By Jamie Steer 18/06/2019

The Minister of Conservation’s recent direction to put the brakes on research into gene editing for predator eradication has proven a bone of contention with some. That’s regrettable because her decision is well justified.

In a recent Letter of Expectation to Predator Free 2050 Limited, Minister Sage instructed that no resources shall be directed towards the development of gene editing technology[1] for killing rats, stoats or possums. Her reasons for the restriction were essentially the same as those she voiced back in December 2017 when she commented that:

“Gene editing is an unproven technology for predator control. Gene technologies are problematic and untested and have significant risks…They have no social licence to operate. There is a lot at stake and there is a need for the utmost caution…”

Despite such forewarnings it apparently took the board of Predator Free 2050 Limited by surprise. Indeed the board was reportedly a picture of woe, appearing “deflated” and “a shadow of its former self” following the decision. No longer was there a “sense of urgency, of optimism, of that keenness to do the job that was so obvious twelve months ago” opined the National Party’s Environment Spokesperson.

Objections to the Minister’s decision have since emerged from various quarters. Let’s take a look at four of them now to see how they stack up.

1. The decision is ideological

The first objection is that the Minister’s position is a reflection of her personal values and therefore somehow unscientific or even anti-science. The National Party’s Conservation Spokesperson, for instance, felt the Minister had been “captured by her ideology.”[2] According to the Spokesperson, the National Party was different: “National’s all about the science. We think good science should inform conservation policy…” A Stuff commentator agreed, suggesting that the Minister was guilty of making a decision grounded in her “political ideology”.

Missing from these remarks however was any indication of what the Minister’s ideology actually is or how it might have affected her decision. While the Green Party has long opposed the use of Genetically Modified Organisms, no effort was made to provide evidence that her decision was ideological. Or, if it was, why that would necessarily invalidate it. After all, political parties, and their decisions – on both the right and left – are necessarily ideological.

And should science inform conservation policy? Of course it should, but science cannot tell us whether gene editing is the ‘right’ approach for eradicating predatory mammals. That decision is ultimately one of values and priorities. As a recent paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution put it, conversations about the use of genetic technologies in conservation involve “value judgements with ethical implications; simply providing more information [scientific or otherwise] may not change opinions on these topics”.

The Minister simply expressed a preference for other technologies of eradication, all of which, by the way, have a much stronger evidential basis and proven effectiveness than gene editing.

2. The science is settled – it’s low risk

Another objection has arisen from the notion that the science on genetic modification is largely settled, and that it’s low risk. Why then would the Minister not endorse its investigation for predator eradication?

The Prime Minister’s former Chief Science Advisor seemed to align with this view in stating to media that the science on genetic modification, for predator eradication or other applications, “is as settled as it will be…that is, it is safe, that there are no significant ecological or health concerns associated with the use of advanced genetic technologies”.

He went on to suggest that “the science is pretty secure, and science can never be absolute…But the uncertainty here is minimal to nil, very, very low”.

Is that so though? Actually, there are significant concerns among the scientific community about the use of genetic technologies for conservation. At best, the advice from scientists so far has been to proceed with “extreme caution”.

One prominent issue is that genetically edited organisms could precipitate the global extinction of that species, even where it is native. Individuals could be deliberately smuggled[3] out of the country (like how rabbit calicivirus arrived in New Zealand) or be transported inadvertently in cargo. Rats in particular have a long history of doing the latter.[4]

The global extinction of species due to gene editing or the like, whether accidental or intentional, would be a political and ecological disaster. It has been suggested that international governance rules therefore need to be established before even contemplating a local application.

In light of the recent controversy over the American military scoping New Zealand out as a target for genetic experimentation, it has been mooted that an independent body be established to manage and oversee any future research proposals in this area. A 2017 article in PLoS Biology by two geneticists stated that moving forward without the permission of other countries would be “highly irresponsible.” They implored rather that:

“Now is the time to be bold in our caution. In our view, it is wise to assume that invasive and self-propagating gene drive systems are likely to spread to every population of the target species throughout the world. Accordingly, they should only be built to combat true plagues such as malaria, for which we have few adequate countermeasures and there is a realistic path towards an international agreement to deploy among all affected nations. If there is no such path—as is likely when the notion of a safe field trial is likely to be an oxymoron—then it is best if we refrain from developing self-propagating gene drive systems in the target species at all. For the handful of cases such as malaria for which a plausible path exists, the research should be undertaken in laboratories located far from existing populations of the target species and be performed in concert with extensive community engagement efforts in those nations likely to be affected. This is precisely the strategy being pursued by “Target Malaria”. For all other candidate applications, including in New Zealand, we should not even consider building drive systems likely to spread indefinitely beyond the target area”.

3. We need gene editing to achieve interim predator free goals

A third objection has been that gene editing is needed to achieve one of Predator Free 2050’s interim 2025 goals, specifically the one seeking to “Achieve a breakthrough science solution capable of eradicating at least one small mammal predator.” In one of the Conservation Minister’s first official briefings from DOC she was advised that genetic technologies are one of the approaches with potential to achieve this goal. Predator Free 2050 Limited’s chief executive reportedly felt in fact that gene technology was the only way to make the goal.

To be honest, it looks as if both the Minister and Predator Free 2050’s CE have been given poor advice here. The chance of achieving a breakthrough science solution through a new genetic technology by 2025 is so slim it is barely worth tabling. Even the chance of developing such a technology by 2050 is considered a long shot. New Zealand’s existing research into gene drives is mostly theoretical, largely “consisting of modeling and thought experiments.” Suggesting that we can move from theory to practice in six or seven years is not ambitious, it’s absurd.

A local geneticist estimates it will be about five years before there is any form of mammalian gene drive (for mice) ready for trials, “and that is with multiple international initiatives focused on that task.” And turning a gene drive in the laboratory into a genetic control solution for Predator Free 2050 species is pure theory – “a long way off.” Even lobbyists for genetic technologies consider the release of genetically modified organisms for predator control to be “at least several political terms away.”

Moreover, all of this is in the absence of a social mandate for their use.[5] I’d say that the “capable of eradicating” part in the 2025 goal requires that at a minimum, wouldn’t you? Or does “capable” mean by any means, or at any cost?

See here for part two of this two-part series.


[1] In this article I use ‘gene editing’ and ‘genetic modification’ interchangeably. I appreciate that some like to distinguish between the too. Personally I think that gene editing is a form of genetic modification, as do the European Union and the NZ Government.

[2] For those unsure of what to make of this statement the spokesperson clarified that being captured by one’s own ideology was “not a good thing”.

[3] One geneticist commented that, at least with rats, “the idea that they wouldn’t be deliberately moved around seems positively farcical”.

[4] We know that rats were introduced inadvertently to New Zealand multiple times and likely continue to arrive undetected in cargo with 0.2-0.3% of ships entering the country with them on board.

[5] Research into attitudes towards gene-based technologies among Māori already indicates that the likelihood of widespread support is “unlikely in the short term”.

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Featured image: Protest against genetic engineering, Auckland 2003, public domain.

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