December 1997, Volume 18 No. 4


In this issue, we are providing readers with the full text of the Code of Conduct on the Import and Release of Biological Control Agents, produced by the Food and Agricultural Organ-ization of the United Nations (FAO) with the assistance of IIBC and the International Organization for Biological Control (IOBC), and following consul-tation with national experts from around the world. It is intended to establish a foundation of procedures on which governments and non-governmental and private sector organizations can build a responsible approach to the introduction of biological control agents. Its significance lies not in its depth - it is necessarily superficial because of the range of situations to which it must apply - but in its universality. No institution has now the excuse of ignorance to protect it from criticism for irresponsible programmes of biological control.

The challenges which confront res-ponsible biological control introductions could not have been better illustrated than by the events of the past few months. In this issue we report on controversy which has arisen over the introduction some twenty years ago of the beetle Rhinocyllus conicus to control musk thistle in North America and, half the world away, the controversy which has arisen over the illegal release earlier this year of rabbit calicivirus disease (RCD) in New Zealand.

As you will see in the news items to follow, it was quite clear to those importing Rhinocyllus into North America in the 1970s and 1980s that this insect could attack native North American thistle species. The recent articles in Science begin to reveal the extent of this attack. While it remains to be seen whether native thistle species will decline as a consequence, there emerges from this debate the impression that, had this process been repeated in the 1990s, environmental impact (and, particularly, risks to nontargets) would have carried more weight in the decision by govern-ments to release. In New Zealand, it was precisely the lack of knowledge about the environmental impact of the biological control agent proposed for rabbits that led the government, after broad consultation amongst interest groups, to decide against release, pending further research.

Underlying both events is the question of how accurately and quickly can scientific research answer our questions about the impact of biological control agents? Scientists must regret the illegal introduction of RCD into New Zealand, particularly as this may have reduced the opportunity to deploy the virus to maximal effect. But the decision of whoever made the illegal releases in New Zealand reflects, amongst other things, a lack of confidence in the ability of scientific research to contribute to the timely decision making and management of their problem. Debate on past bio-logical control introductions raises the same issue. Without the benefit of hindsight or the luxury of career-long studies of potential agents, how can ecological research contribute more effectively to making decisions about biological control introductions in the real-world time frames with which communities deal with spreading, alien pest problems? Hopefully, this current debate, and the framework now provided by the Code of Conduct, will recruit more scientists, farmers and decision makers into the cooperative solution of these problems.