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Blog entry

Changing stuff

By Professor Peter Dearden, Director Genomics Aotearoa

Science is an excellent way of allowing us to question test and understand the world we live in. But that knowledge also provides us with something else; the ability to change things, to solve problems, and to make life on earth a bit better.

This is clearly the case in medicine; by understanding a disease, and the way it interacts with the body, we can find ways to intervene, to improve outcomes and perhaps find a cure. 

And it is commonplace in other sciences; problems of mass communication are solved with electronics, lightweight batteries and radio waves, leading to the cell phone in your hand, and the remarkable changes in our society these devices have caused. 

This is the role of science, not just to understand, but to improve and to change. 

Of course, sometimes that change is damaging and unhelpful; the placement of lead in petrol in the 1950s for instance was a neat piece of chemistry, solved a problem, and caused a much larger one. 

The role of science is therefore also to seek to understand potential future problems of the technology being developed.

Such damaging outcomes of the implementation of science should be caught by testing, regulation and research. Testing should be part of development. When it comes down to it, the implementation of science should balance risks and benefits, and ensure the benefits far outweigh the risks.

So what do these basic principles have to do with us, and more specifically New Zealand biology?

At present, the full potential of New Zealand’s biological sciences is often channelled into understanding, monitoring and observing, with little developing, testing and implementing going on. 

While this isn’t a huge problem for science, it is a huge problem for New Zealand.

What New Zealand needs now
Science has developed effective tools to change biology and intervene in problems, but because it is very difficult to implement a genetically modified organism in New Zealand for instance, our research into the very risks and benefits we need to understand is blocked. 

We need much more than just simply understanding the biology of the many pests that eat our wildlife and damage our primary production, and the many more than seem to come in with monotonous regularity like Varroa mite and Mycoplasma bovis.

We actually need disruption to halt further degradation of our ecosystems and our production, in a well-researched, safe and acceptable way. 

It’s clear that requires more than just our current control methods; the tools we use are controversial and can be environmentally damaging. Wasps are controlled with insecticides that are banned in the E.U., possums and rats controlled with toxins that are unpopular. 

The problem is we have few tools to replace what we have, little science going on to develop biological solutions to problems, nor the funding to develop and test them. 

This situation is bad, but I think it’s going to get worse. Climate change is here, and while it has a massive economic impact, its impact on New Zealand’s plants and animals, and our primary production systems is going to be huge. 

New Zealand’s plants and animals, and the places we farm, depend on the local climate. The changing vegetation you see walking up a hill is due to the fact that some species specialise in these environments. As the climate changes, those specialised species will have to go up the mountain to survive, and when they get to the top - what then? 

The same applies to the production landscapes of New Zealand, to keep in a similar climate, growers and producers will have to move south. 

These changes are coming. It would be great if we could control emissions and stop climate change- indeed we must- but like it or not, year upon year the climate is getting hotter. 

If we are to keep our agriculture productive and maintain our unique biodiversity, we need tools. We need tools that will help us cope with the biological problems that will arise. We need tools that will help us keep what we have in the face of invasive pests and diseases and in the face of a warming climate and its increased threats of fire, storms and flooding.

We need a thorough, rigorous, scientific testing approach to have those tools available for New Zealand’s future.  We can’t rely on anyone else for this.

Genetic modification is one tool that might help. We can't afford to not do the science to understand its potential, to fully determine its risks and benefits and if it is the best solution to a problem; deploy it. 

We will need our best biologists to help us through the coming storm - to ascertain the impacts. Don’t make them work with one arm tied behind their backs.