How would you feel if a misunderstanding between a bunch of scientists and your local community of science-skeptics shut out the possibility to improve health, cut tax-money waste and reduced environmental pollution?
I would feel VERY down.
Instead, more then 100.000 people from Key West, Florida – US, seems to be very happy about this.
The story I am covering here explain why I fail to understand certain anti-scintific positions hold by some poorly informed people, that punctually stops science development due to unfounded fears blended with foggy conservative ideology.
In 2010, the biotech firm Oxitec (based in UK), has been asked by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) to perform a trial of their genetically modified (GM) mosquitos to fight the spreading of fly-borne diseases in Key West. The progeny of Oxitec GM mosquitoes dies before able to diffuse and bite animals, thanks to a lethal gene inserted in the mosquito. Such insects have been shown to effectively reduce the total number of circulating mosquitoes in the environment, and are a useful system to reduce the usage of chemicals to maintain the mosquito loads under control.
Mosquito-borne diseases represent a threat not only for developing countries: Florida has recently faced the reappearance of dengue fever, a virus-caused disease that spreads through mosquito bites and causes high fever, body rushes, head-heck and vomiting. Since 2009, 94 cases were registered in Key West, the extreame south island of Florida archipelago, near to Cuba.
Fighting the spread of dengue fever became a priority for FKMCD, that is currently spending US$1 million a year in classical insecticide treatment to fight back mosquitoes growth.
To me, sounds reasonable that FKMCD contacted Oxitec and ask them to give a try of their product. Of course, before anything will move on, Oxitec needs the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) approval, that controls usage of GM animals that influence other animals life.
Promptly, local media picked up the news that GM mosquito hordes were ready to diffuse in Key West, and lack of education of what was really happening created an explosion of local concerns.
This April, Mila de Mier, a citizen from Key West, started an online petition to stop Oxitec “evil plans”, even before FDA pronounced a word on it. Today the petition counts more then 110.000 signs and it gather US national attention.
As reported by Nature News, de Mier petition alludes “that GE mosquitoes might harm people and that mosquito-eating native Florida species, such as bats, could go hungry“. The petition pushes itself to an high-level of complexity when it claims that a deadlier version of the dengue virus could spread around without mosquitoes as carriers (?!?).
The replies to such no-scientificly based assumption are not missing, but they are hardly considered by skeptic people or media. Florida entomologists says there is no animal species that feast exclusively on the type of mosquitoes targeted by Oxitec (A. aegypti). Moreover, the DNA contained in the GM flies is neither toxic nor allergenic, and male mosquitoes (those that would be introduced in the environment) do not even bite humans (in the horrific scenario depicted by some that DNA may migrate from these insect into our bloodstream) (?!?!?!).
FKMCD has tried to engage with locals with meetings to address legitimate people concern, but first attempts seems to be a failure. Additionally, Oxitec tried to approach directly de Mier questions, but she denied to meet the CEO of the company.
What’s funny is that Oxitec has already experimented (after legal approval) its GM mosquitoes in Juazeiro, Brazil, where the problem of mosquito-borne diseases is quite more an issues for locals then it is in Florida. Results from the trial indicates a drops of mosquitoes of 85% in an area big as a football stadium.
As Nature News reports, Juazeiro citizens also raised concerns, but decided to engage with scientists whom were ready to answer to all their questions. Margareth Capurro, the biologist who lead the study in Juazeiro, engaged with the local community and explained risks and benefits of GM mosquitoes through meeting, radio and local TV. And people got it!
This example put Brazil (one more time!) as leading nation in science and technology in South America and among the new upcoming economic powers of the world.
Let’s face it:
The fact that people are concern and rise questions about GM organisms is not only legitimate, it’s good and necessary: they are the ultimate users of science efforts. Moreover, science deaf to public opinion carry risks, such as the rise of science-skeptics, skew of the political powers towards ideologists and science legitimacy dismissed or ignored.
On the other hand, science-skeptics must hold on their on game. It is tempting to belong to a strong-opinion group that may apparently speak up for issues like environment protection, but if those groups simply throw stones and refuse to engage the conversation, there is nothing to gain.
My experience is that most of such appeals, bills and petitions are primarily based on ideology that hardly match facts. If they do, they still match “some facts”, little body of evidence that support this or that position, rather then taking the whole issue from a distant and comprehensive prospective.
There is a long list of “scientific myths“, such nuclear energy risks, GM food and animal uncontrolled diffusion and vaccination side effects, that would be easily wipe away if only skeptics and scientists would communicate more evenly.
Media are also partially responsible for these myths, that damages not only trust in the scientific method, but also the society in constant need for new solutions that only science, unfortunately for some, can give.