has previously released these mosquitoes in both the Cayman Islands and Malaysia in an attempt to curb Dengue Fever, which according to Smith prompted local outrage and ignores a potential solution that was actually found in Florida.
“In Malaysia where they released the genetically engineered mosquito, the people were very angry, but in another location they released a predatory mosquito that kills the type of mosquito that carries Dengue Fever. It was so successful, no outbreaks of Dengue Fever occurred afterwards, the community wanted more. Do you know where this was developed? In Florida! That's where this predatory mosquito is from. You can do this whole thing without genetically engineering anything new, without introducing a new mosquito that's never before been on this planet.”
Smith even pointed out a possible risk to Florida's tourist economy, with even a rumor of “Frankenbugs” spreading diseases turning the state into a no-go area for international visitors.
“Imagine if someone was bit by a vampire mosquito in the keys and gets sick from something and dies. Imagine the person who thinks it's a genetically modified mosquito, whether it is or isn't, and imagine some paper of standing does a story about Frankenbugs in South Florida. Imagine if it gets picked up at a time of great anti-GMO sentiment or someone with a problem with GMOs dropped it somewhere else. Think about the risk to Florida tourism off a story. There was a rumor that genetically modified papaya was stolen from a field trial in Thailand and Europe cancelled all orders of papaya in Thailand. Imagine the risk that's being taken in Florida, so that a company can experiment on a population of mosquitos and Floridians.”
Smith advised all in the audience to get in contact with the governor and tell him the idea was stupid. He ended his speech on a hopeful note, encouraging the audience and looking back on how far the anti-GMO movement has come. Major strides have been made recently, with both Cheerios and Post's Grape Nuts going GMO free.
“This is an amazing time, and we may take this information and feel burdened by it, but I'm going to give you another angle. Who else in history, what other generation, has had the opportunity to protect everyone who eats and all living beings and all future generations? This is unprecedented. This is more power to do good than our ancestors ever had in the history of the human race. ... It turns out this window is the most important window of opportunity in the history of GMO activism. In the history of any GMO opportunity, and because the GMO words are buzzing around the internet, it's happening. We're getting coverage for the first time. The other side is pulling out all the stops. They're trying to discredit me like crazy, so it must be working. This is the time now where a little energy and a little attention has such a leveraged, powerful response. ... But please, let us take this time together, on behalf of all living beings, that we can support and celebrate the nature of nature for all living beings and together we can claim a non-GMO food supply for all living beings and all future generations will celebrate us.”
The tour continues, with a stop next week in Coconut Creek before ending in Key West.