Integrated Human Practices
In the integrated Human Practices section, we elaborate on how interaction with stakeholders shaped our project. Make sure to also read how and why we interacted with stakeholders in Human Practices. Integrated Human Practices is displayed in two ways: in a timeline and in a story. The timeline tells you per stakeholder (or event) its main impact that led us to the creation of PHOCUS. The story ties all of our human practices efforts together by describing the stakeholders’ perceptions of the problem and the solution, ethical, legal, safety and security considerations and how we envision PHOCUS to be implemented in the real world (Figure 1).
A summary of our main findings and how they influenced our project:
- We obtained a thorough understanding of the problem and desired solution for the desert locust crisis and the local context by talking to farmers living in Kenya and India, and locust control experts from national governments and the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations (FAO).
- We learned that current pesticides used against locusts are not safe for humans or other animals, or are not fast enough in killing locusts. Therefore, PHOCUS was designed to be both safe and fast. From thereon, PHOCUS was continuously tailored to the values and needs of its end-users, the FAO and national governments.
- Our first project idea did not involve killing desert locusts, but instead, was aimed at stopping the locusts from swarming. Multiple leading experts in the field of locust control told us that this may only make matters worse, and advised us not to use this strategy, and focus on killing locusts instead. Therefore, we dropped this idea and completely changed our project towards killing locusts.
- We investigated the public trust in top-down locust control and their perceptions towards the use of pesticides in Kenya and India through a questionnaire.
- We performed an extensive analysis of all safety and security considerations we could think of and discussed these with experts. These are described fully in Safe-By-Design.
- We gave a keynote lecture at a Locust Control Management Conference. Here, we promoted and discussed PHOCUS with leading locust control experts, NGOs, legislators and scientists. From this, we learned a.o. about the potential of locusts to provide nutrients to the people in food deprivation and decided to make PHOCUS safe for human consumption.
- We learned that, currently, locusts cannot be used as a source of food and feed because these could have an amount of toxic chemical pesticides. Therefore, by making PHOCUS safe for human consumption, the people affected by desert locust swarms could eat or sell these locusts to mitigate food deprivation or economic losses.
- Current locust control uses a standardized method of application. To successfully implement PHOCUS, it should adhere to these standards.
Our interactive timeline
Perceptions of the problem
The first step in finding a solution for the locust crisis is to obtain a thorough understanding of the problem. By talking to multiple stakeholders we made sure we tackled all possible perceptions of the problem.
This year’s locust upsurge has heavily affected the country of Kenya. Therefore, we first spoke to Susan Nguku from the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture. By interviewing her, we obtained knowledge about how locusts affected farmers and local communities in Kenya. Many people in Kenya had never seen locusts before in their lifetime. When these arrived, they were in shock. Susan Nguku told us stories of distressed farmers banging metal pots and practising black magic as desperate attempts to fend off the locusts. This merely scares the locusts away to the farmer’s neighbors, whose crops will then be destroyed, leaving the farmers scared and defenceless. Since farmers in rural Kenya are very difficult to reach out to, Susan Nguku helped us to overcome the distance and language barrier by asking Kenyan farmers to answer questions from our questionnaire. The people that responded to our questionnaire generally feel like they have no say in the fight against locusts, while they would like to have some.
We considered cultural and socio-demographic differences in the perception of the locust problem by also interviewing Shanu, who lives in the city of Jaipur, India and is an eyewitness of locust swarms. He told us that the people of Jaipur were scared of locust swarms since they have not seen it before. However, since people living in urban areas are not in agriculture, they are not directly affected. His relatives in Indian villages who make a livelihood from agriculture, on the other hand, have been severely impacted by loss of crops.
Next, we investigated the root cause of these crop losses and economic stability incurred by locust swarms with the aim of preventing us from curing a symptom instead of the real underlying cause. Ecologist and locust population dynamics expert Dr. Cyril Piou told us that locust swarms develop as a result of certain environmental conditions. In 2018, these conditions were a rare series of cyclones that hit the Arabian Peninsula. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tackle the real underlying cause of locust swarms as we are not able to control the weather. While the weather is influenced by climate change it remains uncertain if the recent rare weather event can be attributed to climate change. According to Dr. Piou and Em. prof. Arnold van Huis, climate change has nothing to do with it, while our contact persons at the FAO claim it does.
