By Jamie Steer 19/06/2019

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. 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.[1] 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 A recent unpublished study found that only 32% of New Zealanders were comfortable with the development of new pest technologies using gene drives or related measures.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[2] 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?”

Final thoughts

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.”[3] 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”.[4]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] Quoted in the Royal Society’s December 2017 report on the use of genetic editing to create gene drives for pest control in New Zealand.

[3] 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”.

[4] 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.

Posts written this year: 7

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

0 Responses to “Minister right to be wary of gene editing – Part 2”

  • Hi Jamie. Just on this:

    “A survey by the Department of Conservation in 2016 found that 61% of us think that aerial distribution of poisons is unacceptable”

    This seems like a misrepresentation of the DOC 2016 public survey, which does not adequately answer that question at all.

    Question 30 found that 29% of people didn’t want aerial poison under any circumstances, and that 31% of people found it acceptable as a last resort.

    This is often interpreted to mean that 61% don’t want aerial poison, but someone with a different perspective might interpret the same result to mean that those 31% find aerial poison acceptable, and consequently that 69% of people are in support.

    That would also be a flaky interpretation, because the survey never asked people what they considered to be a last resort, nor how serious NZ’s present problems are, nor whether they think aerial poison would be useful in addressing them, not whether they think there are viable alternatives for solving what they perceive the problems to be.

    It also didn’t ask people if they did or didn’t agree with what DOC is already doing.

    It also didn’t ask people how strongly they felt about their response. For example, when confronted with a question like this, it’s completely feasible that respondents would report their gut feeling, but also be aware that they’re not well informed on the topic and content to trust someone else whom they believe to be qualified to do the most appropriate thing. I might have an opinion on how to wire up my house, but with what I know of my ability it’d be stupid for me not to consult a qualified electrician, and probably just commission them to do it, before going through with anything.

    In relation to this, the same survey found that only 4% of people have a somewhat or very unfavorable opinion of DOC, and only 1% of all people (a quarter of that group) said their opinion of DOC was due to opposition of 1080. It might have been interesting to have asked how many people trusted DOC to be doing the most appropriate thing in regard to aerial poison, but the survey simply didn’t give us this information.

    In any case, the survey result does not say what you’ve claimed, but a lazy summary has meant this 61% number gets repeated frequently in the anti-1080 forums in particular, seemingly by people who aren’t strongly interested in tracking down and understanding sources.

    • Below is the full paragraph from the summary of the report (p. 76). I’ve highlighted the specific wording and will leave it up to others to interpret as they wish. Are the majority of NZers just ignorant and uninformed as the last sentence seems to imply? Perhaps. Alternatively, they might just genuinely disagree with aerial application of poison and no further information may alter the values and priorities that have informed that decision.

      ‘There are a number of ways in which pest species can be controlled. New Zealanders’ strong attitudes towards the Department of Conservation’s pest control methods have remained relatively stable overtime. Trapping and hunting are still considered to be the pest control methods with the least concerns. Poison bait spread by aircraft and herbicide sprayed by aircraft are the methods which cause concern for the majority of New Zealanders. Some 61% of respondents indicate that spreading poison bait by aircraft is a method that should not be used (this has significantly increased from 2015, 56%). One in six (59%) respondents indicate that spraying herbicides from aircraft should not be carried out. It should be noted that additional information on costs, efficiencies etc of these methods was not provided to respondents, and so not all of the respondents can be considered well-informed of all the issues of relevance.’

  • As MikeM alludes to, the problem is that a lot of these questions are posed without context. Perhaps we might find a multiple choice approach more revealing? Especially if it was “rank these in order” rather than “pick only one”.
    What should we do about kokako? 1: let them die out; 2: use targetted 1080 drops to poison the worst of the predators that are killing them; 3: genetically engineer the predators so they die out; 4: global release of a plague that kills the predators. 5: keep researching options and defer a decision until there are no kokako left.

