NZ Farmer - Doug Edmeades: Media accepts pseudoscience drivel unchallenged

Damn it all. Someone is not listening and I am now forced to repeat myself. My last column ended thus:

"Without an independent principled fourth estate we may be drifting away from being a society in which our policies are based on evidence, rational thought and logic analysis and which encourages and embraces criticism. If we are not careful we could drift back to a time when humans believed in alchemy, witches and taniwha".

In this last week, as if on cue, three media outlets coughed up three items of demonstrable drivel.

Exhibit 1:

The NZ Farmers Weekly (October 2) gave their opinion page to Phyllis Tichinin in an article headlined, Urea cascade cause of problems. She attributes many animal health, soil and environmental problems to the overuse of urea. Opinion yes, evidence no. Her whole thesis fails the logical test of cause and effect. How can one thing – in this case urea – have so many unrelated effects? As one qualified reader expressed it to me: "I struggle to find one fact or one statement that isn't a falsehood."

Why did the editor allow this goobledegook to get into the public domain? Where were journalistic standards of truth, fairness and balance? I suspect that the editor failed to check the background and qualifications of the author or failed to crosscheck the draft with a suitably qualified professional.

Exhibit 2:

Radio New Zealand devoted 20 minutes of the Country Show (October 7) to Rob Flynn and Frazer Mathews from a company called Soil Matters. On the programme they visited a farm in North Canterbury.

This company promotes the Kinsey-Albrecht soil testing system, and practice what is called "biological farming". They describe biological farming as focusing on getting the soil biology working so that the "natural" nutrients in the soil are released for plant and crop growth. T

hey claim that this approach to soil fertility reduces the need for chemical fertilisers, improves animal health, reduces nutrient leaching and increases the ability of the soil to retain soil moisture.

Once again I have to wonder whether the programme director sought professional advice as to the veracity of this story. If he had done so he would have learnt that the Albrecht soil-balancing theory is pseudo-science. Plants don't give a tinker's cuss what the ratio of calcium, magnesium and potassium in the soil is, providing the minimum amount of each nutrient is present.

Similarly, the theory they espouse that feeding the soil biology releases locked-up soil nutrients for plant growth is nonsense.

Imagine for a moment if the system did work in this manner. Over time, the soil biomass, including the soil organic matter, would be used up to replace the nutrient removed from the soil in products and other losses. As I say, soils do not make nutrients, they only store them. What you remove must be replaced, otherwise you are mining the soil.

The science is clear on this point. Consider: A pastoral system producing, let's say, 10 tonnes per hectare of dry matter. If the animals utilize 80 per cent then there are two tonnes per hectare of plant material being returned to the soil. This is mainly in the form of sugars – structural carbohydrates - and it is this material, which is the food source for the soil biology. It is for this reason that soil organic matter and with it, the soil biomass, including those lovely earthworms, increase with increasing pasture production.

And guess what? Adding chemical fertilisers to eliminate soil nutrient deficiencies is the surest way to increase pasture production. This fact makes a mockery of their fond belief that chemical fertilisers destroy soil health.

Despite all this mature and well-documented science, Radio NZ runs a story that is factually incorrect and therefore misleading. Why?

I once confronted a journo who published a story about organic farming. I pointed out that it was full of misleading nonsense. His reply astounded me. He argued that science is boring and old hat – he wanted something new for his readers! Apparently in this post-truth age if something is new it does not need to be true!

Exhibit 3

was TV3's AM Show (October 6). It featured the face of the extreme environmental movement, Dr Mike Joy, of Massey University. The host, Duncan Garner, asked him what was needed to improve water quality. His answer was unambiguous: "We need less cows, it's as simple as that."

He suggested we go back to the "natural" levels of three-four decades ago. Exactly why such levels are "natural" was never explained. If you go back far enough in history, domesticated animals were not "natural".

But for the moment we will indulge his romantic fantasy. In the early 1980s the average dairy farm produced about 550kg of milksolids per hectare. Today the industry average is about 1000kgMS/ha.

Bluntly, he is suggesting that New Zealand's largest industry - and New Zealand's largest source of income - should cut production by about 50 per cent.

Dr Joy was not challenged on this vital point. There was no balance. Why?

His solution is certainly simple, but it is, alas, simplistic. New Zealand's current standard of living is based primarily on the agricultural industry. Cutting it in half would have huge implications to all New Zealanders. Heaven forbid, we may need to halve the salaries of those in universities who desire to "save" the planet.

I tire of people who think the only solution to today's problems is to go backwards. Perhaps Dr Joy could add support to the scientists in New Zealand who are exploring ways to reduce our environmental footprint without destroying our society.

Dr Doug Edmeades, ONZM, is an independent soil scientist and managing director of agKnowledge. He is happy to hear from readers: