GM Mosquitoes: Government is Liable

The Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) and Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) are very disturbed and disappointed with the Malaysian government for approving the release of genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes for field testing.  The government must be accountable and held liable if anything untoward happens if they proceed with this trial release.

We can not comprehend why the Government wants to put the Malaysian public and environment at risk and subject us as guinea pigs in this study. Why the rush in approving the field trial? The risk assessment and regulatory experience for GM insects worldwide is still immature. The World Health Organization (WHO) is only now developing guidelines for countries to use as the basis for developing their own regulations for the field testing and release of GM insects.

The approval process for the GM mosquitoes will set a precedent for all future field trials and release of genetically modified organisms in the country. If the National Biosafety Board and the Biosafety Department does not set the bar high for meaningful public feedback; detailed study of socio-economic and environmental impacts; solid science; risk assessment; risk management; transparency; liability and redress it will mean a lack of scrutiny for other GM crops, food, feed and processing in the future.

We are against the release of GM organisms as there is still no scientific consensus on their safety and there are many uncertainties related to genetic engineering, making assessment of their risks difficult.

In fact, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), endorsed by 58 governments, state that: “The impacts of transgenic plants, animals and microorganisms are currently less understood. This situation calls for broad stakeholder participation in decision making as well as more public domain research on potential risks.”

Two court cases in the United States suggest that environmental oversight of genetically engineered (GE) crops is grossly insufficient. In September 2009, a federal judge ruled that the government had failed to adequately assess the environmental impacts of GE sugar beets before approving the crop for cultivation. The decision echoes another ruling in 2007, involving GE alfalfa. In that case, the judge later ruled that farmers could no longer plant the GE alfalfa until the US Department of Agriculture wrote the environmental impact statement.

Likewise, we are concerned that there might be an oversight in the application for the release of GM mosquitoes in Malaysia. However, as the public does not have access to the application dossier, it is impossible to assess whether all issues have been adequately and satisfactorily addressed by the applicant.

Several groups, including CAP and SAM, have submitted concerns about the application and raised valid questions to the Biosafety Department.  However, we failed to receive any response from the Department and thus we do not know whether the issues raised by us have been adequately addressed.

There is a dire need for a much wider public debate on the issue of GM mosquitoes than there has been to date, with further means of ensuring meaningful and effective public participation.  In the interest of transparency, all information must be made available to the public, including the location of the specific release sites within Bentong and Alor Gajah districts, given the significance of the proposed experiments.

Malaysia’s field release experiment is also coming under intense international scrutiny, as this is one of the first such releases of GM mosquitoes in the world. A precautionary approach is warranted for such a novel application. Malaysia, as a Party to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Convention on Biodiversity, must fulfill its obligations therein to ensure that activities related to these GM mosquitoes are undertaken in a manner that prevents or reduces the risks to biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health.

As there are doubts about the safety of these GM mosquitoes, the precautionary principle must apply.  In our view this is best met by the Malaysian government withdrawing the approval and not to release the GM mosquitoes in the light of the public health and environmental concerns.

Letter to the Editor, 2 November 2010