Opinion Pieces

Predictably, the public debate about the pest control toxin 1080 has ramped up a notch during 2018.

By Andrea Byrom, Co-Director of the BioHeritage National Science Challenge.

I say predictably, because it is no surprise to anyone involved in conservation that pest control methods – whatever they might be – are controversial. Such controversy is a global phenomenon, often with polarised debates. 

Why does such polarisation occur, and what can we do about it?

1080 is the best tool we currently have

I’m not debating the facts here. 1080 is safe to use. It benefits native flora and fauna, and has played a major role in massively reducing the incidence of bovine tuberculosis in possums in this country – the two main reasons why New Zealand uses 1080.

It’s also cheap, moderately humane, does not persist in the human food chain, breaks down into its constituent components rapidly in water, and is the only pest control tool that can cover large areas cost-effectively.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, in a seminal report produced in 2011, concluded as much. Several more recent studies (such as this, this, this, this, and this) have all concluded that the use of aerial 1080 has delivered enormous environmental and economic benefits and does not contaminate the environment.

In his book Protecting Paradise, Dave Hansford gave us a thoughtful analysis of the use of 1080 in the fight to save New Zealand’s wildlife – and concludes without a shadow of a doubt that most of the arguments against 1080 are simply incorrect.

A values-based discussion

If you’ve read this far, you already agree with the above statements. However, the debate about 1080 is not, and never has been, an evidence-based discussion.

Indeed, in 2011 Wren Green and Maheswaran Rohan cautioned that science is an important voice but not the only voice when it comes to understanding people’s opposition to 1080. And that is where we as scientists have failed: we assume that others think like us, and that humans use reason and logic in decision-making (in this case, to form an opinion about the use of 1080).  

However, people do not always use reason or logic to make decisions – otherwise by now (given the overwhelming weight of evidence) we wouldn’t be having the debate in the first place.

Instead, people make decisions and form opinions based on their personal values, belief systems, and world views.

Why we need alternatives to 1080

Given that people form opinions about topics such as pest control based on a set of personal values and beliefs, we can assume that as new pest control tools become available in the future, they too may provoke strong reactions from different parts of society.

In turn this means that we need to provide people with choices: a range of pest control options, best suited to the needs of local communities, are needed if we are to empower people to take action to protect New Zealand’s biological heritage.

This is especially important as we increase the scale of pest control, and if we are serious about a predator-free New Zealand.

What alternatives to 1080 are on the horizon?

In the BioHeritage Challenge we made a deliberate choice to explore a range of potential game-changing tools and technologies for the control of pests.  

Super lures: James Russell at the University of Auckland, with a team from Plant and Food Research, Manaaki Whenua, the University of Otago and Victoria University of Wellington, are exploring the pied piper effect with new super-lures that attract mammals.

Highly attractive lures are an important component when using ground-based devices for pest control, such as traps and bait stations.

Genetic technologies: James and the team are also mining genomes of pest animals to develop species-selective toxins. Imagine being able to apply a bait on farmland that is poisonous to rats, but not dogs or livestock.  This would be a game-changer for the 60% of the country that is privately-owned.

Genome sequencing of possums and rats completes the picture for this research team, so that in the future New Zealand will have the option of developing new technologies such as gene editing. Gene editing technologies are a potentially important tool, for example to ‘drive’ a trait such as infertility through the males of a population. Such a tool would not involve killing animals – the population would slowly die out through time.

Similar work is being done by a team led by Phil Lester from Victoria University of Wellington. This team are investigating a range of options for the control of wasps in New Zealand. Any new technological discoveries may be transferred to mammal pests at a later date. For example, a technique called RNA interference to reduce fertility in male wasps would essentially work in the same way as a targeted pesticide application, but without adverse effects on beneficial insects such as bees.

If you want to know more about gene editing technologies, the Royal Society of New Zealand has made available a great deal of information in an excellent series here.  

Near-to-market technologies: In the BioHeritage Challenge we have also supported workshops to explore new tools, or improvement of existing tools and technologies, that can be used in the field now or in the near future.  

This work was spearheaded by Bruce Warburton and James Ross from Manaaki Whenua and Lincoln University respectively, and presented in this report.

These tools include anticoagulant poisons; other acute poisons such as sodium cyanide; the predator-specific toxin PAPP; and tutin, a natural toxin derived from the New Zealand native plant tutu.

Understanding public attitudes to novel pest control technologies

Nearly 85% of the New Zealand public agree that pest species are a significant conservation problem.

As we scale up pest control across a range of New Zealand landscapes, we are going to need a range of new tools in the toolbox. But equally importantly, we are going to need to provide people with choices for how, when and whether to use such tools.

These choices will be made from the heart, when people are empowered to take action in their local communities. We need to understand the different values that people hold, work respectfully to understand and address concerns as they emerge, and be transparent about the risks and opportunities associated with the development of each new technology.

In my opinion, there is no point in developing new tools and technologies that will not be acceptable to the New Zealand public, but I would be equally disappointed if new scientific discoveries were shut down or mothballed before we had a chance to fully investigate the pros and cons.

What we do know is that simply providing people with more facts and information can serve to further polarise a debate.

Social research has an important role to play in shaping conversations between scientists and the public, and in helping prevent polarised views from emerging.

In the BioHeritage Challenge, a team led by Edy MacDonald at the Department of Conservation recently completed one of the largest surveys ever undertaken of the New Zealand public’s views on novel pest control technologies.

If you are interested in finding out more about their findings, and about the characteristics of different beliefs and values in New Zealand society, Edy presents their findings in this YouTube video.

This research is a vital first step towards a more considered and less polarised public discussion – not just about 1080, but about a range of current and future tools.

Why New Zealand needs alternatives to 1080

Scaling up predator control will inevitably raise concerns about the tools and technologies we use for conservation.

Some people will be relieved if New Zealand is eventually able to reduce its reliance on 1080. Some may welcome the emergence of gene editing technologies if they are more humane, cheap and effective. Others will argue that the use of gene editing is unacceptable as a pest control tool. Still others will remain opposed to spreading baits from a helicopter – whether 1080 or a new toxin.

We need to be able to accommodate these different viewpoints and apply different tools tactically across our landscapes, informed by the underlying values held in New Zealand society, so that we build trust and support for pest control and conservation across a wide sector of New Zealand society.

We urgently need a range of alternatives to 1080, and we need to continue to invest in social research to inform such balanced discussions.

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