The Zika virus, having become the most recent mosquito-borne illness to ravage the third world, is inspiring fear due to its potential link to birth defects. It has since likewise arisen as a hot topic for speculative articles running their rounds through social media websites, sensationalist news and crackpot health advocates. From these come a wealth of outrageous claims concerning the disease, one such being the claim that the source of this outbreak can be traced to genetically-modified mosquitoes in Brazil.
This statement itself may originate from the ‘Conspiracy’ subreddit, only gaining momentum after the website Health Nut News published an article in agreement. Upon further investigation, the statement is largely unproven, preying on people’s habitual fears rather than providing any real sound evidence of causation. The genetically modified mosquitoes, whose first large scale farm in Brazil was established in 2012, were actually intended to help diminish the incidence of dengue fever. This was achieved by significantly lowering the mosquitoes’ chances of being a vector to the disease. In July of 2015, after the mosquitoes were released into the wild, a representative from Oxitec, who headed the program, celebrated them as a success. Through the genetically modified mosquitoes, Oxitec had “successfully controlled the Aedes aegypti mosquito that spreads dengue fever, chikungunya and Zika virus, by reducing the target population by more than 90%.” The World Health Organization has not challenged this information, meaning it is more than likely that the mosquitoes have in fact deterred the spread of the disease so many people fear it helped to propagate.
So how do we explain people’s aversion to these insects, and genetically modified organisms in general? Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at OSU, has made GMOs and the paranoia surrounding them his topic of expertise for decades. Firstly, mankind is genetically wired to be wary of anything we perceive as unnatural. On our most primal level as a species, we possess the instinctual fear of unknown or foreign things, especially for the purpose of consumption. To test this, he and a few like-minded associates applied to apples labels reading, “This apple is ripened using ethylene.” This is a standard, safe practice, and yet these apples were largely avoided. In this case, customers aren’t differentiating between goods; they’re just evading whatever’s unfamiliar to them.
The benefits of GMOs are significant and irrefutable. Biotechnology is capable of lessening the environmental damage we wreak on the planet, allowing farmers to use less land, water, and fewer pesticides. Between 1996 and 2011 this led to a 9% decrease in pesticide usage globally. This increased efficiency also means means that GMOs are often sold at lower prices, essentially making food more affordable. GMOs are currently being used to help fight hunger both domestically and abroad, reportedly benefitting over 300 million Americans and a global population of 7 billion.
Like the ‘debate’ over climate change, there exists no actual debate within the scientific community. While 60 percent of the American population is likely to avoid products labeled as containing GMOs, the FDA and the WHO have certified GMOs as being perfectly safe for human consumption. The public needs to be informed on GMOs, especially when, like vaccinations, public aversion to it can lead to a greater risk of disease and illness in large populations, as is the case in Brazil.