DARPA is no stranger to developing controversial technologies. From stealth aircraft to the internet, DARPA’s hand in shaping the world we live in is sometimes hard to spot, but it’s nonetheless present; often operating just beyond the veil of technology we’ve come to take for granted in our everyday lives.
Sometimes, DARPA’s endeavors are misunderstood or misrepresented by nations or organizations with a vested interest in hindering their work. Sometimes their endeavors are shrouded in secrecy and misrepresented by the agency itself. In either regard, gleaning the second and third order effects of some DARPA projects can sometimes seem nearly impossible — with misinformation, disinformation, and humanity’s knack for taking the technological ball and running with it in new and interesting directions, all conspiring against any kind of accurate prediction.
One such program that is raising the concerns of American opponents and allies alike is DARPA’s Insect Allies project. Put simply, the endeavor aims to arm insects with genetically engineered viruses for rapid distribution. The stated goal of this endeavor is as a means of inoculating American crops from both natural and man-made threats by infecting plant life with viruses that will change their genetic makeup. As DARPA puts it:
National security can be quickly jeopardized by naturally occurring threats to the crop system, including pathogens, drought, flooding, and frost, but especially by threats introduced by state or non-state actors. Insect Allies seeks to mitigate the impact of these incursions by applying targeted therapies to mature plants with effects that are expressed at relevant timescales—namely, within a single growing season.
The goal, as stated, is a noble one. An attack an America’s crop-growing infrastructure could lead to the deaths of millions, as could a large scale natural disaster. Any effort that could potentially curb such a calamity seems like a worthwhile endeavor… but there’s just one problem. As a number of scientists have recently pointed out, developing a means of rapid virus transmittal using infected insects sounds a bit more like how the world ends, rather than a novel new approach to saving it.
An Op-Ed called “Agricultural research or a new bioweapon system?” penned by a number of scientists and researchers out of Europe was published in Science earlier this week, positing that DARPA’s Insect Allies program is, at worst, a slippery slope into developing a new method of delivery for biological weapons, and at best, an endeavor that suffers from poor marketing.
“It’s really about how it’s perceived,” said Dr. R. Guy Reeves, one of the authors of the Op-Ed. He’s not alone in that assessment. Last year, a senior researcher at North Carolina State University, Todd Kuiken, raised similar concerns about the project. Kuiken specified that he does not believe DARPA’s Insect Allies program is actually working to develop an insect-based biological weapon, but he postulated that foreign governments could misinterpret the endeavor if details of the program aren’t properly communicated. The concern about perception is simple: if foreign nations believe America is developing this sort of biological weapon, it could encourage others to do the same.
“The pure fact that this is a military program would naturally raise these sorts of questions,” he said at the time.
For their part, DARPA has stated in no uncertain terms that their effort has nothing to do with developing any sort of new weapon, despite how easily the Insect Allies program may be to commandeer for such a purpose.