In 2016, the US Department of Defense launched the “Insect Allies” program, which involves investing $45 million over four years to prevent crop failure driven by climate change and pathogens by using insects to deliver a genetically engineered virus that will improve crop growth by altering which genes the plants express.
Now, scientists are voicing concern over the program's potential as an offensive biological weapon against other countries’ food supplies.
In the editorial, published on Thursday in Science Magazine, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology and the University of Freiburg in Germany, and France’s Université de Montpellier, requested more transparency and opportunities for public discussion regarding the project and its implications.
“Easy simplifications could be used to generate a new class of biological weapons,” a press release reads, “weapons that would be extremely transmissible to susceptible crop species due to insect dispersion as the means of delivery.”
In an email to Motherboard, a DARPA spokesperson rebutted the thesis of the Science Magazine piece and denied any intent to deploy technology developed through Insect Allies in an offensive setting.
“We created Insect Allies specifically to develop technology that can deliver positive, protective traits to plants to help them survive unanticipated and/or fast-moving agricultural threats,” the spokesperson wrote. “We see it as a critical addition to the national security toolkit, part of a layered strategy to preserve the security of the food supply.”
The Insect Allies program is a collaboration between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Environmental Protection Agency, US Army, and other agencies. According to a DARPA slide presentation, the goal of Insect Allies is to “stably transform multiple mature crop plants in a complex, multi-species plant and insect community with enhanced trait(s) of agricultural interest” by mid-2021.
“Insects eat plants and insects transmit the majority of plant viruses,” Blake Bextine, the DARPA program manager for Insect Allies, said in a press release from 2016. “DARPA plans to harness the power of this natural system by engineering genes inside plant viruses that can be transmitted by insects to confer protective traits to the target plants they feed upon.”
Per the DARPA slide presentation, climate change is a major threat to US agriculture because it exacerbates extreme heat, flooding, and the formation of more powerful storms. The document also points to biological hazards—such as foreign fungi, viruses, bacteria, and insects—being introduced to US agriculture via global commerce. Volcanic and tectonic activity, like earthquakes, also threaten the US food supply, the presentation stated.
This project is no small undertaking. For one, there’s the risk that bugs won’t release the viruses to the plants as intended, because the scientists can’t control the actions of the bugs once they’re released. The project also requires costly microscopic genetic tools.
According to public DARPA documents, the first phase of Insect Allies was scheduled to concluded in late 2018 and result in the successful delivery of a genetically modified virus to an insect. Phase two, which is slated to last from late 2018 to early 2020, would involve genetically adjusting the viruses, insects, and plants so that the gene delivery is specialized to thrive in a monoculture—in other words, an agricultural field that focuses on one type of crop. Phase three would last from early 2020 to mid-2021, and would theoretically involve observing the project on a larger scale in complex crop environments.
In an email to Motherboard, a DARPA spokesperson said that four research teams have received allotments of the $45 million funding from the agency as a part of Insect Allies, and that all teams have now entered phase two. The teams include researchers from Penn State University, the University of Texas, and Ohio State University.
No contracts through the Insect Allies program have been posted publicly, but a EurekAlert press release from 2017 claims that the Boyce Thompson Institute, the University of Minnesota, the University of California, and Iowa State University received over $10 million from the Department of Defense to cultivate a project for Insect Allies Program. Georg Jander, a professor at BTI, said that their project will be used to engineer gene expression in maize and prevent crop failure.
Theoretically, and as the Science Magazine editorial authors claim, a system that uses insects to help plants succeed could also cause plants to die and be deployed as a weapon against US adversaries, threatening the food supplies of billions of civilians around the globe. However, there’s no evidence yet to suggest that this is happening, or that the Insect Allies program have any plans to deploy plant viruses that hurt agriculture rather than help it.