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Daily Archives: October 6, 2018

Viruses Spread by Insects to Crops Sound Scary. The Military Calls It Food Security.

Viruses Spread by Insects to Crops Sound Scary. The Military Calls It Food Security.

Viruses Spread by Insects to Crops Sound Scary. The Military Calls It Food Security.

Critics warn that a Defense Department-funded food security project that is still in the lab could set off a “biological arms race.”

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Scientists warn that insects carrying genetically modified viruses to strengthen crops from various hazards could just as soon be used for nefarious purposes.CreditCreditSue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Within the Defense Department, one agency’s recent project sounds futuristic: millions of insects carrying viruses descend upon crops and then genetically modify them to withstand droughts, floods and foreign attacks, ensuring a permanently secure food supply.

But in a warning published Thursday in the journal Science, a group of independent scientists and lawyers objected to the research, which has not yet moved out of the lab. They argue that the endeavor is not so different from designing biological weapons — banned under international law since 1975 — that could swarm and destroy acres of crops.

The dispute is the latest episode in an ongoing international debate over the pursuit of what is called dual-use research: technological discoveries that can be beneficial or pose threats to human welfare. As gene-editing tools become increasingly accessible, scientists, ethicists and policymakers are weighing the good pivotal discoveries could do for humanity against their nefarious potential.

“Once you engineer a virus that spreads by insect, it is hard to imagine how you would ever control it,” said Guy Reeves, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany, who contributed to the critique.

reduce mosquito fertility, halting diseases like malaria.)

Researchers at four institutions — Boyce Thompson Institute in New York, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Texas-Austin — have since been experimenting with the targeted gene therapy they hope will help farmers face issues like frost and disease.

But the critics said publishing the new research findings could establish “preliminary instruction manuals” for developing offensive biological weapons. Beyond strengthening crops’ resilience, insects could be easily engineered to carry viruses that destroy plants, Dr. Reeves said.

He added that one of the main species targeted in the research is maize, a staple source of nutrition for hundreds of millions of people in Latin America and Africa.

Foreign military programs are often “driven by perception of competitors’ activities,” the critics warn, and “the mere announcement of this program may motivate other countries to develop their own capabilities in this arena — indeed, it may have already done so.”

The scholars suggested enhancing pre-existing methods of crop protection, such as aerial spraying, but Darpa program executives consider those tools expensive and imprecise. They also said the critique mischaracterized their research by suggesting that these viruses would permanently modify a plant’s genome. That is not the case, Dr. Bextine said.

“If you see a drought coming, you can deploy the system to sustain a period of difficulty, and then go back to a natural state,” Dr. Bextine said. “We are developing tools that are futuristic, but they are based very much in reality. This is biology we understand very well.”

Darpa has included the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and other regulators throughout the project. It also requires researchers to include at least three kill switches, or emergency brakes, in their systems as a safety measure.

Dr. Reeves was not satisfied.

“I think this project was decided down one quiet corridor — an agency with intentionally little oversight that comes up with slightly crazy ideas — and top people in the Pentagon will be as shocked as I was,” he said.

Darpa officers conceded that their agency’s work often involves calculated risk. Still, they consider it core to their mission to consider the benefits.

“We’re glad people are asking questions,” Dr. Bextine said. “But food security is national security. It stabilizes our society.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A13 of the New York edition with the headline: Critics Warn Project Could Turn Insects Into Weapons

Source

High-tech observations for food security

High-tech observations for food security

Public Release: 

High-tech observations for food security

Satellite, other remote monitoring can improve crop outcomes

American Society of Agronomy

Oct. 4, 2018–Satellites and other remote technology are able to gather information as varied as soil moisture, crop yields, and growing conditions. How will this improve food security world-wide?

The Special Session Symposium, “Advances in the Use of Earth Observations for Crop Modeling and Monitoring for Food Security,” will address the topic at the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society Annual Meeting. This year’s meeting will be held Nov. 4-7, 2018, in Baltimore, MD. The theme of the meeting is “Enhancing Productivity in a Changing Climate.” The meeting is held in collaboration with the Canadian Society of Agronomy.

“Crop failure, food shortages and food price spikes have occurred in recent years and can be expected to continue under a changing climate,” says symposium organizer Varaprasad Bandaru. “Governments and growers need timely information on crop condition and reliable forecasting.”

Details covered during the symposium include:

  • Recent improvements to agricultural remote sensing that now provide satellite data at more frequent intervals and with more detail, regardless of cloud cover
  • Advances in computing to make data processing and crop mapping widely available
  • Cutting-edge technology from NASA, the University of Maryland, and other sources to support a more efficient use of water and land resources

“Improved Earth observations and crop models can help farmers in management decisions. At the broad scale, this has the potential to increase food security and stabilize markets,” Bandaru says.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.

Source

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-10/asoa-ho100218.php