We know that New Zealand's new target of wiping out pest predators by 2050 will demand more money, more efforts, and more technology. But how do we tackle the tricky ethical questions that the predator-free mission raises? How do we decide what an invasive species is, or whether they pose a threat, and will the new tools we need to do the job be accepted by Kiwis? Now, a philosopher and a conservation biologist, both from the University of Auckland, have teamed up to lead a new panel focused on the "bio-ethics" of the 2050 goal. Dr Emily Parke, who specialises in the philosophy of science and biology, joins conservation biologist Dr James Russell to head the panel of 11 people, among them experts in genetics, law, indigenous world views and ecology, a hunter and a psychologist. The panel is advising on social and ethical issues thrown up by the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge-funded project "High Tech Solutions to Invasive Mammal Pest Control". Here, they discuss the work with science reporter Jamie Morton.

So what exactly is bioethics?

Emily Parke:

Bioethics is the study of ethical issues that arise regarding the biological sciences, biotechnology, and medicine - where "ethical issues" is sometimes broadly construed to include ethical, legal, or social issues.

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This includes discussion of what is the right or wrong course of action for scientists, practitioners, regulators, and others involved in these fields, with respect to issues like the development and use of new technologies, or treatment of and responsibilities towards others.

"Bioethics" is sometimes understood as shorthand for biomedical ethics - there are a number of bioethics departments at universities around the world which focus mainly or exclusively on ethics in medicine.

However, bioethics as a field extends much more broadly than that.

It includes ethical issues regarding new bio-technologies such as genetic modification, and research in the biological sciences in general.

When we talk about trying to achieve a predator-free New Zealand, why should the ethics aspect of it not be under-stated?
EP: I think it is near impossible to talk about conservation aims at all without bringing values in.

Furthermore, the panel's position is that trying to achieve a predator-free New Zealand is as much a social challenge as it is a biological challenge.

Here's some more detail about each of those points.

While exact definitions of "invasive species" differ, most emphasise that they are non-native, introduced by humans, and furthermore that they have negative impact or threaten biodiversity.

For example, the Convention on Biological Diversity uses the following definition: "Invasive alien species (IAS) are species whose introduction and/or spread outside their natural past or present distribution threatens biological diversity."

Many definitions of scientific terms refer just to facts - water is H2O; a species is a group of organisms capable of interbreeding.

There might be reasons to debate whether or not these are the best definitions, but these debates are empirical or conceptual.

Invasive species are different, because the very definition incorporates value judgments.

What counts as "natural" as opposed to "unnatural"?

What counts as negative impact or a threat?

Who gets to decide and on what terms?

So on the one hand, there are questions about the values inherent in definitions and understandings of what constitutes an invasive or pest species in the first place.

There are also a number of social and ethical issues that arise with the task of trying to achieve a predator-free New Zealand.

A possum peers out from bush near Masterton. Photo / File
A possum peers out from bush near Masterton. Photo / File

These call for acknowledgement and discussion alongside the scientific or technological aspects of these conservation efforts.

They include the ethics of developing and using new genetic technologies to eradicate pest populations, and of stewardship and guardianship and kaitiakitanga.

When and how should responsible communication with the public be taking place around eradication efforts, and by whom?

And how should problems about uncertainty be framed and communicated in this context?

Also, "the public" is certainly not a unified body with a single set of unanimous beliefs and values.

How should the various participants in predator-free New Zealand efforts go about responsibly accounting for different sets of beliefs and values and cultural perspectives?

And on animal welfare issues, is it morally justifiable to eliminate populations of sentient animals to save native fauna and flora, and if so, can this be done with an eye to the animals' welfare?

With the level of opposition out there in New Zealand to next-generation technologies like gene-editing, how much of a challenge is it going to be to get the public on-board? And can public awareness work around 1080 efficacy teach us anything?
EP: I think these are significant challenges, especially in light of some of the points I made about "the public" representing such a variety of perspectives and backgrounds.

What actually constitutes an invasive or pest species? Photo / File
What actually constitutes an invasive or pest species? Photo / File

James Russell:

New Zealanders have strong social movements around activities we do not support, such as mining, nuclear, and genetically modified organisms in our food chain.

