A group of conservationists and scientists with US military funding eyeing up New Zealand islands for gene testing have been given the elbow by Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage.

A NZ Herald investigation has found the group - called Gbird - was considering how New Zealand islands would fit with US$6.5 million of US military funding.

As it did so, Gbird formed links throughout conservation and pest control networks in its push to get support for research on new gene drive technology.

Sage - a Green Party minister - said there would be serious risk to New Zealand's environmental reputation if there were field trials here using gene technology.

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"Gene editing is an unproven technology for predator control. Gene technologies are problematic and untested and have significant risks.

"They have no social licence to operate. There is a lot at stake and there is a need for the utmost caution.

"There would be serious questions around the risks to New Zealand's GE Free reputation from being associated with any field trials of gene technology."

Sage said she was looking for answers from the Department of Conservation and Predator Free NZ Ltd over contacts with Gbird and Darpa funding.

The details are amid thousands of documents charting the rise of Gbird as gene drive technology achieved prominence after the discovery of straight-forward ways of editing DNA.

The DNA edits could remove traits that might normally be inherited, such as eradicating one gender from a population of rodents to force that group into extinction.

Our investigation found Crown research institute Landcare Research had signed up as another of its founding members, pledging to push for "NZ Incorporated" support of Gbird, which stands for Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents.

The documents - obtained through the Freedom of Information Act from a university partner in the US - include a meeting report in which New Zealand islands are considered for trials of the technology.

The report, from Gbird co-ordinator Royden Saah, came after a meeting in July with University of Auckland senior lecturer Dr James Russell, who led research on wiping out pests of islands.

Saah told Gbird there were no New Zealand islands with rodents that fitted with $6.5m Darpa funding which had been obtained by North Carolina State University, a Gbird member.

"We are now considering small NZ islands that don't have rodents present that could be used as trial sites, with mice sourced from remote NZ islands larger than our 300ha cut-off that may be future targets themselves (but not initial trial islands)."

New Zealand's member on the GBird steering committee, Dr Dan Tompkins from Landcare Research, confirmed the group had visited New Zealand and was focused on using gene drive technology for pest eradication.

Dr Dan Tompkins Landcare Research’s team leader for wildlife and ecology management, Dunedin Picture supplied
Dr Dan Tompkins Landcare Research’s team leader for wildlife and ecology management, Dunedin Picture supplied

"They have been looking around for potential test sites. We're talking five to 10 years down the line if everything aligns."

Tompkins said Gbird had "been talking to James Russell and DoC about whether there are suitable sites in New Zealand".

He said nothing was going ahead without New Zealand agreeing as a country to accept the technology.

"Would these things be socially acceptable? There is a potential for them to be used ion pest control.

"A lot of it is just people talking in theory. [The technology] doesn't exist yet."

The trove of documents shows Landcare Research signed up to Gbird's advocacy, promising in the Memorandum of Understanding to "coordinate a 'NZ incorporated' engagement with, and support for, Gbird".

It is the only organisation of the seven members to offer specific championing across government of Gbird and its interest in gene drive technology.

Documents show Tompkins introduced Gbird members to those across New Zealand's pest eradication management - people he had professional contact with through his role at Landcare Research and as the person drafting the Pest Free 2050 research strategy.

Gbird's public relations director Heath Packard confirmed islands such as those surrounding New Zealand were of interest in future trials.

He said no island had yet been decided in any country for trials which were "likely years away" from even asking if they should be done.

"In preparation of that GBird has been developing criteria for looking for potential field trial island sites.

"One of those criteria is that the site must be governed by countries with highly developed regulatory programs and capacity like NZ, Australia, or the USA.

"We are currently exploring potential sites with the sole purpose securing genetic samples of island mice to determine if it is possible to identify locally fixed alleles in the population that is not found in other populations off island."

He said there were no funding arrangements in place with DoC or any other party in New Zealand.

Packard also confirmed conversations had taken place with DoC, and continued in relation to "helping coordinate potential Maori participation on GBird's independent ethics committee".

"The purpose of this is to have representation of indigenous community views which we are also seeking from other countries."

The documents were provided to the Herald through ETC Group, a lobby group which has represented small-scale farmers and shifted to opposing genetic modification.

Co-executive director Jim Thomas said the documents revealed the scale of Darpa investment in gene drive research is US$100m - much higher than previously known.

He said the funding from the US military saw research bodies such as GBird working hard to shape their public image to win public support for trials.

Thomas said the area was untested and because of this he was surprised to see the documents reveal ongoing contact between Gbird and New Zealand public officials.

Otago University's Professor Neil Gemmell - an expert in this field - said it was possible for outside interests to influence New Zealand's pest control strategy "if we let them".

He said an independent body to manage and oversee interactions and research on gene drives and a rigorous monitor of potential conflicts of interest was necessary.

Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague said there was a lack of coordination among the various agencies and people involved in Pest Free 2050.

That lack of organisation came at a time where New Zealand was of intense interest to pest eradication researchers around the world.

Hague said it was unlikely national views on genetic modification had changed much since opposition 15 years ago. "I'm pretty sure there will be vigorous opposition to genetic technology."

The documents were obtained for ETC Group by researcher Edward Hammond and the Third World Network through the Freedom of Information Act.