The Rabbit Calicivirus Disease (RCD) saga, a biosecurity/bio-control fiasco

Report summary

In 1997 the rabbit calicivirus disease (RCD) was illegally imported into New Zealand as a bio-control. This discussion paper examines the many factors, from 1979-1997, that contributed to this extraordinary breach of biosecurity.


Commissioner's preface

The illegal act did not happen in isolation. It was one component of a complex decision making "system" involving central and local government policies over many years, costs and benefits, risks and hazards, public perceptions of fairness, and signals from scientists and science investors. The biosecurity breach was in reality a major systems failure akin to the February 1998 power failure in Auckland. Simply focusing on finding the perpetrators of the illegal introduction, or discovering how they did it, constitutes a gross lack of appreciation of the enormity of what happened and the complexity of factors that led to it. Much more comprehensive evaluation is needed to determine why, and how to prevent similar failures in the future.

As New Zealand land managers face increasing efforts to sustainably manage their resource, the land, and maintain the financial viability of their businesses in a global market economy, there will continue to be increasing demand for and need for new technologies. Ensuring that there is a fully informed debate on proposals to introduce or release new biological control organisms is essential.


Executive summary

On 2 July 1997 the Deputy Director-General of Agriculture declined the application to import and release RCD. The decision involved two clearly different considerations: one focused on the risks of RCD to ecosystems and other species; while the other examined its potential as a biological control agent and the organisational arrangements for its management.

The illegal importation of RCD that followed this decision was the product of a long gestation of a complex array of interlocking sociological, economic, scientific, trust and organisational matters. To assist in reducing the risk of similar biosecurity breaches in the future the prime objective of this discussion paper is to examine the elements in the 'system' that have failed.

Many members of New Zealand's typically law abiding rural communities were involved in spreading the illegally introduced virus. This was a major breach of New Zealand's biosecurity. There was extensive government and public criticism of the illegal action and the subsequent widespread dissemination of the virus by farmers. While the breach of biosecurity is unacceptable, there has been relatively little consideration or public debate as to:

  • why a citizen or citizens would take such a drastic action
  • what policies or other government activities, and changes in farming business conditions, might have contributed to this.

This study does not challenge the Director-General of Agriculture's decision. It is a review that draws on a range of literature, correspondence, and personal experience of the Commissioner and his staff.


Recommendations & conclusions


From this analysis of the RCD saga, I suggest that prevention of future illegal importations will require focus on:

  • the degree and duration of stress being experienced by the main beneficiaries of the proposed introduction or release
  • the beneficiaries' perceptions of the risks and benefits of the proposed agent to themselves and to the wider society
  • the acceptability of the decision making framework, and the trustworthiness of the decision-maker and those providing information on the agent or organism
  • the level of knowledge about the proposed agent, its implementation process, and accessibility of knowledge to any interested parties
  • the difficulty, or ease, with which the organism could be introduced
  • what other methods of control are available to the beneficiaries.

Only if such factors are well understood and appreciated, and systems developed to accommodate them, is there any hope of averting the illegal importation of future agents where the anticipated benefits are high.

A much more thorough examination of the RCD story is needed, particularly with regard to the following questions:

  • whether any irrevocable damage has been done to national and international perceptions of our biosecurity capabilities
  • whether New Zealand has entered a new phase of normative or instrumental attitudes towards biosecurity laws
  • how trust (and thus confidence) in decision-makers can be enhanced in the eyes of applicants and the wider public.


The conclusions to be drawn from this review of the policy and science history preceding the illegal importation of RCD are as follows:

  1. The outcomes of decision making in a biosecurity arena involving so many actual and potential stakeholders will always be greatly influenced by history and context. Given the history and context, the illegal importation of RCD was highly predictable.
  2. The potential risks of a bio-control should be assessed on their own merits and should not be traded off against judgements of control efficacy.
  3. Community acceptance of future bio-control agents necessitates public information and education sources that are trusted and independent of both proponents and agency decision-makers.
  4. A detailed investigation of the impact of this biosecurity failure, and factors generating it, should be undertaken. I strongly endorse the Biosecurity Council's review of RCD in New Zealand and urge that the terms of reference for the review take account of the matters raised in this paper.
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