Senior microbiologist Cheryl Gauthier holds petri dishes containing samples of Bacillus cereus, left, and a Bacillus species, right, at the Department of Public Health state laboratory in Boston, Oct. 25, 2001.

Senior microbiologist Cheryl Gauthier holds petri dishes containing samples of Bacillus cereus, left, and a Bacillus species, right, at the Department of Public Health state laboratory in Boston, Oct. 25, 2001. AP Photo/Elise Amendola

Scientists: Pentagon’s Plant-Virus Research Could Endanger World’s Food Supply

But DOD responds that new ways are needed to harden crops against coming natural and manmade threats.

European geneticists and legal scholars last week accused the U.S. military of funding research that could help adversaries develop biological weapons. But Defense Department officials say their work is necessary to protect crops, and is proceeding with appropriate safeguards and oversight.

The controversial two-year-old program, called Insect Allies, seeks “plant transformation technologies” — essentially, bespoke viruses that can be spread by insects to change plant genes on an unprecedented scale.

“Plant viruses hold significant promise as carriers of gene editing circuitry and are a natural partner for an insect-transmitted delivery platform,” officials of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, wrote in a 2016 broad agency announcement. Since then, the program has awarded $27 million in research grants.

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The objective is to develop “countermeasures against potential natural and engineered threats to the food supply with the goals of preserving the U.S. crop system,”  Insect Allies program manager Blake Bextine wrote in a statement.

But scientists and scholars in an article in the Oct. 5 issue of Science argue that while international regulations are likely to keep beneficial actors from employing such techniques, the research could help teach bad actors how to spread devastating biological weapons.

The article was written by geneticists from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, legal scholars from the Institute of International Law and Ethics of Law at the University of Freiburg, and experts from other research institutions.

They criticize the program for taking little note of rules that govern the use of horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents, or HEGAAs. “This omission is all the more striking given that it is likely that all current regulatory systems across the globe would require profound changes to accommodate even an occasional use of HEGAAs,” they write.

In other words, the authors say, the upside is limited.

On the downside, they argue, the publication of the finished research could help adversaries develop “fast acting weapons, along with their means of delivery, capable of threatening virtually any crop species.” They point out that the two crops that researchers are currently experimenting with, maize and tomato plants, are staples in communities around the globe.

What’s more, they argue, the mere existence of the program may spook other governments into launching bioweapons efforts: “The program may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery, which—if true—would constitute a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention.”

They urge U.S. lawmakers to curb the program’s funding and suggest that DARPA restrict publication of the findings. “Although DARPA does ‘not anticipate applying publication restrictions’ [according to the BAA] to results generated by the three research consortia, one could argue that this may need to be reconsidered to avoid the proliferation of what may be seen as preliminary instruction manuals on how to develop offensive HEGAA programs, directed in the first instance against maize.”

In an emailed response to questions, DARPA spokesman Jared Adams said that program managers have reached out to regulators, ethicists, and policymakers. Adams added that the genetically engineered viruses and insects will be designed with stiff safeguards, such as an expiration date, to guard precisely against the sort of worst-case scenario the European researchers describe.

Adams said DARPA is working with regulators across the U.S. government to figure out what sort of policy barriers exist and how to overcome them if it becomes necessary to use bug-delivered viruses to protect crops. The meetings have “elucidated existing regulatory pathways, and also cast light on areas where regulation might need to evolve to account for new, rapidly evolving biotechnologies,” he wrote. That is: policy that hasn’t caught up to technological reality needs to change.

The whole point of the program, Adams argues, is to protect crops from the sorts of weapons that someone might release upon the world. “It is DARPA’s position that technologies being developed under Insect Allies have the potential to transform agricultural threat response to address numerous threats to our common food supply.”