Perceptions of the solution
After considering the local context of the locust problem and its unsolvable root cause, the weather conditions, we investigated locust control operations and current methods that are used. From our conversation with Prof. Alexandre Latchininsky and Dr. Mamoon AlAlawi of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, we learned that all locust control is performed by highly trained professionals who either worked for a national government or the FAO itself. This is because the vast scale of locust upsurges and the costs of locust control makes it impossible for sole civilians to do it themselves. This was in sharp contrast with our impression of locust control, where farmers apply pesticides on their own lands. We acknowledged that it is not feasible nor suitable to have farmers apply pesticides on their own and therefore, decided that our solution must also be applied by the FAO and national governments.
Methods to prevent locust swarms that are used by the FAO and national governments include chemical- and biopesticides. These pesticides are sprayed on vegetation, which locusts will eat, or directly on flying locust swarms. According to Prof. Alexandre Latchininsky (FAO) chemical pesticides are toxic to other insects, livestock and humans and therefore, are not feasible from an ecological and human health standpoint on the long run. This was agreed upon by all stakeholders we interviewed regarding current methods. From Susan Nguku we heard that some people experienced itchiness after the chemicals were sprayed in an area in Kenya, but for unknown reasons no follow-up health monitoring took place.
Initially, part of our solution was to use dead locusts from the swarms as a source of food for the people who have lost their crops. In this respect, the toxicity and unspecificity of chemical pesticides is especially worrying because, according to former FAO locust expert Em. prof. Arnold van Huis, these locusts are very commonly used as food for people and their livestock but only if they are caught alive. However, Em. Prof. Van Huis told us that these locusts could have come into contact with a sub-lethal amount of chemical pesticide and hazardous traces could be present in their bodies. Therefore, we stopped our idea of using the dead locusts as food and paid extra attention to the safety of PHOCUS for human consumption.
An alternative to chemical pesticides is Metarhizium anisopliae, also known as Green Muscle. This entomopathogenic fungus is specific to locusts and safe for human consumption. However, according to the FAO and Dr. Cyril Piou, this biopesticide has not been used as much because it is too slow; it takes 1-2 weeks to kill locusts.
In conclusion, during interviews, the responsible authorities conveyed a dire need for a novel alternative that is safe for non-target species and fast-acting. Therefore, we decided to design PHOCUS in such a way it would fulfill these needs.
Locust control operations consist of monitoring the development of locust swarms and spraying the pesticides preventatively or as an emergency response. Dr. Cyril Piou and the FAO emphasized the importance of taking preventative measures as once locusts start swarming, they are very difficult to control. However, it is very difficult to prevent swarming as places where locust swarms develop are remote and unpopulated (FAO) and because coordination and collaboration of locust control between countries is difficult (Em. prof. Arnold van Huis). Political tensions and lack of funds makes it even more problematic (Em. prof. Arnold van Huis). Above all, when locusts have not attacked an area for a long time, people forget about the importance of preventative measures (Dr. Cyril Piou and Harold van der Valk). Hence, an emergency response is often required.
From Em. prof. Arnold van Huis we learned that, during an emergency response, the locust problem also becomes a political problem. If a country is "under attack" by locust swarms it is important for the national government to show they are doing all in their power to protect the livelihood of their citizens. This often leads to over- and ineffective- spraying of chemical pesticides. In addition, toxicologist Harold van der Valk mentioned that people spray anything that is laying around. This may even be pesticides that are not effective against locusts by people who are not trained to handle these chemicals.
Our initial project idea: degregarization
At the start of our project, our approach did not involve killing locusts, but was more animal-friendly. We wanted a more animal-friendly approach because the FAO and Dr. Cyril Piou emphasized that an alternative method to current pesticides must not eradicate locusts, seeing as these play a vital role in the ecosystem. Our initial idea was to let the infected gut bacteria produce an enzyme that degrades the locust pheromones guaiacol and phenol: β-decarboxylase. Because guaiacol and phenol contribute to the swarming behaviour of locusts, their degradation could prevent or hinder swarm formation. We came as far as having designed and constructed the corresponding BioBrick. However, both Em. prof. Arnold van Huis and Harold van der Valk warned us that this is not a suitable solution as we would actually make matters worse. They explained that the swarming behaviour of locusts is a strong advantage when one wants to control locusts. Swarms are highly concentrated, which makes spraying pesticides on individuals much easier. By preventing this gregarious behaviour we would dilute their concentration, but not their numbers. Thus, we would effectively create “super grasshoppers" spread out over a large area, which would need more demanding control. After these interviews, we decided to completely change our project and PHOCUS on killing locusts instead.
