NOFA-NY Field Notes

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NOFA-NY’s Action on the Genetically Engineered Diamondback Moth

Last week, NOFA-NY put out an Action Alert asking Governor Cuomo to stop an experiment that would release thousands of genetically modified diamondback moths in Geneva, NY. In the action alert, we raised the issue that consumers could eat GMO larvae with their broccoli. (By the way, we could eat non-GMO larvae in organic broccoli, too.)

Some NOFA-NY members felt we were extreme in our alert and tone, so I wanted to take this opportunity to explain. 


NOFA-NY does not take this action lightly. We have been working out front and behind the scenes for several years to make sure that if and when these genetically modified moths are released, there will have been significant evaluation of possible health and environmental impacts. Over the course of the past two years, we have kept you informed about this moth. []

This GMO insect was created in a lab in Great Britain and has never been released in the open air – anywhere.  It should have had significant environmental and health review under both EU and other world requirements, but the manufacturer never did it. They came to the U.S. knowing that our federal structure doesn’t require substantive review. This is in violation of the European Export regulations and the Cartagena Protocol.

The USDA Environmental Assessment notes that there will be no impacts of these trials because the moths are unlikely to leave the Geneva Experiment Station property. But, they arrived in New York on the back of wind currents from the south, having only appeared in recent years. We are concerned about impacts to surrounding farms, farm workers, consumers and wildlife, as in the following:

  • Ingestion of larvae that have died on the food plants by humans, birds and all wildlife.
  • Effect on soil life of dead GMO moth larvae. Is it different than dead non-GMO larvae?
  • Increasing antibiotic resistance because the technology employs an antibiotic ‘switch.’ 
  • Farms, both conventional and organic, although organic can’t just spray if they see a sudden increase in number.
  • Health impacts on children and adults in the immediate Geneva area if the moths are released on a windy day.

NOFA-NY has continually requested information and the research results even to understand if the GMO moths would decrease diamondback moth populations in the first place, but Cornell and USDA (who granted the permit) will not grant us the findings. If there is, indeed, a purpose to this open air experiment, let’s see the test results.  

In 2015, the NY Department of Environmental Conservation provided a permit to the GMO diamondback researcher at Cornell to conduct caged studies of the organism – results of which are the ones we have not seen. Now, the DEC claims it is not within their jurisdiction to grant a permit. Why the change in interpretation of jurisdiction? Ironically, the DEC must grant a permit for butterflies to be released at a wedding. 

We have heard some feedback that this GMO moth is needed to prevent diamondback moth infestations, and it is better than pesticides. However, there are natural mechanisms to combat diamondback moths on brassica: netting can be used to cover plants, hedgerows can be planted to attract parasitic wasps that prey on the moths, and there is even an organic biological pesticide, Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt). A genetically modified organism is not the solution.

I am concerned about the comments we received regarding our opposition to this organism. First of all, releasing a new, genetically modified organism into our environment has unknown impacts and consequences. The basis for organic agriculture is to not allow GMO seeds, plants, pesticides, fertilizers into our farms or the greater food system. Releasing this novel organism exposes everyone to the technology. I believe this is contrary to organics, NOFA-NY’s mission, and our multiple policy resolutions calling for a halt to any genetically modified organism. At our last annual meeting, we endorsed a new resolution calling for the precautionary approach to be applied to our food and farming system. Proceed on the side of caution, especially when there is an unknown.

At this moment, big organo-business is spending millions of dollars in Washington, DC to convince Congress and the National Organic Standards Board that GMOs should be allowed in organics. Do we agree with that? Or must we protect the integrity of organics? Additionally, these moths are genetically altered in a laboratory with an antibiotic switch using tetracycline. Every use of such antibiotics must be carefully evaluated for the possibility of increasing antibiotic resistance. 

This is not about shutting down scientific discovery – it is about taking precaution for the health of all who may be affected by this new technology. Right now, it is up to Governor Cuomo to step in.

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