If you’re a fan of kimchi, coleslaw, or sauerkraut, then you should consider yourself a fan of cabbage, and you should also be worried about this veggie. The cabbage has been under constant threat from decades alongside other leafy greens, such as broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, and kale.
The danger? It stems from a tiny insect known as the diamondback moth, an invasive bug that has spread across the world and quickly mutated to become immune to just about every chemical pesticide manufactured to beat it.
To curb the now billions of dollars of damage that this moth’s larvae cause ever year, scientists in New York are trying to turn the bug’s DNA against it. In a small cabbage patch near the Seneca Lake town of Geneva, a Cornell University entomologist is letting loose thousands of genetically modified diamondbacks to test their ability to disrupt the moth mating scene in the fields of the farmers.
Every moth, bred in a lab, carries a gene designed to kill offspring that inherit it. The toxic gene presents a bilogical alternative to the chemical warfare that we’ve been waging, and failing with, for decades.
“In areas where we can’t control diamondback moths, this technology would allow more of a steady flow of products onto the market,” says Anthony Shelton, the Cornell entomologist testing the moths. Shelton conducted a preliminary field trial of the insect in outdoor cages two years ago.
Many traditional farmers in New York, which produces more cabbage than any other state, are excited to use the new tool. Anthony Piedmonte has grown cabbage for more than half a century in Holley. (He leaves a few heads on his Polish neighbor’s doorstop each year, and she reciprocates by dropping off a pan of a delicious stuffed cabbage dish called gołąbki.) Some years he has more cabbage to give than others.
“I’ve had years in which this moth has consumed more than 25 percent of my crop,” says Piedmonte. “This last year was particularly bad.” When things get really out of hand, he says, his farm sprays a cocktail of chemicals up to three times a week.
“The problem in the South is that we never get away from them,” says David Riley, a vegetable entomologist at the University of Georgia — not connected to Oxitec’s moth endeavor. “We have diamondbacks pretty much year-round, and if you start applying an insecticide, they will basically become immune to that insecticide in short order.”