    Given that I suspect you might find substantial support for 1080. In my limited experience a lot of the opposition to 1080 have not thought about the options or refuse to consider them because they actually dislike all of the options (sometimes with the exception of “make a new island somewhere offshore to house the kokako” or something equally ridiculous)

  • Hi Jamie. Firstly, sorry that I typed my numbers slightly wrong in my comment. The 61% comes from 29% who said it should never be used, plus 32% (not 31%!) who find it acceptable as a “last resort”. These numbers come directly from the response to question 30.

    Secondly, you’re quoting the summary which is an unhelpfully misrepresentative explanation of the data. For comparison, page 81 of the pdf clearly states the question that was asked and the responses that were received.

    If this report were sent to a peer reviewer then I think it’d be fair to ask that that numbers in the summary be revised to match what the detail says. It doesn’t say that 61% think aerial poison should not be used
    (the closest response suggests that 29% think it should not be used) and it doesn’t say that 61% find it unacceptable.

    If that interpretation is acceptable, then it’s at least as correct to claim that 66% think it’s appropriate and acceptable to use aerial poison more and more. Either both are correct or neither is correct. Take your pick. (I’m going with neither being most likely, but that’s just unverified intuition.)

  • Hi Jamie,

    >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.

    It’s not the feasibility I’m referring to when I ask about continuing the work in part one, it’s identifying the effectiveness and risks associated with gene-editing approaches. How can there be an informed debate on whether we ought to use gene-editing for predator control or not when we don’t even know the pro’s and cons of the technology?

    Why would we all try to take sides when clearly, this is a new technology and it needs to be more thoroughly understood? Obviously it shouldn’t be _used_ any time soon, that would be crazy. But calling for a ban on the research seems pretty extreme to me.

  • As a general rule I dislike range-answer or yes-no (binary range) questions because they’re context-free and nuance-free, and they seem to be designed primarily for the convenience of the people presenting isolated sentences to the media. At the extreme we see the stupid series of Brexit votes in the UK parliament where all possible options were voted down one at a time in isolation from each other. At least that was obviously ridiculous, where too often people pretend that similarly isolated preferences say something useful about comparative preferences.

    It very much depends what question you’re trying to answer. My direct experience is with the nuclear and renewables industries in Australia, where far too often the questions put are “should Australia pay whatever it costs to get widespread nuclear power” then in a completely different context “wind turbines: pretty or deadly?”, followed by nonsense like “63% of Australians think we should do something about climate change” (which doesn’t even distinguish between people who want more of it and those who want less).

    When we did a rank-ordering exercise we presented it as being similar to voting (familiar to Australians), and got very different answers. Sadly the funding body wasn’t interested so all I have is ~150 responses to a trial survey from people who visited an environmental NGO’s website (so not even pretending to be a random sample). But loosely, people who gave strongly negative answers to particular technologies in isolation (do you like nukes on a scale of 1…5) ranked them only slightly lower than those who were neutral (we had insignificant positive views of nukes in isolation). Overall we got more acceptance of everything climate-positive when people were asked to rank a list that included “business as usual”, “more coal”, “more fracking” and “no resource or pollution taxes”… my take is that the very soft “do something” sentiment turns into a much firmer “the least awful option is …” (and at the end when we asked “has this survey made you more or less inclined to support your preferred option(s)” the answer was overwhelmingly YES) when people have more information about what options there are and the opportunity to rank them in order.

    I suspect that those results came as much from showing people the options as making them think about the tradeoffs as from pre-existing attitudes. I’m pretty confident that a similar exercise would produce similar results, not least because of people like Kahneman whose vaguely related approach also produces similar results (his experiment was with national budgets IIRC, and the headlines were of the form “people think we give too much foreign aid and want to reduce it to ten times the current level”… when people actually get the national budget summarised in a form they can understand, they have different priorities to the ones politicians have, and the ones politicians think they have)

  • Tom: at the risk of sounding post-modern, it’s “what do you mean by research”. We have everything from irradiating or chemically treating seeds to induce random mutations through to the Chinese research that produced two live human babies. I suspect many people wouldn’t be comfortable with the GE we do already if it was presented as GE, but very few would be comfortable with making germline modified humans “to see what happens”. So unless the question is more informative than “GE: yes or no” it’s not something I can answer, and I wouldn’t give credence to anyone else’s answer either.

