The development of new pest control tools is an important step in mitigating biodiversity loss in Aotearoa New Zealand. When it comes to developing new technologies for pest control, engaging with the public early allows their voices to be heard. Two new papers on research into public perceptions and beliefs on novel pest control technologies have been accepted for publication.

In the paper Conservation pest control with new technologies: public perceptions, focus groups discussed pest control methods and technologies, then explored three questions related to the tools. Statements from 70 participants were categorized into different themes, in order to evaluate what each participant considered important.  

The first question touched on risks and benefits of pest control tools. The most common theme to emerge from this question was around concerns of overall environmental impact. Lead author Dr Edy MacDonald explains that a lack of knowledge about specific pest control tools doesn’t necessarily lead to the perception that it is dangerous. 

“In this study and in our previous work, we found little linkage between knowledge and perceived risk. Even when people don’t know a great deal about a topic (like gene drive), people can still form a quick opinion of it, i.e., people are very opinionated, that is what makes us human! But the good news is our research shows people are not entrenched in their opinions, so as they learn more about the tool, they may update their opinion.” 

While early communication around the development of new tools may not prevent the public perceiving a tool as risky, it will allow people to engage in the conversations around said technologies and voice any concerns.  

“During this early stage of tool development, questions and concerns from the public are valid and should be answered. The point of public engagement is not to convince the public to accept the tool, but rather have a voice and feel heard in the process.” 

The second paper being published, Underlying beliefs linked to public opinion about gene drive and pest-specific toxin for pest control, surveyed 1200 New Zealanders to understand their beliefs around gene drives for pest control, compared to aerial distribution of a pest-specific toxin.  

The support or opposition of a new technology from the public can significantly impact whether or not the technology ends up being used. At present, communication strategies around new technologies can lead to polarisation. Understanding the underlying beliefs that the public have around new technologies will help to guide future communication strategies towards tactics that are more effective, as well as helping decision makers to engage with the public.  

The findings of this paper suggest that decision making by the public around both gene drive and aerial distribution of a pest-specific toxin is mainly driven by quick emotional processing. A key result of this research shows that the impact which novel technologies could have on biodiversity is not a main driver behind the evaluation of these tools – instead it is based largely on emotional beliefs around the safety of overall good of the technology. 

In general, the public is more concerned about potential risks of pest control than they are about potential implications for biodiversity. “While this may be shocking and maybe disappointing for people who work in the biodiversity space, our research can help future engagement” Edy says. 

“Rather than focusing on biodiversity gains, engagement must first address the risks of the tool. This does not mean you ignore the final outcome (i.e. possible biodiversity benefits), but it you don’t first talk about risks, any discussion about biodiversity gains may ignored.” 

Focusing on these underlying values and different worldviews is an important focus for communication around novel technologies moving forward. “Having a public conversation about future tools in New Zealand to control pests should be seen as a ‘fresh start’ – it is a great opportunity to engage in early and constructive dialogue.” 

You can read this paper here

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