Govt blocking breakthrough technology that could make New Zealand predator-free

There's a major roadblock within the Beehive over the role genetic engineering (GE) could play in a predator-free New Zealand by 2050.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage has stopped any and all work being done to use GE technology, despite official advice suggesting it could be used to help rid New Zealand of predators.

In her first official briefing from the Department of Conservation (DoC), DoC concluded the "technology is one of the approaches with potential to achieve the 2025 interim goal of a breakthrough science solution for predator eradication".

But Ms Sage told Newshub she is not interested in going down the GE "rabbit hole".

"We want to focus on existing tools, making them better and finding new tools without being diverted down the potential rabbit hole of GE research."

Officials have signalled GE could be an effective alternative to 1080.

"It could be efficient and much more cost-effective method of pest control than conventional approaches.

"For potential application to replace knockdown tools such as aerial 1080, they would be most effective for short generation pests such as rodents, and less effective for longer generation pests such as stoats and possums, due to their requirement to spread over generations."

Despite that, Ms Sage penned a Letter of Expectation to Predator Free 2050 Limited, explicitly telling the company not to invest in research into the technology.

PF2050 Ltd is a company developed to eradicate New Zealand's most damaging introduced predators: rats, stoats and possums.

Govt blocking breakthrough technology that could make New Zealand predator-free
Photo credit: Supplied

Newshub's also obtained a number of emails written by the minister that reveal her personal position on the technology.

In one email, she wrote: "Please be assured that the department is clear about my expectations regarding genetic technologies. It has informed me that there is no mammalian gene drive technology research currently occurring in New Zealand.

"I have also required Predator Free 2050 Ltd to carry out appropriate due diligence on any co-funded projects before agreeing on any contracts, and have explicitly required them not to be involved in any research with genetically modified organisms and technologies such as CRISPR or gene editing."

In another email, the minister made a similar comment: "I have been clear about my expectations regarding such technologies."

Official advice also said the technology has the potential to control pests "in a humane and efficient manner without inadvertently harming other species like native birds".

But Ms Sage told Newshub the Government isn't blocking work in the area, there's just been no decision to advance any discussion in the area.

"There's no public mandate to do any work in that space - it would be a major change in Government policy."

She said DoC and Predator Free NZ were monitoring international research.

"I wanted Predator Free NZ to focus on the research that is happening into alternatives into 1080, new trapping options, new lures, new poisons - so there is a lot of work going on in that space."

When asked if any research should happen in the future, the Conservation Minister didn't budge.

"Predator control involves work in the field," she said.

"If you're using genetically modified organisms, you couldn't do that in the lab for pest control, it would have to be in the field. We need to ensure there is a public debate about that, because it's a major policy change.

"I didn't want to embark on proposing that when there's a lot of potential in developing new lures, new toxins, new tools."

Ms Sage said public consultation on the topic falls under Environment Minister David Parker's responsibility, but his office confirmed the minister is not planning any public consultation.

Officials recommended public engagement on the potential uses of new genetic technologies. The advice says there is also a risk in delaying engagement with the public and particularly iwi.

Dr Jamie Steer, senior ecologist and co-author of Predator Free 2050 - A flawed conservation policy risks displacing better, evidence based alternatives, told Newshub it's an option that should be looked into.

"It's a potential, it's a viable technology, it's completely untested at this point.

"It's an option that's worth considering; there hasn't been any substantive public consultation on the work yet, and the social research and engagement that would be necessary.

"I think the viability of it from a social, cultural and scientific perspective remains to be seen, and will be some years down the track."

Dr Steer says the conversation is necessary, but there are potential complications.

"The technology doesn't introduce toxins into the environment, it could reduce animal suffering and it could be cheaper.

"However it's unproven, could have serious implications if affected animals find their way back to their native home, and it could be extremely divisive.

"There's no evidence at this point to suggest a conversation of gene editing in conservation might not be as divisive as 1080. We need to be careful about that before we jump into another acrimonious situation."

National's conservation spokesperson Sarah Dowie said the Government is refusing to look into the potential benefits because it's blinded by ideology.

"I think she's been captured by her ideology, [and] that's not a good thing," Ms Dowie said.

"National's all about the science. We think good science should inform conservation policy, and if we want our children to experience kiwi, tui, takahe in the wild - because that's a New Zealand legacy - we need to have these conversations and make a decision moving forward.

"I think she needs to be advising, doing the work, and having the discussion and start listening to New Zealanders. In my mind there's certainly a sentiment to have these discussions, there's a sentiment to move to toxin-free."