Last year, the government of New Zealand announced its commitment to eradicate millions of possums, stoats and rodents in a bid to improve the survival chances of its declining native species – particularly its birds. The project, predicted to take decades, will involve a ‘scaling up’ of eradications already carried out on a number of its uninhabited islands, where toxins were scattered by helicopter. A key difference, however, is that the national scheme might involve an as-yet uninvented genetic modification technique called ‘gene drive’ technology.
The technology might, for example, involve editing rodents’ genes so they can only produce male offspring, before releasing them to mate in the wild. The ‘drive’ element means the daughterless trait would be more likely to be inherited than unmodified genes, causing eliminations in relatively few generations. It’s likely the project would learn from larger gene drive efforts – such as US trials on malaria-bearing mosquitoes.
For such a plan to happen, however, the population of New Zealand needs to be on board. ‘We are surveying the attitudes of thousands of New Zealanders towards such novel pest control techniques,’ says James Russell, an ecologist at the University of Auckland and research co-ordinator of the country’s ‘Predator Free’ plan. Russell believes gene drives ‘have the potential to be very controversial’, especially given the country’s history of being anti-genetic modification when it comes to food.
He hopes the survey results, which are due at the end of this year, will show how residents break down into different groups when it comes to GM rodents: ‘There might be people who are anti-toxin that are relieved. And then there could be people who are anti-toxin but think that gene editing is even worse.’
He stresses that the project must align with the national mindset – that it is as much a social transformation as it is a biological or technical one. ‘We are in the unique position with technological developments that we are able to carry out these large-scale eradications,’ he says. ‘However, we are not going to have a predator-free New Zealand just on breakthrough alone. It needs to be what the human population wants to see happen on its islands.’
This was published in the September 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.