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. See here for Part 1 of this two-part series.
4. We should progress with the research anyway
A fourth objection is that the Minister has prevented the technological research that is needed to test the feasibility of a genetic approach to eradication. On the face of it this is a reasonable objection. But it’s also a very high stakes game to be playing.
The Minister is correct in her assertion that there is no social mandate for the use of gene editing for predator eradication in New Zealand. There has been no published research on what the public thinks about this to date. We do know however from previous conversations about genetic modification that a significant proportion of the country is likely to be opposed. A recent unpublished study found that only 32% of New Zealanders were comfortable with the development of new pest technologies using gene drives or related measures.
Despite this, some have insisted that we should proceed with technological research regardless. A Stuff commentator again aptly summarised the feelings of the more ardent:
“We should be steaming ahead on investigating that potential while, at the same time, fostering a serious national debate about whether we should eventually use it”.
This ‘cart before the horse’ approach reminds me of one geneticist’s recent reflections on gene editing technology in the journal Nature:
“Science is too vast for researchers to reliably foresee the consequences of their work. The problem was neatly summarized by atom-bomb pioneer Robert Oppenheimer: “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it, and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success.””
What could possibly go wrong, right? Among the many that come to mind are the restrictions that would probably be imposed on any future research in this area (including for human health) should things go pear shaped.
Gene editing research is not going to be cheap either. If we are to do it here in NZ in suitably contained and secure facilities the costs will be significant. As we see with competition over Predator Free 2050 funds, gains for research into gene editing will also likely equate to losses for research into other technologies or approaches.
It might make sense to pursue it if there was little risk, or we already had a clear indication of widespread public support. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, neither is the case here. On the contrary, we already have clear indications that the public is very uncomfortable with genetic modification in general. That is precisely why the Royal Society has begun public consultation on the matter.
A local biotech lobbyist nevertheless suggested that the ‘rational approach’ would be for the Minister:
“to drop her ban on genetic research within the confines of the laboratory and allow the regulatory system, including public consultation, to determine if the resulting tools have sufficient benefits and safeguards”.
Again, what could possibly go wrong? One response might be that that is the very approach we have taken with protecting our nation’s water quality under the Resource Management Act. And look where it has got us.
Another response might be that highlighted in a review by the US National Academies of Science:
“Gene drives do not fit well within the existing regulatory logic of confinement and containment because they are designed to spread a genotype through the population, making confinement and containment much more difficult (or even irrelevant) and the environmental changes introduced by release potentially irreversible”.
As noted above, some scientists have suggested that gene drive experiments should therefore be conducted outside the ecological range of the target organism. In other words, we might do the research, but not here in New Zealand (another argument for starting with international agreements).
Rather than just going off and doing it and seeing what happens, might we instead figure out if we actually want to do it first? Such a case for caution was well-summarised recently by a local geneticist:
“If we do not have societal buy-in for using these things, then why would we spend five or six years of our life developing something that ultimately no one has the appetite to use?…I’d rather have an open, ongoing conversation about what we know—and then ask the question, ‘Do we want to pursue this?”
National’s Environment Spokesperson believes that it’s time we started talking about where we want to go again with genetic modification. There is, she feels, “a sentiment to have these discussions – there’s a sentiment to move to toxin-free.” And that’s very true. New Zealanders tolerance for the use of poisons in conservation is declining, as it is elsewhere around the world.
A survey by the Department of Conservation in 2016 found that 61% of us think that aerial distribution of poisons is unacceptable, but that won’t stop us from using it over about a million hectares of the country this year. That in itself raises the rather awkward question of whether what we already do has a social mandate.
In favour of poisons, on the other hand, is that they can be targeted to some areas and not others. Technically, that means that we can use them in catchments that are in favour of their use and desist in those that aren’t. That’s not the case with gene editing where a release in one place essentially means a release in all (and possibly globally).
