Genetically Modified Insects Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction

Our inquiry

1.The United Kingdom has eminent academic research groups working in the area of genetically modified (GM) insects, including those guided by Professor Luke Alphey1 at the Pirbright Institute and Professors Austin Burt and Andrea Crisanti at Imperial College London.2 Furthermore, Oxitec Ltd. is a biotechnology company based in the UK that has drawn on the UK’s scientific excellence to produce and distribute GM insects with the aim of controlling insects that spread disease and damage crops. Spun-out from the University of Oxford, it is the only company in the world, to the best of our knowledge, which is engaged in this activity.

2.Against this background, the presence of a pioneering company based in the UK, and the world class research being conducted in our universities and institutes, we decided to pursue an inquiry into GM insects. Primarily, we set out to:

3.In the chapters that follow, we discuss the underpinning science, its potential applications and the prospects for commercialisation. We next consider the complex regulatory environment and conclude by addressing concerns about the use of these technologies and the role of public engagement. In this regard, we were well aware during our inquiry that GM technologies remain a contentious area of science, and that debates around GM insect technologies are inevitably held in the shadow of the controversy over GM crops. As such, while this report focuses on GM insects, it has been necessary, from time to time, to enter more generic debates around GM technologies and the biotechnology sector, not least because the regulatory regime for GM crops is also applied to GM insects.

4.Many of the recommendations that we make in our report coalesce around our conviction that there ought to be a GM insect field trial to test fully the science of GM insects, regulatory processes and policies. If the Government is not minded to accept the case for a field trial, however, we would ask that it does not then dismiss all the issues that we think should be considered in the context of the field trial, but responds to them in turn.

5.The science underpinning the development of GM insects is complex and the terminology used is often not straightforward to understand. We have endeavoured to be as clear and accessible as possible without over-simplifying unduly. Appendix 5 attempts to explain some of the technical terminology referred to in this report.

6.We would like to thank everyone who gave evidence to us, both at oral evidence sessions, which we held across October and November 2015, and in writing. We also wish to thank our Specialist Adviser, Professor Michael Bonsall, who greatly assisted our work.3

7.Finally, we note our surprise and regret that individuals and groups who are sceptical of the merits of GM technologies did not engage with our inquiry. No written submissions were received from groups known for their concerns about GM, and there was seemingly little appetite from them to give oral evidence to us. There was, of course, no obligation on this community to engage with our inquiry. Nevertheless, it was puzzling that they did not wish for their voices to be heard.

1 Prof Luke Alphey established Oxitec Ltd. as a spin-out company from the University of Oxford in 2002.

2 We would also wish to acknowledge the valuable research being undertaken across Europe and the rest of the world.

3 We also wish to acknowledge the role of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). Its POSTnote, GM insects and disease control, POSTnote 483, November 2014; together with the subsequent briefing meeting it hosted earlier this year, served to stimulate our interest in this topic.

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