The tension between scientific evidence and public perception in New Zealand farming - Dr William Rolleston

Truth is the first casualty of war.  It is a cliché but it is also a truism.

We have watched the war on farmers grow since the coining of the phrase “Dirty Dairying” by Fish and Game some fifteen years ago. 

In the last few days I have heard our farming leaders talk about the “hatred directed at farmers” and that New Zealand has a “cow phobia”, that this election has created a rural urban divide as big as it has ever been.

Even the title for this talk appears to legitimise that a tension between scientific evidence and public perception is somehow an acceptable way to play the game.

Don’t get me wrong, science should always be questioned.  In fact it is within the very nature of the scientific process itself to be sceptical and question everything.  The moment we stop questioning is the moment we move from science to a belief system.

The gap between public perception and scientific evidence is not unique to New Zealand farming however.  It exists in many of the debates where science matters.

Those who work to change public perception in spite of the evidence use a number of tactics – they cherry pick data, they drive fear, they over simplify, they take data out of context, they deliberately confuse correlation with causation and they undermine trust. 

If you can’t trust the regulator then you should abandon the technology or punish the user.  The politicisation of the water debate is about each political party seeking to undermine public trust in the other.  It is about the activist seeking to undermine science and the regulator.

In his speech to the Royal Society of Medicine this week Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist and author of A Brief History of Time, said:

“Speaking as a scientist, cherry picking evidence is unacceptable.  When public figures abuse scientific argument, citing some studies but suppressing others, to justify policies that they want to implement it debases scientific culture.  One consequence of this sort of behaviour is that it leads ordinary people not to trust science, at a time when scientific research and progress are more important than ever, given the challenges we face as a human race.”

We have seen activists use this tactic in the debates on fluoride, immunisation, 1080, climate change, genetic modification and in the debate on water.

Moreover in these debates protagonists use fake news and half-truths to influence public perception.

For example the campaign against recombinant bovine somatotropin claimed that drinking milk from treated cows could cause cancer.  The rationale goes something like, BST causes an increase in IGF-1 in milk, IGF-1 has been shown to facilitate cancer in test tube studies therefore rBST use in dairy cows leads to an increased risk of cancer in consumers.  The reality of course is different.  The levels of IGF-1 in BST treated cows are within physiologic levels, would contribute less than 1% of a consumer’s IGF-1 levels if it made it through the digestive process at all and has been shown to have no biological effect in human consumers. While the conclusion seems self-evident on the surface, to make the cancer claim requires several leaps of faith.

Some years ago it was claimed in the media that babies would die because of increasing nitrates in ground water in the Ashburton region.  While the link is tenuous and contentious – more recent studies have suggested the drinking water standard is set too low and Blue Baby syndrome probably requires other co-factors such as gastro-intestinal infection – if you extrapolated the data from the USA we could expect to see one baby die from Blue Baby Syndrome every five thousand years in the Ashburton Region - hardly putting it into the region’s number one health priority.  A submission from the Canterbury Health Board opposed the Central Plains Water scheme in part on the basis that income inequality leads to poorer health outcomes and the scheme would make farmers rich but this would not trickle down to the Eastern Suburbs.

Fear and simplicity are powerful weapons in driving public perception.

Nothing we do is without risk yet the demand is often that any new technology should be risk free.  The conservative regulation of genetic modification, particularly in New Zealand, has been driven more by public perception than science.  Indeed when, at a GMO conference I attended, ERMA explained the containment requirements for GMO plants under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms regulation a ripple of laughter built in the international audience.  Finally one of the scientist raised his hand and asked “why are you doing all these unnecessary things?”.  He might well have said “..but the emperor has no clothes”. There was no answer other than it was the law here.

Fear is a powerful driver.  It has been a key emotion in the survival of our species.   Those of us who didn’t have a healthy fear for the lion on the Savannah became its dinner.

As the world has become more complicated the assessment of risk has become more difficult for the individual.  We follow the simple concepts we can make sense of and we tend to gravitate to those who have simple messages.

The disadvantage for science in this narrative is that the answers are not simple, risk is assessed in uncertainties and needs to be put in context – what is the risk of doing A as opposed to doing B.

Activists have used the so called precautionary principle as a weapon against scientific progress.  That is, if there is any risk in doing something then don’t do it.  This is not a useful test as it ignores the risk of the alternatives.  I could have avoided the risk of a car crash by not even getting out of bed today but that would have run the risk of bed sores and even starvation.

