Speech Notes: Hon John Luxton opening Of possum Biocontrol Workshop

  • Dr Lockwood Smith
International Trade

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the invitation to join you today.

It's my pleasure to open this workshop which will review progress towards the elusive goal of effective biocontrol for possums, and establish research priorities for the future. It will also be important in giving researchers the chance to build new alliances and develop joint work programmes.

I am pleased to note the collaborative approach between Australian and American scientists and their New Zealand colleagues.

Of all the joint-relationships which have developed since work on biological control of possums began, perhaps the most significant is the establishment of the Marsupial Co-operative Research Centre (CRC), with New Zealand input.

The Marsupial CRC is one of more than sixty CRCs established by the Australian Government to promote closer ties between public research institutions, universities and industry. It was established to provide innovative solutions for conserving endangered marsupials and managing problems such as possums.

In New Zealand, $45 million is spent each year on poisoning and trapping possums. This level of expenditure is not sustainable and current control methods are becoming less socially acceptable. However it is widely recognised that the fight against bovine Tb is being won and that tremendous progress has been made in reducing the infected herds in New Zealand.

From 1994 to 1999, the percentage of cattle and deer herds with animals infected with Tb has fallen from 2.7% to 1.2%.

Why then is biocontrol of possums necessary? Because there is no single control method which will solve the whole problem. To win the war against possums a range of possum control methods are required to enable us to mix and match the methods to specific situations. Of course, we would be greatly assisted if naturally spreading biocontrol agents were constantly debilitating and reducing the population.

Currently $5.3 million a year is invested into researching this problem which shows the commitment to overcoming it.

Whichever methods are used to control possums, they will need to be possum-specific, humane, environmentally friendly, cost effective and publicly acceptable. Progress to date has been encouraging and I am sure this workshop will provide further evidence of exciting progress as well as new avenues to explore.

Progress has been made in the two general areas of research, the search for parasites and pathogens and fundamental possum physiology.

I am advised that of the pathogens that have been identified, the viruses appear to be the most virulent. However, the lack of any evidence of them having a significant effect in the wild tends to question their value. The possibility of them, or other parasites and pathogens, being engineered to act as vectors of DNA remains open.

The progress on understanding possum reproduction has been outstanding with major advances made by teams on both sides of the Tasman. There are a number of possum-specific physiological pathways that could be the targets for disruption. These targets are being refined along with the methods for delivering disruptive processes.

This workshop will be the first one where transgenic plants are discussed in any detail. An area that I suspect will be seen as highly newsworthy.

With any long term plan for possum control it is important to keep the public fully informed of developments.

Recent experience with the genetically modified food issue has clearly illustrated the need to ensure that the public understand the nature of the problem and are in a position to make informed decisions. It will be essential that bio-technological developments are understood by the public otherwise we may have wasted our investment. The National Science Strategies Committee (NSSC) has an important role to play in making sure that the public is aware of what is going on, and why.

You may be aware of the Talking Technology Charitable Trust which is seeking support for a planned forum on using biotechnology to control animal pests, such as possums. This initiative deserves support because it will see the public engaged in informed debate about the need for possum control, and the various methods which could be used, as well as their risks and benefits.

Biotechnology has much to offer New Zealand but at the same time it is important to recognise and minimise the risks associated with any technology.

I understand that moves are afoot to transfer the NSSC from MoRST to the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology. This proposal has merit and could result in the role of the NSSC being enhanced. We will need to ensure that none of the valuable activities that the NSSC currently engages in are lost in the changeover. The change could see a modified NSSC as the model for other new reference groups which could be a major benefit to science in New Zealand. The elements of the NSSC format that I would particularly like to see retained are:

a group with clear accountability for co-ordinating the research portfolio,
production of an annual report, similar to the current one,
clearly established and publicised research priorities,
workshops run on various topics to assess progress and set new priorities,
encouragement of trans-Tasman co-operation,
maintaining a profile for the research effort, and
involving the public so that they understand the problems and know how they are being tackled.
I am sorry that I am unable to stay for the workshop but wish you every success with it. I look forward to the result of your deliberations.