Sunday, July 3, 2022

EPA backs dung beetle decision

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The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has defended its decision to allow dung beetle trials in New Zealand, despite strong criticism from leading academics and researchers.

The EPA inherited the decision for dung beetles to be imported after the previous body, Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA), was wound up in 2011.

The decision to allow caged trials with imported beetles has been criticised by Dr Grant Guilford, dean of Auckland University (Farmers Weekly, February 4).

Guilford, researchers and some within the pastoral sector, including Fonterra, expressed concerns over the ability of the beetles to fly considerable distances and be carriers of disease.

He had submitted his concerns to EPA in a written report after approval was granted for beetle importation.

However, the authority maintains it has been robust in its assessment of the risk around the beetles’ release.

EPA principal chief scientist Dr Geoff Ridley has responded to concerns raised by Guilford. He said the application to release 11 species of dung beetle in this country was assessed by in-house specialists, who also consulted overseas experts.

In a written response to questions, Dr Ridley said rigorous science supported the decision to allow the beetles in.

He noted it was not unusual for different experts to come to different conclusions on the release of new plants and animals. However, the EPA process was robust and the authority stood by it.

The issue around dung beetle importation has sparked a heated debate among researchers, with numerous comments for and against on the FWplus website.

Guilford’s report, which included citations on overseas research about the beetles’ capacity to carry disease, was assessed by the EPA.

A publicly available analysis of the report conducted by EPA’s Ridley addresses the key concerns raised by Guilford and his researchers.

One was the risk of Tb being carried by dung beetles from heavily infected cattle out of vector control areas.

This has been confirmed as minor. However, the risk of possums eating dung beetles and creating possum-to-possum or livestock-to-possum Tb infection pathways appears open for further research.

The EPA review dismisses concerns over the beetles’ role as a carrier of pathogens. Comparisons to existing native beetles suggest they are not linked to any public health risks.

Another concern, over the beetles’ ability to fly more than a few kilometres, was also discounted, with Ridley maintaining their flight area was limited.

It is understood a key reason a technical advisory group was formed after the initial approval was because of concerns expressed by the Auckland medical officer for health.

Guilford said he had strong sympathies for the EPA, a small agency group.

However, despite more rigorous analysis after his concerns were aired he believed critical factors, including independent, quality, advocacy-free science were needed in the study.

The technical group was formed belatedly to oversee the release, he said.

Effective consultation with stakeholders and strong relationships with other expert government agencies were also important and were lacking within EPA, he said.

One particular concern was a failure to involve industry groups until after EPA approval was granted, despite the risk shared across all aspects of human and livestock health.

However, Ridley said the application encouraged submissions and was open to judicial review, while Landcare, as scientific advisor to the applicant, had been responsive and continued to exercise caution.

Related story: Experts dump on dung beetle

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