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Underlying beliefs linked to public opinion about gene drive and pest-specific toxin for pest control

September 2020

Publication: Wildlife Research
Author(s): MacDonald EA, Edwards E, Balanovic J, Medvecky F.

Context

Developing a new tool for wide-scale rat eradication is necessary for significant biodiversity gains. Underlying beliefs linked to public opinion can help guide policy makers to understand public concern and inform an effective discourse.

Aims

We investigated underlying beliefs linked to levels of support for a potentially disruptive tool, gene drive, compared with a traditional stepwise tool, aerial distribution of a new pest-specific toxin.

Methods

Using the theory of planned behaviour, we surveyed (n = 1200) a representative sample of New Zealanders to assess the level of support for the tool related to attitude, normative and control beliefs.

Key results

Attitude (e.g. gene drive is good/bad and gene drive is risky/safe) and two norms (e.g. people like me and people in my household) were key contributors to level of support for gene drive. Behavioural beliefs (if scientific evidence can prove it works, concern there are unknown consequences, a humane way to rid New Zealand of rats, and gene drive goes against natural way of life) were also significant. For aerial distribution of a new pest-specific toxin, the same attitudes and normative beliefs identified for gene drive also contributed significantly to the model. Four behavioural beliefs, namely, aerial delivery could affect areas outside the target zones, if there is scientific evidence, and it is impossible to make a pest-specific toxin that would not harm our native wildlife were also significant. The impact either tool may have on biodiversity was not significant in either model.

Conclusions

Decision making about both gene drive (a disruptive technology) and aerial distribution of a pest-specific toxin (a stepwise technology) is primarily influenced by attitudes, with a few beliefs also influencing decision making. Novelty of the tool does not affect the underlying beliefs that are influencing levels of support.

Implications

Public engagement that acknowledges and responds to these underlying beliefs, rather than a traditional campaign based on biodiversity and environmental gains, may be more effective at creating a constructive dialogue about if and how these tools should be used, and to avoid replicating the polarised debate about 1080.

Research that produced this output

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