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Is the U.S. military turning insects into weapons of warfare? That’s the question being posed by a group of scientists and lawyers who took a closer look at a program supported by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), in the latest issue of the prestigious journal Science.

In their paper “Agricultural research, or a new bioweapon system?“, the scientists explain that the DARPA program Insect Allies appears – on the surface – to be exploring ways of introducing genetic modifications into crops directly in the fields by dispersing  infectious, genetically modified viruses that have been engineered to edit crop chromosomes via insects.

But, the scientists say,  the stated aims of the program don’t appear to have any great significance or capability to actually enhance U.S. agriculture or respond to national emergencies. As a result, they say the program may be instead 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 (BWC)”.

Speaking to the UK’s Independent, the researchers said that given the aims of the program, and the agency that is sponsoring it, there should be more discussion of the possibility that it is more about creating weapons of warfare. The aims of the program, they say, are “simply not plausible” for a number of reasons. “It is very much easier to kill or sterilise a plant using gene editing than it is to make it herbicide or insect-resistant,” Dr Guy Reeves, an expert in GM insects at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology and co-author of the paper, explained to the Independent.

As such, they say, DARPA and Insect Allies need to be more open about their obscure research, and confirm that it is for peaceful purposes.

“Because of the broad ban of the Biological Weapons Convention, any biological research of concern must be plausibly justified as serving peaceful purposes,” explained Professor Silja Voeneky, a specialist in international law at Freiburg University.

“The Insect Allies Program could be seen to violate the Biological Weapons Convention, if the motivations presented by Darpa are not plausible.

“This is particularly true considering this kind of technology could easily be used for biological warfare.”

DARPA has not yet responded to requests for comment.