What role can gene editing play in predator control? And are we ready to accept it?

The once-forbidden concept of gene editing for predator control is back on the table after two projects receivedGovernment funding.

Despite advances overseas, experts are worried research in New Zealand will never make it out of the lab, with no plans to change current restrictive laws.

Appetite for gene editing has always been low among the New Zealand public. In 1999, 20,000 people protested in Auckland alone, marching down Auckland’s Queen St calling for a ban on genetically engineered crops. Gene editing joined nuclear-free as a hallmark of clean, green New Zealand.

However last month, the crown entity responsible for pest control, Predator Free 2050, announced investment of $6.7 million into research projects, including $2.25m to investigate whether recent overseas advances in producing mice of only one sex could be adapted for rats, and $200,000 to explore stoat breeding genetics, and whether that could be used for control.

READ MORE:
* Predator Free invests $6.7 million in six pest eradication projects
* Genetically-modified possums and all-in-one trapping machines: funding for new predator-free studies
* New Zealand needs to consider allowing gene editing technology to eradicate pests, scientists say

In November, it announced $300,000 in funding towards research that could help eradicate possums by spreading genes that reduced fitness, resulting in gradual population decline.

Predator Free 2050 science director Professor Dan Tompkins said current predator management contained “capability gaps”, and gene editing research could take up to a decade to show results.

Aerial 1080 drops were effective outside populated regions, where there were accessibility issues and a lack of manpower, but it wasn’t the perfect solution for reasons around animal ethics and environmental contamination, and the poison’s ability to occasionally kill other animals such as dogs or deer

As head of science, Tompkins’ role was to put a range of options on the table. “We want to achieve eradication. We don’t want to have to control predators forever.”

Predator Free 2050 announced $6.7 million in funding towards predator eradication research to develop new technologies.  (File photo)

Abigail Dougherty/Stuff

Predator Free 2050 announced $6.7 million in funding towards predator eradication research to develop new technologies. (File photo)

In 2019, former Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage ruled out the use of genetic modification in pest control in a “letter of direction” to Predator Free 2050, calling gene editing “an unproven technology”.

In 2022, Sage’s concerns stood still – there were “no overseas examples of this being done successfully”, although work was being done on mosquitos, she said. The focus should remain on techniques proven, like aerial 1080 drops.

Significant public discussion and changes to the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 (HSNO Act) were needed – something Environment Minister David Parker had signaled “was not a priority” – before this investment would be justified, she said.

Without this, Predator Free 2050 would be “getting ahead of itself if it was doing field trials”.

Former Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage says her concerns about gene editing stood still, and efforts and money were better directed at proven technologies.  (File photo)

Robyn Edie/Stuff

Former Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage says her concerns about gene editing stood still, and efforts and money were better directed at proven technologies. (File photo)

The HSNO Act allows scientists to use genetic modification in labs and contained field tests to better understand how genes work, improve traits of plants and animals used in agriculture, seek treatments for diseases and find new ways of controlling pests.

Permission must be sought from the Environmental Risk Management Authority to release genetically modified organisms to study the effects on the environment.

The Opportunities Party spokesperson for science and innovation, Ben Peters, said only one application had ever been granted: a vaccine against Japanese encephalitis in 2019.

Peters has a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Otago, where he works as a professional practice fellow. Just down the corridor, wasp genes are being edited to produce infertile offspring that could massively reduce the population.

He said the HSNO Act allowed few opportunities for gene editing research to progress to the development stage, and opportunities were being missed.

Research into possum genetics has been funded $300,000 by Government, in the hopes it will lead to breakthroughs allowing gene editing to reduce populations.  (File photo)

stuff

Research into possum genetics has been funded $300,000 by Government, in the hopes it will lead to breakthroughs allowing gene editing to reduce populations. (File photo)

He admitted pest control was not the area in which he’d first expected to see progress; There were opportunities for medicine and climate resilience, too.

There was a gap between what was researched and what was developed for commercial use.

“We know that New Zealand is one of the best countries at generating knowledge,” Peters said. “But when it comes to developing that, and getting some return, we’re terrible.”

He said the HSNO Act needed updating to keep up as times changed. “There was a time when anyone conceived IVF would be considered a GMO by law,” he said. “And that was changed pretty quickly.”

Parker said in a statement there were “no current plans to review the regulatory settings of the HSNO Act”.

As in all conservation efforts, an indigenous perspective must be included. Research increasingly shows mātauranga Māori is integral to conservation efforts, and the Government has often failed to fulfill its role as treaty partner when it comes to the environment.

Otago University senior lecturer Dr Phillip Wilcox, who served on the Royal Society Te Apārangi Gene Editing Panel three years ago, said the question was around who got to make decisions and whose ethical frameworks were paramount. Historically, it hadn’t been Māori – “not since about 1840”.

He said it was naive to assume that indigenous cultures had no experience or knowledge to contribute to discussions on gene editing.

Kumara was a good example, with the place-based agriculture revolution aided by selective breeding of those crops, which produced greater yields and better food security.

“These modern breeding programs are just the icing on the cake, and the cake is years of selective breeding by indigenous people.”

RNZ

RNZ’s podcast The Detail: Gene editing scientist was no lone rogue.

Minister for Conservation Kiri Allan said in a statement she supported research and innovation in new tools, but internationally, gene editing was “a long way from being used for vertebrate pest control”.

Significant investment would require discussions with mana whenua, communities and stakeholders, which was “not currently underground”.

There could be “unintended global consequences”, she said, with calls internationally for cross-border governance.

“Possums, rats and stoats are pests in New Zealand, but it would be disastrous if they also became extinct in their native lands where they perform essential ecological functions.”

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