Dr Guy Reeves, a researcher at the Plön institute, and lead author of the study, complains that the programme has received hardly any attention in public. He and his co-authors call for a broad social, scientific and legal debate on the issue of Insect Allies.

Reeves stresses the danger of losing control of the insects carrying the specially engineered virus, and he argues that using traditional overhead sprays to deliver HEGAAs is much safer. No global regulatory framework is in place to support insect transportation of HEGAAs to crops, and without appropriate supervision, Reeves fears that mishaps could occur. He also points out that killing or sterilising a plant using genome editing is far easier than making it herbicide or insect-resistant.

The authors of the new study maintain that knowledge gained from the Insect Allies programme could be re-purposed and used for biological warfare, e.g. through switching off genes, which is usually easier than optimising them.