After a judge rejected their bid to halt the release of genetically modified mosquitoes in Grand Cayman, a group of protesters are now seeking to fight their case in the court of public opinion.
Kerrie Cox, an attorney with HSM Chambers, held a presentation Tuesday morning, organized by Tower Marketing, in the boardroom of the Caribbean Club.
Mr. Cox, who argued the judicial review application in the Grand Court last year, said his clients, now principally a California-based advocacy group called the Institute for Responsible Technology, remains concerned about the release of genetically modified mosquitoes in West Bay and the potential for the project to be rolled out nationally.
He said they have no plans to appeal the Grand Court decision but would instead launch a public information campaign in the hopes of persuading Cayman’s leaders to take a different approach.
“This is about whether the GM technology is the most effective, the most safe alternative. That is a point for considered debate,” he said.
“What we see is that there are alternative methods out there that are safer, that are more proven, that are more utilized in the world. Why shouldn’t we be using them here?”
He said there were unanswered questions about the cost of the technology being used by Cayman’s Mosquito Research and Control Unit in partnership with British bio-tech company Oxitec, as well as why alternatives, which worked in other countries, had not been considered.
He highlighted the “Eliminate Dengue” program, a not-for-profit international collaboration, which infects mosquitoes with a naturally occurring bacteria, Wolbachia, reducing their ability to spread disease, as a viable, safer alternative to GM mosquitoes.
Bill Petrie, the director of the MRCU, said the unit had looked at the Wolbachia technique, which he said was also a bio-technology method.
“Both are very interesting from a biological point of view. They are using modern biological methods and are fairly similar in concept.”
He said the Wolbachia method had drawbacks because it involved the release of females rather than just males, which do not bite, and was not “self limiting” in the same way as the genetically modified mosquito method, where the progeny of the adapted mosquitoes don’t survive to adulthood.
He acknowledged that there had been subsequent trials with the bacteria, which had eliminated some of those problems, and said it was a technique that could potentially be reconsidered for Cayman in the future. He said he was not aware of any other proven method of targeting disease-spreading mosquitoes.
“I’d like to know what these techniques are that the negative campaign is talking about, because if it is just Wolbachia, then there are a number of problems with that and it is certainly not proven and tested to the same extent [as GM mosquitoes].”
Mr. Cox said various groups, including concerned local residents and Friends of the Earth, backed the information campaign. The principal client is the Institute for Responsible Technology.
The organization is an advocacy group which has campaigned against genetically modified organisms for decades. Its founder is Jeffrey Smith, the author of two books on the alleged risks associated with genetically engineered food.
Mr. Cox said the objective of the group is not to contest the current genetically modified mosquito release, which he acknowledged is already well under way and showing positive results.
He said the aim is to put information in the public domain in the hope that government could be persuaded to consider alternative options before expanding the project.
The group has launched a website, www.gmmfree.com, which includes statistics on Zika and microcephaly, as well as information about the Eliminate Dengue program used in other countries.
Mr. Cox questioned why Cayman and Brazil were the only countries to proceed “beyond first trials” with genetically modified mosquitoes.
He said it is worth trying it before taking that “next step” of becoming the “first country in the world” to roll out the GM technology nationally.
Mr. Petrie said Brazil’s rollout of the technology was far more advanced than anything that was happening in Grand Cayman. He added that Cayman had advantages compared to other jurisdictions in implementing new techniques because of its long-established mosquito unit, as well as the more manageable size of the territory.
He said the technology was proven to be safe and effective.
“It is simply a public health issue. These mosquitoes carry several different diseases, most of which have no cure, vaccines or treatment …
“This [technique] is old enough, tested enough in the lab and in the field for us to know that it is safe. The Federal Drug Administration in the U.S. has said that it is safe. This is an opportunity for us to use a relatively novel but tested technique against these mosquitoes.”
The group is also seeking to persuade Cayman’s lawmakers to sign up to the Cartagena protocol on bio-safety, an international treaty governing movement of GMOs between different countries.
He said the Cayman Islands is one of only 25 countries in the world currently not signed up to the treaty.