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Release potential of genetically modified insects to fight infectious disease and agricultural pests, Lords urge Government

A Lords report out today calls on the Government to launch a field trial of genetically modified insects, and make the most of the UK's status as world leader in this area of research.

The technology has the potential to help control diseases such as dengue and malaria, by rendering insects unable to transmit disease. This could potentially help nearly half the world's population, who live in at-risk areas.

GM technology could also reduce insect populations to minimise their threat to animals and crops, thereby saving billions of pounds globally.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has today produced a report, called Genetically Modified Insects following a four month investigation into the issue.

It concludes that GM insects have considerable potential to control insect-borne disease and agricultural pests, but they are no silver bullet; that the UK, as a world leader in this area of research, could reap potentially significant economic benefits; that EU regulation of GMOs is ‘failing lamentably', and risks squandering these benefits; and a lack of international guidance on regulation and governance of GM insect technologies could affect the countries who may benefit from these technologies the most.

Key recommendations in the report:

  • The Government must act to ensure that the current regulatory system is able to work properly, and must commit to working with the EU to address how the system could be improved.
  • The science, EU regulatory environment and policies on GM insects need to be tested. Government departments should work together in order to instigate a GM insect field trial.
  • Alongside the field trials, the Government should initiate a programme of public engagement.
  • The Government, through Innovate UK in partnership with the Research Councils, must support the commercialisation of UK-based GM insect research.
  • The EU needs to re-work its regulation to reflect benefits, not just the risks. Given the evolution of new gene-editing techniques, in the long-term trait-based rather than process-based regulation should be explored.

Chair of the Committee, Lord Selborne, said:

"GM insect technologies have the potential not only to save countless lives worldwide, but also to generate significant economic benefits for UK plc, where we are an acknowledged world leader.

But the development of GM insect technologies has come to a screeching halt because the EU regulatory system is woefully inadequate. Until we can get a regulatory framework that will do justice to this area of scientific research, its wings are effectively clipped.

Our report concludes that the UK Government has a moral duty to test the potential of this technology, for the long-term benefit of those countries where diseases like dengue and malaria are indiscriminate killers.

So as a first step towards that goal, we urge the Government to initiate field trials to put not only the science but, crucially, the regulations to the test. This trial could also be a focus to increase public engagement in the area.

We strongly believe that action needs to be taken now to breathe new life into this policy area. While we acknowledge that the science may not be a silver bullet in the fight against fatal disease and threats to food security, it could prove to be an invaluable addition to our armoury.

With a Government backed field trial, an informed public, and regulation that is fit for purpose, and no longer failing lamentably, we will be in a much better position to realise the enormous potential of GM insects."

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