    I would cheerfully support (nay, demand!) and ban on the sort of research that’s now even more banned in China. And I don’t think we should limit our existing GE systems to research, since we have proven our ability to GE crops into viable products (orange kiwifruit! 15 year rotations of radiata pine! etc).

  • The general public should not be influencing issues like this by way of votes (or by any other means). This issue should be decided by the government, giving due weight to all relevant factors. Ultimately, this comes down to weighing risks against economic benefits (broadly construed). There are always risks. Whether or not those risks are worth taking depends on the benefits. Let’s face it, we really don’t need “more birds”, so it comes down to the economic/political benefits of using GE technology to kill exotic mammalian predators in NZ. It is naive to expect the govt. to ignore the economic benefits, but one can only hope that they will at least give some weight to the risks. Unfortunately, being an elected govt., they are also very concerned about re-election, so we effectively get back to the general public making the decision by way of votes (actual or potential).

  • @That Moz Guy

    Yes fair point that ‘research’ is a bit vague. Gene editing is not my field so I’m not sure what the research would actually look like, but the aim should be to get a better understanding of effectiveness and risks of the kind of approach which could be applied for predator control. There are many important questions still to answer about whether or not it would work, how easy or difficult it would be, what sort of (presently) unintended consequences or risks there may be, and of course social research on what peoples views would be. But people generally need to have some idea of these other questions before they can weigh up one option among many.

  • The main problem is that PredatorFree2050 has already been set up, past the point of no return, BEFORE any real consideration or discussion of risks, feasibility or unintended consequences! Is this putting the cart before the horse? Does it not speak volumes about how the system works, i.e. funding first and worry about risks later?

  • @Tom –

    I’ve covered a little of gene editing on my blog. Hopefully I’ll cover some of this issue in a later post, but just one point for now— this discussion (including the Minister’s and Jamie’s contributions) should really be about genetic methods to alter (‘wild‘) populations, not ‘gene editing’. The use of ‘gene editing’ here is problematic not the least because gene editing has a far wider range of uses, e.g. as a basic laboratory technique for all sorts of applications. More on this when (if!) I get around to writing about this.

  • @Grant
    Mere semantics! The important point is that it is genetic modification outside of containment. Imagine how difficulot this would be in general to get approval for! Why should we relax the approval in this case? “More birds” isn’t even necessarily a good thing anyway. A massive population increase in native birds will put huge new predation pressure on remaining native insects*, some of which could be important for pollination of rare plants (something we know very little about in N.Z.) Hence there could be catastrophic ecological consequences for native insects and plants.

    *Although large flightless ground dwelling insects will benefit from the removal of rats, etc., most insects are flying canopy dwellers (including all the potentially important insects for pollination). These flying insects wioll not benefit from the eradication of rats, etc., and will be more prone to predation by birds. Some of these insects could be already on the brink of extinction due to loss of habitat. Hugely increased predation pressure from birds could push them over the edge to extinction. It doesn’t matter that these native insects have evolved in the presence of predation by native birds. They did so in a N.Z. environment which is now much depleted by habitat loss. This puts them at a disadvantage in which they did not evolve.

  • @Stephen – I’d suggest you read the post. (Carefully.) The Minister wants to block research into use of gene editing, etc. — stuff that is “in containment”.

  • Yes Grant, I am already well aware of that. Actually, it is a bit misleading to say, as you did, that “the Minister wants to block research into use of gene editing”. The block is on research into use of gene editing for predator eradication specifically. This can be seen as a block on spending funding on research which would lead to the use of genetic modification outside of containment. I assume that the rationale for this is something along the lines that the outcome of that research (in terms of risk assessment) cannot be relied upon to be unbiased, i.e. scientists in favour of predator eradication (because they stand to gain funding) will always play down the risks and talk up the benefits of the results of any research.