Agency says it is trying to genetically modify crops, but experts think this goal is ‘simply not plausible’
The Insect Allies programme aims to use bugs to disperse genetically modified (GM) viruses to crops.
Such action will have profound consequences and could pose a major threat to global biosecurity, according to a team that includes specialist scientists and lawyers.
However, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), which is responsible for developing military technologies in the US, says it is merely trying to alter crops growing in fields by using viruses to transmit genetic changes to plants.
In theory, this rapid engineering would allow farmers to adapt to changing conditions, for example by inserting drought-resistance genes into corn instead of planting pre-engineered seeds.
But this seemingly inoffensive goal has been slammed by the scientists, who say the plan is simply dangerous and that insects loaded with synthetic viruses will be difficult to control.
They also say that despite being in operation since 2016 and distributing $27m in funds to scientists, Darpa has failed to properly justify the existence of such a programme.
“Given that Darpa is a military agency, we find it surprising that the obvious and concerning dual-use aspects of this research have received so little attention,” Felix Beck, a lawyer at the University of Freiburg, told The Independent.
Dr Guy Reeves, an expert in GM insects at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, said that there has been hardly any debate about the technology and the programme remains largely unknown “even in expert circles”.
He added that despite the stated aims of the programme, it would be far more straightforward using the technology as a biological weapon than for the routine agricultural use suggested by Darpa.
“It is very much easier to kill or sterilise a plant using gene editing than it is to make it herbicide or insect-resistant,” explains Reeves.