Imagine farmers being able to immediately react to crop issues such as drought or insect invasion in an effort to save them from devastation? The Pentagon is looking into an insect army capable of reacting to such agricultural emergencies and combating them with their own genetically engineered viruses. However, critics are suggesting that these sorts of insect armies are exactly what could be used to create devastating bioweapons.
According to the Washington Post, this insect army is a part of a program being developed and funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in an effort to combat common agricultural emergencies. Called “Insect Allies,” critics are concerned the program might be misused to create bioweapons instead.
Insect Allies aims to help combat agricultural issues that lead to crop loss such as drought vulnerability, “a natural blight or a sudden attack by a biological weapon.” These insect armies would carry genetically engineered viruses that would make “genetic modifications that protect the plants immediately, during a single growing season.”
This new program will use aphids, leafhoppers, and whiteflies, insects which naturally spread viruses throughout crops anyway. Harnessing this behavior, Insect Allies will use gene editing to customize viruses towards their own gain.
However, skeptical scientists and legal scholars have published their thoughts on the program in an article published in the journal Science on Thursday. In the article, critics are fearful of the project opening a “Pandora’s box” in relation to what can be achieved with the program. They offer that the technology “may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery.”
DARPA’s program manager, Blake Bextine, refuted the claims made in the Science article, claiming that the insect army would be used for “peaceful purposes” in relation to helping farmers save their crops.
“I don’t think that the public needs to be worried,” Bextine told the Washington Post. “I don’t think that the international community needs to be worried.”
Bextine did state that there was the potential for a “dual use” in relation to the program. However, according to the Washington Post, he also argued that the same could be said for “almost any advanced technology.”
“I think anytime you’re developing a new and revolutionary technology, there is that potential for dual-use capability. But that is not what we are doing. We are delivering positive traits to plants. We’re focused on that positive goal. We want to make sure we ensure food security, because food security is national security in our eyes”
Bextine also claims that there are many layers in place to ensure that the technology remains usable for farmers with crop emergencies rather than being manipulated for nefarious means. However, as yet, it will likely just be a waiting game to see whether these fail-safes will prevent bioweapons being formed from the seemingly innocuous program.