New policy for vetting genetically modified imports

(file photo)
Oxitec project manager Renaud Lacroix examines GM mosquito pupae in a lab on the MRCU premises. - PHOTOS: MATT LAMERS

Future applications to bring alien species, including genetically modified organisms, into the Cayman Islands could face environmental impact assessments, similar to that required for major developments, under a new policy being devised by the National Conservation Council.

The move follows a judge’s recommendation that there should be a clear process for such applications, in the wake of a legal challenge to the release of 22 million genetically modified mosquitoes in West Bay as part of a project to help fight the spread of the Zika virus.

The Department of Environment’s Fred Burton, who is responsible for drafting the policy, said it would likely parallel the process for vetting major planning developments, such as highway construction and the cruise port, which typically require public input and detailed analysis of the likely effects on the environment.

He said the same process would apply for unusual species that were not native to the Cayman Islands as for genetically modified organisms.

“The way they are made isn’t so much the issue as what is the potential impact and are they potentially harmful or invasive? Those questions apply whether they are genetically modified or not.”

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Oxitec project manager Renaud Lacroix examines GM mosquito pupae in a lab on the MRCU premises. - PHOTOS: MATT LAMERS
Oxitec project manager Renaud Lacroix examines GM mosquito pupae in
a lab on the MRCU premises. – PHOTOS: MATT LAMERS

The policy, currently in draft form, will provide an application and vetting procedure for anyone wishing to bring exotic animals or genetically altered species into the Cayman Islands. Mr. Burton, speaking at a special general meeting of the council on Wednesday, said this would likely involve a black list of species that could never be imported, because of their risk to people or the environment, and a white list of plants and animals that are brought in routinely without issues.

“There is a grey zone in between where certain species may need to be assessed,” he said.

“We already do risk assessments for the Department of Agriculture. I’m trying to figure out the criteria for when a request is more serious and might require the equivalent of an environmental impact assessment.”

The council’s decision to permit the import of larvae for the release of up to 22 million genetically modified mosquitoes in West Bay was challenged in court by a group of protesters, who claimed it had failed to carry out an independent risk assessment of the consequences of the proposed release.

Justice Ingrid Mangatal found the council and the Department of Environment had considered the potential risks before granting approval, and ruled against the protesters.

But, she said, “For the future, when planning to use any new technology, which, unlike the [genetically modified mosquitoes] has not already been introduced to the islands, a non-binding survey … might well be considered to have some benefit and go a far way in enabling the public to feel a part of a process before implementation.”

The judge, in her written draft judgment, advised that the Department of Environment and the National Conservation Council should begin to develop the “criteria, procedures and subsidiary legislation” for determining whether the introduction of alien or genetically modified species might cause any harm to natural resources, and for regulating and controlling such populations and introductions.”

Mr. Burton said the policy would consider all types of alien species.

“The subject is actually very broad. Although it was thrust into our attention by Justice Mangatal in relation to genetically modified organisms, it is a much wider policy issue.

“The work we have started looks at all alien and invasive species, including GMOs.”

The Mosquito Research and Control Unit, which has partnered with British firm Oxitec on the mosquito project, was granted permission at Wednesday’s meeting to vary the terms of its permit, to allow them to transfer pupae within sealed devices to a new insectary within the grounds of the MRCU prior to release.

The aim is to increase the production and release rate during wet season. The permit was also altered to allow for an additional kilogram of eggs to be imported, increasing the total from 1.65 to 2.65kg.

The increase is to account for impact to the quality of a shipment of eggs that were compromised in transit due to delays caused by Hurricane Matthew. The restriction to release 22 million mosquitoes remains part of the permit conditions.


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