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

1 September 1998

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.