The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) project “Insect Allies” aims to use various insects in order to protect the U.S. crop system, thereby also protecting national security. However, critics of the program recently published an opinion piece in which they point out how the program may also be used by ill-meaning parties as a biological weapon.
What’s the threat, and what does DARPA have to say about such concerns?
Concerns About Insect Allies
DARPA’s Insect Allies is a program in which various virus-carrying insects such as aphids, are deployed in vast numbers so as to help crops fight off naturally occurring threats such as drought, frost, pests, and pollution, and even threats by state and non-state individuals. Ideally, the program could directly introduce modifications to the plants already in the field as opposed to the longer method of developing them in laboratories.
It is, simply put, an attempt at genetic modification using insects.
However, on Oct. 5, five researchers from Europe published an opinion piece in Science about how the program might also be used as a bioweapon. The authors note that the United States needs to further justify the program’s peace-time purpose so as not to be perceived by other countries as hostile.
They further state that the knowledge that can be gained from the program seems to be very limited in terms of its benefit to U.S. agriculture and emergency response and could therefore be perceived as an effort to create biological weapons. The mere announcement of the program might have also encouraged other nations to create similar projects.
Breach Of BWC?
If the program proves successful, the method could be misused as a biological weapon designed to devastate crops and harvests. As such, the authors of the opinion piece argue that the program’s research could possibly be a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which prohibits the development of any biological agents with no prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes.
Even other experts on the matter note that while the intention of the program likely isn’t hostile, the fact it is funded by DARPA of the U.S. Department of Defense does not look good. Further, even with good intentions, it is possible that it could be misused by ill-meaning individuals.
In response to the critics, DARPA Program Manager for Insect Allies Dr. Blake Bextine published a statement in which he states that while he appreciates the thought that was put into the critique of the program, he disagrees with their conclusion. He assures that Insect Allies meets the raised standards when it comes to developing food-related technology and that the program was created to provide new and faster means to respond to threats to food supply.
“Emerging biotechnologies — and especially the cutting-edge research being performed on Insect Allies — are pushing science into new territories,” said Bextine. “DARPA is proud to be taking a proactive role in working with stakeholders to inform a new framework for considering how the benefits of these technologies can be most safely realized.”