Also worth remembering is that genetic technologies for conservation are not just useful for killing things we currently don’t like. We could also use them to enhance the survival of things we do like, or bring them back from the dead (i.e., de-extinction). Some native New Zealand species have extremely low genetic variation due to population bottlenecks. Gene editing might be used to help address these issues. Other valued species could be edited to help them survive the challenges of invasive species, or other threats.
I think that genetic modification might well be a means of responding to some of New Zealand’s conservation challenges. But it’s also very clear that any application is likely to be extremely contentious. Marches against genetic engineering in the early 2000s were some of the largest in NZ’s history.
In a recent review in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand a local genetics professor asked what we have learnt from the last 30 years of genetics research for conservation in New Zealand. Among other things, the review found that the use of genetic technology in conservation will “almost certainly meet with resistance from the public.”
The first step then is surely to get a good gauge of what New Zealanders might be willing to entertain, not just ‘steaming ahead’ with technical research in the absence of any clue as to its social palatability.
The Conservation Minister recently stated that:
“There is no comprehensive public consultation on genetic modification and any potential changes to the HSNO laws since the Royal Commission into Genetic Modification, so there is no public mandate for research into gene drive or similar technologies”.
She said that public consultation on genetic modification is the responsibility of the Environment Minister, but he reportedly has no plans for it despite official advice to do so. Presumably it is being left to the Royal Society to undertake.
But even if research were to show a majority in favour would that be sufficient anyway? Do we here in NZ, for example, get to decide on what could well prove to be the worldwide extinction of the target species?
A review in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand stated that “relational trust and communication between people and government, the public and scientists” would need to be healthy if the public were to accept the use of genetic modification for predator control. I suspect we are some way off that.
In a recent speech to the Bioheritage National Science Challenge conference the new Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor identified lack of public trust in scientists as one of the biggest challenges for science in NZ. Reflecting on the use of genetic modification for predator control, she felt that some scientists had been overeager in selling what it can do. Could it be that some of our own scientists might be ‘captured by ideology’ on this issue?
Questioned earlier in the same conference on the Minister’s ban on genetic research for predator control, a local professor and advocate for genetic research for pest control was bullish: “I don’t think the Minister will be the Minister forever.” If that’s going to be our approach we’ve got a wild ride ahead of us.
 The only published study I could find surveyed 148 Department of Conservation staff. Of those about 85% were in favour of gene editing for predator control. Needless to say this was not (and did not presume to be) a representative cross-section of New Zealanders. Interestingly, the same survey found that only about 40% were in favour of genetically modifying native species to enhance their survivorship, even if the alternative were extinction. As one of the study’s authors later reflected, “clearly, when it comes to gene editing for conservation, it matters whether a species is perceived as one of the good guys.” This speaks to the strong values framework at play in conservation decision making. It would be interesting to see how well Department of Conservation staff attitudes align with those of the wider public on this issue.
 An emerging trope seems to be that we must use gene editing otherwise we’ll have to continue to use 1080. A spokesperson for Federated Farmers, for example, recently used this construction: “We can stop 1080, the cost, social implications, the environmental implications, and the angst between everyone…I think it’s time for New Zealand to at least discuss that.” Perhaps, but my sense is that this argument is often coming from those who are firmly in favour of both regardless. It may be used somewhat perversely in the same way the former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment advocated for the use of 1080 by opining in her overview that we must use it or the forests will die. Now we’re warned that we have to consider gene editing or we’ll have to use 1080. One wonders whether, if we start using gene editing, and it proves more than we bargained for, someone else will come along with a new plan, threatening that it must be considered or we’ll have to use more gene editing. The notion that gene editing might be more palatable than 1080 also seems somewhat naïve. A speaker at the recent Bioheritage National Science Challenge conference wondered if the gene editing for conservation debate might devolve into the “anti-1080 debate times twenty”.
 The president of the Life Sciences Network (a pro-biotech lobby group) countered, in the same article, that a 2003 survey had indicated that 76% of people supported the government lifting its moratorium on genetic modification. I contacted the president of the group to ask for the location of this survey but received no reply.
Featured image: Protest against genetic engineering, Auckland 2003, public domain.