The Problem

Corn earworm (H. zea). Photo credit: Dominic Reisig

Even with today’s technological approaches, on average, farmers lose 30-40% of key food crops, such as wheat, maize (corn), rice, and potatoes. Insects account for about 1/3 of those losses. These figures are impressive, but for subsistence farmers the situation is more complicated than simple numbers reveal. Many insects and pathogens have unpredictable outbreaks that can devastate farmers’ fields and destabilize their lives. Because of this, agricultural pests are more than just a biological problem.

Our 2014 IGERT fellows have examined the many social and scientific issues associated with the genetic modification of agricultural pests. What is the relationship between agriculture, pests and the global environment? What counts as food security? How do current crop losses affect small-scale and large-scale farmers differently? How might genetic modification affect the very complicated landscape of farmers, agribusinesses, and state policy-makers? Answering these questions requires tackling a wide array of issues, including (but not restricted to) food inequality, the role of scientific literacy and local expertise in subsistence and industrial agricultures, ideals of food autonomy, and the concept of food origin as a way to combat mass production.

Mexican maize (corn) varieties

These questions do not have easy answers, and our IGERT fellows explored them in light of new technologies in genetic engineering. What does it mean to genetically engineer a pest species and what methods are used? Are there situations that justify the use of transgenic strains of a pest to manage native pest populations, or are there ecologically, economically, and socially appropriate alternatives?

As the technology of genetic pest management develops, agricultural enterprises are likely to invest in research aimed at applying this technology to pests of global economic importance. These efforts are likely to generate public debate and our IGERT students are prepared to engage in these debates.

The People

Graduate Student Fellows

2014 Cohort Members

1 Year Fellows

Faculty Mentors

The Project

Of all Latin American countries, Mexico has had the most direct intersection between its subsistence agricultural base and the commercial development of genetically engineered crops. The introduction of genetically modified corn has been felt keenly in a country proud of its heritage as the culture that developed hundreds of maize varieties. When genes from genetically engineered maize unintentionally moved into traditional Mexican maize varieties, Mexico’s federal agencies structured regulatory committees to govern all genetically engineered organisms. These federal regulations stand alongside common-property institutions (ejidos) that are often home to subsistence farmers and whose members govern access to their communities. Any future work in Mexico on genetic pest management will need to recognize that citizen responses to it will be influences by their perception of past and current efforts to commercialize transgenic crops.

The first academic experience of the 2014 Cohort was a four week summer course, mostly held in Mexico, so students could gain first-hand experience with the problems facing the people there. Following one week at N. C. State to give students a grounding in the literature about Mexican history and culture that is relevant to debates about use of GM crops and GM pests, students and faculty then traveled to Mexico City where they spent a week interacting with regulatory officials, NGOs, companies, an international research institute (CIMMYT), and faculty/students at universities. In the final two weeks of the course, students were housed in a rural area of Oaxaca, Mexico, where they had the opportunity to do surveys of pest problems on small farms and interview the farmers about their perspectives.

Drawing on their time in Mexico and implementing the interdisciplinary collaborative framework they developed during their IGERT courses, the 2014 Cohort published a co-written paper entitled Anticipating complexity in the deployment of gene drive insects in agriculture in the Journal of Responsible Innovation. Their paper examines the negative impact of insects on agricultural crops and the potential of genetic pest management as a viable, non-chemical alternative for managing insect pests. The development of engineered gene drives for agricultural use is promising, though unproven, and has the potential to impact farmers as well as broader socio-ecological
systems. Drawing on lessons from the deployment of other pest control technologies, this paper considers how gene drive insects could intersect with some of the social, economic, ecological, and political complexities that characterize agricultural systems.