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.
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.
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:
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.
From this analysis of the RCD saga, I suggest that prevention of future illegal importations will require focus on:
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:
The conclusions to be drawn from this review of the policy and science history preceding the illegal importation of RCD are as follows: