Brazil approves environmentally ‘Friendly’ GM tool for controlling fall armyworm

By Joan Conrow

April 15, 2021

Brazilian farmers are a step closer to using an environmentally friendly tool to control a destructive agricultural pest with the government’s approval of Oxitec’s “Friendly” fall armyworm technology.

Oxitec’s Friendly technology works by genetically modifying (GM) insects to introduce a gene that prevents offspring of the pests from surviving into adulthood. The GM insects are released into areas of infestation where they mate with wild females, reducing the number of female offspring in the next generation and thereby dramatically reducing the population. The company has successfully used its Friendly self-limiting insect technology with mosquitoes to control dengue, Zika and other diseases in Brazil. It plans to release Friendly mosquitoes in the Florida Keys as part of a United States trial project that begins later this month.

One major benefit of the approach is that it’s safe and very targeted at the problem pests, presenting none of the off-target effects on the wider ecology that are seen with the application of insecticides. In trials conducted in Brazil, the technology successfully suppressed 95 percent of the Aedes aegypti mosquito population in the targeted urban environment after just 13 weeks of treatment, without the use of insecticides.

Oxitec researchers are still collecting data on its effectiveness with fall armyworm, including how often to deploy the GM insects in farmers’ fields, and they expect to share results of research thus far in a peer-reviewed paper. Similarly, Oxitec is still testing deployment methods for the technology’s use with fall armyworm. Friendly mosquitoes are released by soaking an egg-filled mini capsule in water, which prompts the larvae to hatch. But that approach won’t work with fall armyworm since they have a different life cycle.

“Our focus is on delivering value to farmers, and this national regulatory approval is a major step forward to providing farmers with a new, safe and sustainable solution that can be used as part of new integrated pest management programs,” Grey Frandsen, Oxitec’s CEO, stated in a press release. “Having driven thousands of miles across Brazil to meet with farmers of all types, I’ve seen first-hand how devastating the fall armyworm is and how urgent the need is for new solutions. Our Friendly fall armyworm represents a sustainable crop protection solution that not only reduces the impact of this destructive pest, but also preserves the benefits provided by insect-resistant biotech crops with the aim of reducing the need for chemical pesticides. This is an exciting step forward for Oxitec, for farmers, and for the agricultural industry as a whole.”

Brazil approved Oxitec’s Friendly Aedes aegypti mosquito in 2020. The commercial biosafety approval for the Friendly fall armyworm follows an in-depth, independent evaluation of scientific data by CTNBio, Brazil’s biosafety regulatory review agency, which validated it as a safe, environmentally friendly and sustainable crop protection solution. Though the approval allows Oxitec to deploy the Friendly technology on commercial crops across Brazil, the commercial launch of the product is still to come.

With the approval in hand, Oxitec will now conduct large pilot programs in Brazil. The Friendly approach is designed to work in tandem with existing tools available to farmers, which include GM insect-resistant crops and insecticides.  In the next phase of its research, Oxitec will assess the environmental benefits of this solution, including the volume and frequency of insecticide sprays required in parallel with the deployment of the Friendly fall armyworm technology.

“Over-reliance on a single crop protection method is not sustainable and leads to the development of resistance,” company officials said. “Beyond providing growers with another option for suppression of fall armyworm, the Friendly fall armyworm is a promising approach to supplement existing technologies to increase durability of insecticides and biotech corn hybrids. Studies with similar strains of diamondback moth in glasshouses – together with published mathematical modelling studies – show that releases of Friendly insects have the potential to delay, or even reverse, the spread of resistance in fall armyworm populations. We anticipate that Friendly fall armyworm will provide growers with another effective management option and will help to protect the yields that biotech crops are able to deliver.”

New tools are likely to be welcomed by farmers who are plagued by fall armyworm infestations. The feeding caterpillars cause billions of dollars of crop damage and losses across the globe. Though the pest is native to the Americas, it has crossed oceans in recent years and is now widely found in Africa and Asia, where it has decimated crop yields. The 2017 economic fallout from fall armyworm damage in 12 African countries was estimated to be as high as US$6.3 billion. For Brazil, the fall armyworm presents a particular challenge to corn growers. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that Brazilian farmers spend US$600 million annually to control the pest, but still suffer annual losses of US$400 million.

“This regulatory approval represents the dedication of a diverse coalition of farmers, scientists, industry leaders and other stakeholders who have come together with Oxitec to develop this powerful new solution,” said Natalia Ferreira, Oxitec’s Brazil director. “Similar to other farmers around the world, those in Brazil are suffering from fall armyworm and its ability to develop resistance to new chemical pesticides and biotech crops. We are now working around the clock to make this technology available for deployment on farmers’ fields in the future. CTNBio’s commercial biosafety approval provides another independent validation of the safety and environmental sustainability of Oxitec’s Friendly technology platform.

Image: Corn infested with fall armyworm. Photo/Oxitec.