We learned from the FAO that those affected by locust swarms do not have a say in which pesticide is being used and that these people rely on the government and FAO to take action. This means that, if we want PHOCUS to be applied by the authorities, the general public would not be involved in the decision whether or not PHOCUS would be used on their land. However, we feel like this would take away some of their autonomy. Therefore, we wondered: Do these people trust these institutions in taking the appropriate measures? To answer this question, we reached out to Kenyan and Indian farmers. Results from the questionnaire to Kenyan farmers suggest that Kenyan farmers are distrusting of the FAO, if they say a new pesticide is safe while the opposite is true for national organizations. However, the small sample size prevents us from drawing conclusions. According to Shanu and the questionnaire of Indian farmers, the broader public of India does not question their government’s decision to use a particular pesticide and trust it when they say that it is safe. We acknowledge that locust control by civilians and famers is not feasible and PHOCUS should be applied by professionals. Nevertheless, according to responsible innovation principles, not only those who perform locust control operations should have a say in whether PHOCUS should be used, but also those affected by locusts swarms. This led us to define our Education and Public Engagement goal as follows: “Enabling the discussion, by education and inclusivity”. We, for instance, discussed synthetic biology, locusts and our project with Indian school kids through an interactive quiz. We also presented and discussed our project at the Virtual Practitioners Conference on Desert Locust Control Management 2020 with multiple professionals working at the frontline of locust control, both from science and civil society.
As PHOCUS uses state-of-the-art in SynBio, implementation could bear considerable consequences. Therefore, our project should be considered responsibly and ethically. To enable the discussion on the implementation, Frank van Steenbergen advised us to reach out potential proponents, such as NGOs advocating against genetically modified organisms, to understand their viewpoint, identify conflicts and come up with solutions for those. Sadly, these organisations did not answer our request. Dr. Zoë Robaey aided us in understanding the possible unique downsides of our product and emphasized how we need to set up mitigation plans for these downsides. This is a critical factor for obtaining acceptance of our technology. Therefore, we set up mitigation strategies that can be read in Safe-By-Design.
Susan Nguku also stressed that obtaining acceptance from the locals could be difficult as they have a strong association with viruses being harmful. Enabling the discussion on the potential benefits of viruses will be laborious but essential for eventual acceptance. Another unique downside was hypothesized during the meeting with Dr. Zoë Robaey: could we accidentally eradicate the locusts if PHOCUS works "too well"? With this question, we reached out to Dr. Cyril Piou, who reassured us that, without something comparable to a gene-drive, we would not be able to do this. While killing the gregarious locusts, solitary ones will always remain and consequently propagate their role in the ecosystem.
Safety and security considerations
After working on integrated pest management for the FAO for many years, Em. Prof. Arnold van Huis currently spends his time on promoting the use of insects as food and feed. This inspired us to use all the locusts we would kill using PHOCUS as a source of nutrition in the affected communities. Although locusts are already often used as food and feed in those communities, the FAO warns against eating locusts as these could be contaminated with chemical pesticides. However, Remco and Gerard Bod from Simonis B.V., a preselected pesticide supplier of the FAO, told us that people eat them anyway, simply because they have no other source of food. During our conversation, Em. prof. van Huis explained to us that locusts that are caught dead are generally not consumed, which made us discontinue our idea of recycling all the dead locusts as food. Nevertheless, worldwide implementation of PHOCUS could entail that living locust could be eaten safely, which would improve human and animal health throughout the affected areas.
As we find it important that our treated locusts could still be eaten by people and/or their livestock, we consulted Dr. Steven Hagens, who is an expert at using phages for food safety. He explained that all known lytic phages (in contrast to some lysogenic phages) are safe for consumption. As Dr. Zoë Robaey instructed us to look at novel side effects of our product, we analyzed the consequences of spreading the Cry7Ca1 toxin throughout the environment. Toxicologist Harold van der Valk saw no possible safety issues with using this toxin, as Bt toxins are already a regularly used form of insecticide in the environment. Nevertheless, adequate field tests have to be done to ensure this.
To consider the general safety of releasing an engineered phage in nature we contacted multiple experts on (engineered) phages. From these conversations, we learned that our approach was so novel that there was little to no comparable research on potential safety hazards. Therefore, we mapped all safety aspects of PHOCUS we could think of and researched these individually, including safety to humans, livestock, other insects, and the risk of PHOCUS mutating in any way, phage resistance by bacteria and pesticide resistance by locusts. A full list of our safety considerations during the development of PHOCUS can be found on our safety page. During a video call with Dr. Piers Millet from the iGEM Safety & Security Committee, we concluded that the best way to progress the safety of our project was to develop an approach of how we could experimentally test and validate whether PHOCUS would be safe to use in the real world. Our description of the tests that are required for gathering data needed to go from the lab to field trials can be found on our safety page..
