The latest New Yorker has an article on mosquitoes and dengue fever, a potentially deadly and incurable disease that affects millions every year. The only way to combat dengue is to combat mosquitoes, and that means pesticides. However, a British research group has figured out a way to produce millions of genetically modified mosquitoes who, once released from the laboratory, will go out and mate with other dengue mosquitoes, pass on their infertile genes, and then die. Apparently, based on the results of field trials, it works. It’s not a cure-all, but it’s a way to kill off dengue fairly inexpensively without pesticides.
As you can imagine, there are opponents who greatly fear anything with “genetically modified” as its modifier. They raise the specter that these mosquitoes will prove to be little Frankensteins, and they are fiercely opposed to any further field tests.
It’s an interesting variation on the familiar GM foods argument. And another case of how to appropriately use the precautionary principle.
In this case, the good involves reduced use of pesticides and thousands of lives saved. Dengue is a proven reality. It’s not theoretical.
We have to balance that proven evil against the possible evil of an unknown Frankenstein. It’s the fear of the unknown (possibly infinitely bad) versus the known (quantifiably bad).
How do you do this calculus? Anti-GM activists act as though the answer is obvious, but it’s very far from obvious to me. We can’t let the precautionary principle cut off all innovation. When and how do we use it appropriately? I tend to be a technological optimist and would err on the side of trying new technologies that save lives. But I have to admit there are other arguments. I don’t know the answer.