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Voters To Weigh In On GMO Mosquitoes In Florida Keys

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FLORIDA KEYS (CBSMiami) -- The Florida Keys are known for its relaxed lifestyle but a heated debate is brewing over genetically modified mosquitoes.

In a couple of weeks this could be the first place to have them in the United States -- that is, if it gets past the November ballot. CBS4's David Sutta explains.

The Florida Keys are home to gorgeous views and good times. Most people have no idea it's home to one of the most respected mosquito control districts in the nation.

"We are the number one mosquito control district in the country," Florida Keys Mosquito Control Chairman Phil Goodman says with a smile.

For decades, they have pioneered and helped keep those pesky mosquitoes at bay. But in recent years, they say the fight has become overwhelming.

"We are losing tools left and right," says Andrea Leal, interim director for the district. "We are seeing resisting to a lot of the chemicals a lot of people are using for this mosquito."

In 2009, the district considered something never done before in the United States -- genetically modified mosquitoes.

"The science, in my perspective, is solid on this," Goodman believes.

Here is how it works:

A genetically modified male mosquito mates with a wild female mosquito. When she has offspring, they never fully develop to mate. Instead they die. Eventually the population of mosquitoes crash.

British Company Oxitec has released more than 100,000,000 modified mosquitoes in Brazil, Grand Cayman and Panama. Thus far, it's been considered successful.

"We've shown greater than 90% control of the mosquito population. It's been hugely successful. Unprecedented really," says Oxitec's Derric Nimmo. They haven't found a downside yet, actually. "It has no effect on predators whatsoever. We've done the studies, feeding studies."

But doing this in the United States is another thing. For five years, the FDA, CDC, and EPA have studied the bugs. Earlier this year, they approved a test on Key Haven. The spec of island just North of Key West would have genetically modified mosquitoes released solely on the west end. Since these mosquitoes don't travel great distances, they could compare mosquito populations at both ends of the island to see if it worked after 6 to 9 months.

Needless to say, the neighborhood of 1,500 residents has had mixed reactions to being the guinea pig. Goodman writes it off.

"You just get these conspiracy theorists going that this is Jurassic park... and there are some people who are really telling lies about this program," he says.

Could genetically modified mosquitoes change the balance?

"I feel that it was very well vetted through all those federal agencies. I mean, they had it on their desk for five years. They looked at every aspect of this technology. So we feel very comfortable in moving forward," Leal says.

Nimmo points to the studies as well. "The FDA, the CDC, and the EPA have all looked at this and they've issues a finding of no significant impact on human health, animal health, or the environment."

Mosquito Control commissioners had voted for the program for years but now with FDA approval, some became a little skittish on the final vote.

Goodman is frustrated by it. "If I had my way, this would have never come to a referendum. Because our job is to be elected to this board to make the hard decisions. To become educated on the topics that we vote on and vote from a real knowledge base."

So why are voters in Monroe County now voting on this?

"Well, in my opinion, we are voting on it because it's the political season right now and we had three commissioners that didn't want to vote on it because they want to be reelected," Goodman explains. "Now I understand that."

Call it a delay tactic on behalf of those up for reelection. Monroe County voters can weigh in on their ballot. Still, Florida law requires the commissioners to be the final vote on the issue.

"I am hoping that the Florida Keys can be groundbreaking for the United States to also use this technology as well," says Leal.

Remember, this is a non-binding vote, which means ultimately this comes back to mosquito control commissioners to make the decision.

Three of the five commissioners have indicated they plan to go with whatever the public decides.


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