Potential biosecurity issues were discussed with Dr. Zoë Robaey and Dr. Piers Millet. Dr. Zoë Robaey told us that technology can be misused, but there is a level of scientific literacy required to do this. Nevertheless, there is a need for safeguards that can only be designed once there is an understanding of how a product can be potentially misused. After this conversation, we had a structured discussion with the entire team on the potential misuse of PHOCUS using the guidelines of iGEMers Guide to the Future. According to Dr. Piers Millet, biosecurity issues arise from platform technologies, not from narrowly applied systems. This led us to the decision not to advocate our engineered phage as a platform technology, but instead, maintained the focus on its niche application: killing locusts.
Looking into regulations and admission regulations, it became evident that there are only a few specific regulations for the use of engineered bacteriophages, although recently the field of medicine has shown great interest. This is a great example of the "pacing problem", where legislation and policy are lagging behind the frontier of innovation. This possibly creates both aggravating and hazardous situations. Dr. Cécile van der Vlugt, a senior risk assessor from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), explained to us how this pacing problem stems from a lack of knowledge and data. But, with the right data, she told us that approval would be possible. Our lack of additional biocontainment strategy should thus not pose a problem, if we can prove our claim that it will not propagate in nature.
When starting the project, we identified relevant stakeholders and their values and assessed to what extent these values were represented in our initial project idea. Our efforts towards a value-sensitive design of PHOCUS is described in more detail in Human Practices. From this analysis, we concluded that the value “accessibility” was not represented to a desired extent within the project design. According to Susan Nguku and Simonis BV, getting pesticides at the right place at the right time is difficult. Simonis BV told us that this is partly because of inert decision-making of the bureaucratic FAO. Logistic issues have become even more problematic due to hampered transport as a result of COVID-19. To solve this issue, Dr. Cyril Piou proposed the idea of decentralizing the production of PHOCUS. Dr. Zoë Robaey confirmed that decentralized production would aid in solving these logistic issues. However, she warned us that, if you do not train the people that will work for you, you are just using them for cheaper labor. Thus, if we want to produce PHOCUS locally, this has to be done in the right way so locals obtain knowledge, co-ownership and training. Dr. Piers Millet commented on our local production idea by saying that giving every community their own virus production facility raises safety, security, awareness and acceptance issues. Furthermore, Simonis BV told us that they do not recommend decentralized production, as this withholds us from assuring quality and safety of the product. If the quality of the produced pesticide is not of the desired level and something bad happens, the producer and supplier are held responsible. We concluded that, in this case, safety and quality are more important than accessibility and we dropped the idea of decentralized production. Simonis BV told us that they choose to produce their pesticide in the EU to ensure top quality. Therefore, the core values for our production facility are trust and reliability, through standardization and centralization.
Furthermore, we envisioned how PHOCUS would be used in the real world. Harold van der Valk told us that in locust control operations, small groups of people travel into the desert for multiple weeks to search for locusts. Although they have coolers, often these coolers reach temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius. Therefore, we concluded that for PHOCUS to be a suitable alternative, it would have to be sufficiently robust to survive in 20 degrees Celsius for at least three weeks. According to the FAO, an issue with biopesticides is that these are generally not able to withstand high temperatures and UV radiation. This problem can be solved by spraying pesticides on flying locust swarms directly. However, Em. prof. Arnold van Huis said that this would require planes to fly very near to a swarm, which can be very dangerous for the pilot. In addition, the bacteria we aim for are in the locust gut. Therefore, we concluded that for safety of the pilot and efficacy, PHOCUS has to be sprayed on vegetation instead of directly on locust swarms. According to the FAO and Simonis BV, micro-encapsulation methods exist to solve issues of instability in high temperatures and UV radiation. Micro-encapsulation methods have been used in combination with bacteriophages before. However, they also told us that fine tuning micro-encapsulation requires a lot of expertise and is beyond the scope of our project.
Our conversation with Simonis BV also shed light on the standards the FAO has for pesticide spraying on swarms. Pest controllers always spray 1 L of pre-mixed ultra-low volume pesticide per hectare of land. This way all the planes, nozzles and sorts can be used in the same way for all the different pesticides. It is important for PHOCUS to be also applicable complying to these standards as this would benefit the diffusion of PHOCUS as well as the ease of use and safety.
Finally, pesticide resistance can become a problem in the future if PHOCUS would be used extensively. Resistance may evolve because locusts obtain resistance against the toxins or because the bacteria obtain resistance against the phages. Toxin resistance was circumvented by incorporating two different methods of killing locusts (the Bt toxin Cry7Ca1 and RNA interference). Considering phage resistance, Dr. Steven Hagens told us that if we target at least two different receptors per bacterium, the chance of obtaining phage resistance is negligible. Thus, we decided that at least two phages need to be used per target bacterium.