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DARPA, a research arm of the U.S. military, is exploring the possibility of deploying insects to make plants more resilient by altering their genes. Some experts believe that this military program could be seen as bioweapon.
According to authors in the journal “Science”, the project, deemed the Insect Allies project, needs to provide greater justification to avoid being perceived as hostile to other countries, as well as having security and ethical concerns.
The project, which commenced in 2016, seeks to transmit protective traits to crops already growing in the field, and the methods used are a departure from current methods of genetically modifying crops.
The military research agency says its goal is to protect the nation’s food supply from threats like drought, crop disease and bioterrorism by using insects to infect plants with viruses that protect against such dangers, claiming that “food security is a national security.”
The technology could work in different ways. In the first phase, aphids—tiny bugs that feed by sucking sap from plants—infected plants with a virus that temporarily brought about a trait. But researchers are also trying to see if viruses can alter the plant’s genes themselves to be resistant to dangers throughout the plant’s life.
The research is raising concerns because “they’re talking about massive release of genetic modification by means of insects,” said Gregory Kaebnick, an ethicist at the Hastings Center bioethics research institute in Garrison, N.Y., who has studied genetic modification.
“When you are talking about very small things—insects and microbes—it might be impossible to remove them” once they are introduced into farmers’ fields, he said.
Dr. David Relman, a professor of medicine and microbiology at Stanford who has advised the Obama administration on bio-defense but is not part of the DARPA research, said the project could play into longstanding fears among countries that enemies might try to harm their crops.
However, Relman adds that the technology could potentially help farmers fight a “bad plant virus moving across the plains” or protect crops from bioterrorism, as reported in phys.org.
Tom Inglesby, a professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins, said the technology is being developed specifically to protect crops. But he acknowledged it could be misused.