To that end it will be interesting to explore how proposals for new technologies, such as gene-editing of pests, would sit in the New Zealand public's psyche.

For example, could gene editing of mammalian predators be more acceptable than modification of food since it won't enter our food chain?

Gene editing of pests would also not be undertaken with a profit motive by private companies.

Is gene-editing of mammalian predators more appropriate than the aerial distribution of toxins such as 1080, or is this potentially an even worse technology?

Existing understanding of public awareness of, and objection to, 1080, is helpful as it helps us get to the root of the philosophical or values issues underlying any objection, and understand what level of public support is required to consider "social licence" granted for a technology.

Why do you feel this anxiety exists - and is it justified to any degree?
JR: With the arrival of any technology I think society should always be cautious and critical.

Bioethics is how we assess not just the technical and economic implications of new technologies, but also their social implications.

For example, which elements of society and nature stand to benefit most from this technology, and which are at the most risk from it?

New Zealanders were overwhelmingly cautious about introducing GM organisms in to their food-chain among other reasons until more knowledge of the long-term effects was available.

More than a decade later, we are now in a better position to assess those long-term effects from studies overseas.

Likewise, we are likely to see gene-editing applied overseas to medical problems, and the challenge of mosquito pest control for malaria.

We can learn from these experiences overseas, and then more robustly consider how we feel about using this kind of technology for pest control in New Zealand.

Is it unrealistic to expect we'll be able to rid our country of pests without these genetic solutions?
EP: Innovative technologies are in order - so not just more 1080 - if we are going to rid the country of pests.

My impression is that opinions vary on whether or not this necessarily entails genetic solutions.

University of Auckland conservation biologist Dr James Russell. Photo / File
University of Auckland conservation biologist Dr James Russell. Photo / File

And "genetic solutions" might encompass a variety of technologies, from genetic modification, to using genomic analysis to inform the development of new, species-specific toxins.

JR: We currently have the tools to remove these predators from small islands, and are getting better at applying them to larger islands, but they are too expensive to scale across the whole of the country.

Without a blank cheque-book, we therefore have to look at developing new technologies which make pest control cheaper.

Molecular tools, some but not all of which involve gene-editing, are likely to play a major role in future pest control, but are not the only line of research which may provide a scientific breakthrough.

Indeed a scientific breakthrough in pest control might just be a series of incremental advances in existing tools which become game-changing, or a breakthrough in the social sciences about how an entire country mobilises around a common cause.

Do you see other future challenges or problems with defining what should be pests and what shouldn't be?
EP: How we define what counts as an invasive species or pest species can vary, and key terms in such definitions are inherently value-laden.

Even if everyone were to agree on a single, clear-cut international definition of what constitutes an "invasive species" or a "pest species," there would still be important and value-laden decisions to be made about which such species will be targeted by conservation efforts in a given country, continent, or context.

Given that resources are limited and it's not going to be possible to deal with all of the pests at once.

Perceptions about 1080 poison will be useful to researchers attempting to gauge how the public will receive next-generation pest eradication technology. Photo / File
Perceptions about 1080 poison will be useful to researchers attempting to gauge how the public will receive next-generation pest eradication technology. Photo / File

In New Zealand, possums, rats, and stoats have become the "poster children" for invasive pests and the damage they cause to biological heritage.

But they are certainly not the only species causing such damage.

So on the one hand, there is defining what counts as a pest, and on the other hand there is deciding which of the species that meet that definition should be the actual targets of management or eradication efforts, and why.

The definition question is an interesting and important scientific and philosophical question.

Many of the challenges I think your question is getting at have more to do with the other question, where there is a whole complex of social and often political factors involved in prioritising which species end up being the targets of eradication efforts.

I might just add though that the aim of the panel is neither to justify nor to criticise efforts to make New Zealand predator free.

It is to critically examine, from a range of backgrounds and expertise, the aims of making New Zealand predator free, as well as their social and ethical implications.

We aim for the panel to provide an authoritative voice, on the science, values, and their intersection, but also to highlight controversial ideas or points of disagreement - and to provide a framework for ongoing informed discussion and consideration of these issues.