An international group of scientists and legal scholars are warning that a federal research program called Insect Allies could unintentionally lead to biological weapons.

The program funder, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), says the end goal is to improve agriculture by genetically modifying crops in the field using insects. But critics worry that it could easily be weaponized.

“Everyone's heard of genetically modified crops, but DARPA is presenting the idea that this technology is not flexible or rapid enough,” said Guy Reeves, a post-doctoral genetics researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany.

The idea is to protect food crops from diseases, pests, herbicides, and drought and other threats. The agency is funding research to find out if genetic modifications that are usually done in the lab could instead be done in the field by insects.

“On the fly,” Reeves added.

The insects would distribute new genes to the crops by delivering a virus engineered to edit the genome of the plants using CRISPR technology.

Reeves said introducing complex traits by genetic engineering in the field is too difficult and unlikely to succeed.

“But if you wanted to cause harm to the plant, you don’t really need to introduce genes. All you need to do is knock out a single essential gene,” he said. “It’s very hard to imagine you wouldn't very much earlier develop the knowledge necessary to develop biological weapons, which could either kill growing plants or sterilize growing plants.”

Reeves said the technology, once developed, could fall into the wrong hands. And DARPA is the only one funding this kind of work, according to Reeves.

“There's always a risk-reward way that you have to look at this,” said Blake Bextine, the DARPA program manager for Insect Allies. “Making sure that we are a food-secure population, we are really going to require some of these new tools.”

Bextine said that Insect Allies is following all federal and international safety protocols, including the use of three "kill switches" in the insects, which would prevent them from proliferating out of control.

He said an approach like Insect Allies would have been useful in combating a pest like the fall armyworm, which is currently eating cereal crops in Africa.

“It was introduced in April of 2017 and quickly spread to almost half the continent,” he said. “These problems can pop up very quickly and sometimes unforeseen.”

The program will wrap up in two years. Because DARPA is a funding agency only, it’ll be up to another agency, company, or non-governmental organization to turn it into a product after that.

“Our hope is that an organization like USDA picks up the technology,” DARPA public affairs spokesman Tim Kilbride wrote in an email to Living Lab Radio.