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Oryx and Crake comes to mosquito town

In Margaret Atwood's novel Oryx and Crake the brave new world of genetic engineering has devastated the human population. How this devastation comes about is explained in flashbacks that precede the opening scene. Naturally, the architect of this catastrophe thought what he was doing was a benefit.

What may seem like a benefit to society isn't always a benefit except to those who profit from it. So much has been written about the evils of genetically engineered food crops that it would be redundant to rehearse them all here. But what if the offending genetic technology were to be trained on a human problem that everyone believes ought to be tackled, namely mosquito-borne diseases?

The idea is to create wingless mosquitoes that can't get off the ground and so die practically in the place of their birth. That idea is now a reality. And, where it has been tested, both in and out of the laboratory, it has been a smashing success, bringing mosquito populations down by 80 percent in very short order.

That means that diseases such as dengue fever, yellow fever and malaria which infect tens of millions of people each year would be considerably reduced.

But as with any alteration in an ecosystem, you can never do just one thing. What will the unintended consequences of such mass eradications be? The writer of the article cited above does acknowledge that mosquitoes are part of the food chain and their decline could affect birds and fish. He says that could have consequences for pollination since birds are part of this process for some plants. He also suggests such eradications might open a niche for an even nastier creature.

But then he goes on to say that "this could be one of the most human-friendly modifications we could make to our world. And it would certainly be no worse for the environment than our habit of clear-felling forest areas."

So, there you have it. Humans are creatures who routinely affect the surface of the Earth and the biosphere on a massive scale, so why not this modification which seems so small and so humane? I take my response from Dr. Phil of television fame: "So, how's that workin' out for you?"

This is the same logic that has been used to justify genetically engineered (GE) food crops, and then fiber crops such as cotton and trees, and finally crops that produce pharmaceuticals. Each introduction was always a step forward for human comfort and well-being. Now, we have weeds which resist the herbicide that only a decade ago was supposed to be the great savior of the cash crop farmer by reducing the chemical, labor and financial inputs of those who planted crops that resisted the same herbicide. That herbicide known as glyphosate may now be altering the microflora in the soil in a way that leads to so-called "sudden death" of GE crops.

We have butterflies that die from the pollen of corn. We have rising farmer suicide rates in India where GE cotton that was supposed to increase yields instead fell victim to disease leaving farmers destitute. And, we now have the specter of genetic contamination of food crops with genes from plants grown in the open to produce pharmaceuticals. Would you like a little insulin with your corn flakes?

I have no doubt that this new technique for controlling mosquito populations will spread. It seems as if it will be safer--for humans at least--than chemical sprays and more effective than bed nets. If this method of eradicating pests works well, where will we draw the line? Shall we rid ourselves of rats in cities? Seems like a good idea. How about loathsome raccoons who love our garbage and can carry rabies? Maybe you're feeling a little queasy about that one. Why not get rid of coyotes which destroy so much of our livestock each year? But wouldn't that upset the normal predator/prey balance for other species as well?

The effects of this type of mosquito eradication on local ecosystems may indeed be minor. But, there's really only one way to find out. Try it on a large scale in a lot of places. And, that's what scares me!

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

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