Regardless of all odds, Florida Keys is selling genetically modified mosquitoes

MONROE COUNTY, Fla. – The dreaded GMO mosquitoes are not going away. Opponents of the technology fear the Florida Keys release date is approaching and they’re not ready for the possible ramifications of the experiment.

The battle to release genetically modified mosquitoes in Monroe County has been going on for nearly a decade. Barry Wray said the mosquito control team contractor will deliver the first batch in April.

Wray, the executive director of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, said he doesn’t think there’s enough evidence to prove the technology is safe. He said it was necessary to conduct independent scientific research.

“You don’t really know what the long-term results might be, or how to quantify those risks, and if you can’t do it scientifically, you don’t know how to responsibly mitigate it or determine if something is going wrong,” Wray said .

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The contractor, UK-based biotech company Oxitec, has promised the modified, non-biting male mosquitoes could end problems with the Aedes aegypti, also known as the yellow fever mosquito. The mosquito spreads dengue, zika, and chikungunya.

Public health efforts are so controversial that the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District hired Chad Huff as its public education and information officer. The team consists of ground inspectors who deal with mosquito larvae on the ground and aviation personnel who spray insecticides.

“Oxitec, the company we work with, has done this overseas and has found 60, 70, 80, and even 95% suppression in some areas,” said Huff of the technology, which is being marketed as non-toxic and environmentally sound.

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When Oxitec mosquitoes mate with wild females, they produce females that do not reproduce and males that carry a “self-limiting gene” that is passed on to half of the offspring. The mosquitoes also have a “fluorescent marker gene” to make it easier to track them.

“There are fewer (fewer) female mosquitoes that actually bite and there are fewer (fewer) female mosquitoes that actually breed,” Huff said, adding, “There is limited attempted in the Florida Keys.”

Over time, Huff said, it hurts the population. There is less need to buy insecticides to kill flying mosquitoes and the larvae that hatch from eggs. The technology has been “successfully used” in Brazil, the Cayman Islands, Panama and India, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The supporters of the experiment stand behind the approval of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA also allows a publication in Texas to evaluate how effective the technology is.

There is a lot of skepticism. Almost 240,000 have signed a petition against it on Change.org. Mara Daly, a mother who owns a hair salon, initially said she thought this was a good idea, but when she found out more about it, she changed her mind.

“I don’t feel comfortable having my child in an environment where up to three-quarters of a billion mosquitoes are released around us,” Daly said.

Last month, MP Carlos Gimenez wrote a letter to the EPA asking for independent confirmation that no genetically modified female mosquitoes will be released. He also asked for more information about the impact on the ecosystem.

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Opponents also fear the program’s impact on the local food chain. The list of mosquito robbers includes bats, birds, fish, frogs, turtles, dragonflies, damselflies and spiders.

Torres contributed to this report from Miami.

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