Genetically Modified Moths May Be the Key to Saving Cabbage Crops
The new approach doesn't involve any pesticides.
Chances are you probably eat—and love—these foods: cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and broccoli, staple vegetables that keep you healthy and satisfied. For years now, the tiniest, but the most insidious predator, the diamondback moth, has threatened their survival. Now, scientists are trying to make these plants safe from the hoards of moths that take over the annual crops, using the insect’s own DNA.
NPR reports that as of now, the moths, which cause billions of dollars in damage to these vegetable crops every year, are immune to just about every pesticide used to deter hungry insects. At Cornell University, entomologists are experimenting with genetically modified diamondback moths, implanted with a deadly gene that is supposed to kill any offspring that inherit it. The lab-grown moths are a new way to battle the swarms of their wild-born counterparts that breed in these types of crops, circumventing the traditional pesticide-use method.
A British biotech company called Oxitec developed the new breed of moth. Their effectiveness is currently being tested in outdoor cages, where the male moths—carrying the gene—participate in the mating cycle, hopefully passing their bad genes to their offspring. Farmers in New York, where cabbage is a popular crop, are already excited about trying out the weaponized moths for themselves.
"I've had years in which this moth has consumed more than 25 percent of my crop," one farmer from Holley, New York, told NPR.
In the southern United States, the problem is even worse: Frigid New York winters kill off the moths, but warmer states like Georgia don’t have that luxury; they’re stuck with the bugs no matter the season.
"We have diamondbacks pretty much year-round, and if you start applying an insecticide, they will basically become immune to that insecticide in short order,” David Riley, a vegetable entomologist working at the University of Georgia, explained.
Despite these early stages of the testing process, both Oxitec and the USDA say that the genetically modified moths aren’t harmful to humans. To that end, the USDA has already issued permits allowing field tests of the insects, meaning that your cabbage could soon be safer and more plentiful than ever. That calls for some coleslaw.