12 Sep 2021

A panel of experts at the 2021 NZ International Science Festival on gene editing, mātauranga Māori and pest control

From Smart Talk, 4:05 pm on 12 September 2021

"Gene editing does feature in [Māori] narratives. What I’m wary of is people running off and weaponising that" - Tame Malcolm

Listen to a team of Kiwi bio-heritage experts discuss the future of genetics in pest control, and how that connects with mātauranga Māori.

This conversation was a highlight of the 2021 NZ International Science Festival.


The panellists are in agreement that the use of gene editing to control introduced pests could become as polarising as, say, mask-wearing and vaccinations in the Covid-19 era. They are thankful that mainstream political and civic discussion has remained focused on scientific matters rather than being swayed too much by social media. But what do to, when confronted with those who deny science?

Aroha Mead:

It’s really important to be non-judgemental. People have their views, and you may not like them. They might be illogical to you, but they are logical to them.

What I’m more concerned with, though, is the value system that created the problem that we have [of imported species becoming pests that threaten indigenous species]. We’re dealing with the outcome of a whole bunch of decisions made by humans about importing species into this country that have run havoc. So we don’t want that same value system to be the decision-makers for what we have to do to fix the problem that they created.

So along with this technology, there has to be a total reform, a decolonisation of our conservation system. There has to be a strengthening of the role of Māori hapu and iwi in managing lands and resources. We just have to get out of the way we have done conservation here because it hasn’t worked. It simply hasn’t worked.

Peter Dearden:

Is it more ethical for us to genetically drive possums to extinction, or to treat them with 1080?

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Photo: CSIRO, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Phil Lester:

The mouse plagues in Australia occurring now happens over there every few years, depending often on the weather conditions. Gene drives are being suggested as a potential approach, and animal ethics groups are coming out in support and saying, “Look, this is a much better way of controlling mice populations.” So there are groups out there thinking gene drives could be an ethical solution to pest problems.

Brent Beaven:

We want to strive to be ethical. We want to strive to be doing things in a humane way, without causing pain or distress or doing those things that would probably get you locked up. You want to be doing things the best you can. But the only ethical thing I’m 100% sure about is, it’s not ethical to do nothing. It’s not ethical to let our native species disappear from the face of this earth. And that’s the direction we’re heading in.

Tame Malcolm:

In te ao Māori philosophy, humans are not at the top. If anything, we’re the teina [younger sibling] of a lot of these animals. Going back a step – Māori arrived and made some mistakes. We quickly adapted, realising we’re not on a migratory path where birds come and go. We have to have a sustainable way of living, of surviving in our environment. [And so] intentional eradication doesn’t feature in Māori philosophy. It’s super-bad. Mate ā-moa. It’s a bad thing to do to eradicate a whakapapa.

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Tame Malcolm:

However, gene editing and gene drives feature within Māori narratives. Has everyone seen the movie Moana, when Māui changed his shape. One time he was wearing a cloak and changed himself, and that cloak got incorporated into the kereru that we know today. Originally it was white. It had its DNA changed by Māui. So gene editing does feature in our narratives. What I’m wary of is people running off and weaponising that.

Aroha Mead:

Some of the core principles of mātauranga Māori have a lot to do with using resources respectfully. Being aware of the whole environment within which a species exists, and ensuring that it is well taken care of. And with that, mātauranga is an advanced sense of risk management.

Something that I really wish that decision-makers had applied before they imported all these species that are causing havoc.

About the speakers

Tame Malcolm, Aroha Mead, Prof. Phil Lester, Brent Beaven

Tame Malcolm, Aroha Mead, Prof. Phil Lester, Brent Beaven Photo: NZ International Science Festival

Tame Malcolm is a knowledge broker for the Biological Heritage Challenge. One of the team at Te Tira Whakamātaki, Tame has more than 10 years of experience in biosecurity and biodiversity management.

Aroha Mead is a political scientist who specializes in mātauranga Māori and Indigenous cultural and intellectual property issues, with an interest in Indigenous perspectives on technologies such as gene editing. She is a member of the IUCN Task Force on Conservation and Synthetic Biology and former Chair of the Kāhui Māori of Genomics Aotearoa.

Professor Phil Lester, from Te Herenga Waka (Victoria University of Wellington), studies the population dynamics and ecology of social insects and has researched molecular genetic approaches that include gene silencing and next-generation sequencing.

Brent Beaven, with over 20 years of experience working in conservation, has been an advisor for the Minister of Conservation and is currently the Programme Manager for Predator Free 2050 at the Department of Conservation.

This audio was recorded by the NZ International Science Festival and supported by Ngā Koiora Tuku Iho - New Zealand's Biological Heritage National Science Challenge

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Photo: National Science Challenges, NZ International Science Festival