The communication of science and evidence takes time and good news does not travel.  What may seem common sense is not necessarily so and it is the job of science to sort that out.  After all it was once common sense that the Sun revolved around the earth – we see it come up every morning, move across the sky and set again in the evening.  It took science to show that this common sense view was wrong and it also illustrates a key weapon that science has and that is time – the passage of time does not change the evidence as Galileo showed .  That does not mean to say that the journey to get to that point may not be rough.

It is absolutely clear that science will not progress and evidence will not drive decision making if scientists do not speak out and communicate with the public.  But not all scientists are equal.  While academic freedom is an essential tenet of our modern society it is often difficult for the public to discern when a scientist is speaking as a scientist and when they are speaking as an activist. 

When Mike Joy articulated his desire to see all ruminants removed from agriculture was he speaking as a scientist or an activist?  When medical researcher Garth Cooper joined the board of the Sustainability Council to oppose genetic modification in agriculture he cited trade issues – hardly his area of expertise.

My time with the World Farmers Organisation has shown me that the campaign against farming and livestock farming in particular is not confined to New Zealand.  It is the multinational organisation Greenpeace which has brought this international campaign against farming to our shores.  An organisation which says farmers should be taxed for water yet has spent thousands through the courts to avoid paying tax itself. Its' anti-dairy fundraising ad campaign was sensationalist but unfortunately for DairyNZ, who lodged a formal complaint, the Advertising Standards Authority did not have to consider if it was factual. 

Their message of #toomanycows is punchy and simple – but it probably has the same credibility as the call of “peak coal” 100 years ago and “peak oil” just before the crash in oil prices with the commercialisation of shale gas. 

It was Bertrand Russel who said “The problem with the world today is that fools and fanatics are so sure of themselves and wiser folk so full of doubt.”

It reflects the struggle science has in this modern world.

So just what record does Greenpeace have when it comes to the facts?

·        They used the Hastings water contamination to bash dairy farmers when the closest dairy farm was around 40 km away.

·        Responding to Greenpeace claims that seismic surveying was hurting whales a scientist recently and bravely stood up and creating the headline “Greenpeace Lying for Financial Gain”. 

·        In 1995 they finally apologised for misleading claims in the battle over the Brent Spar oil rig decommissioning in Europe.

·        Last year 107 Nobel Laurates – one third of all those living –wrote to Greenpeace to demand they change their position on genetic modification, particularly opposition to golden rice developed to combat blindness and death in up to 500,000 children per year through vitamin A deficiency. The Laureates called on governments around the word to reject Greenpeace’s campaign against genetic modification. They ended their letter saying: “how many poor people must die before this is a crime against humanity”.

Strong words from some of the world’s greatest minds. 

Greenpeace aren’t alone. Recently the Environmental Defence Society, a Auckland environmental NGO which has a lot to say about the Mackenzie Basin, claimed, in relation to plan change 13, that intensification was occurring in the Mackenzie “most notably [due to ] dairy” when in fact there is not yet one dairy farm in the plan change area.  The media weighed in with pictures of centre pivots from further down the valley.  They should have known better.

In the final Selwyn River hurrah before the rains came and ruined all the fun the Christchurch Press ran a front page article on the Irwell River and how the fishing had been destroyed.  Buried deep in the article were two small observations.  Nearby Harts Creek had been destitute some ten years before but farmers and local authorities had got together and rehabilitated it.  Also mentioned was that the complaining fisherman had to travel to South Canterbury’s Opihi River with not a mention that it is supplemented by the Opuha Dam which farmers built.

My point is that bad news travels fast and can be highly effective in influencing public perceptions even if it is not right.  I call it post factual science.

The risk is that decisions end up being made on perceptions rather than the evidence.  As our introductory speaker, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, puts it:

“Decisions made in the absence of [high quality information and evidence] are, by definition, less likely to be effective or efficient and can entrench policies which may be of little value.  Thus governments can become constrained by earlier policy decisions that are not easily reversible because there may be a popular or political perception that they are effective when in fact they are not.”

The current water debate is a war where perception holds sway over evidence - in the short to medium term at least.  It is critical that scientists who are expert in the field stand up and speak up.  The Farmers’ Pledge issued by our farming leaders on Tuesday has given some the confidence to do so and I applaud John Quinn from NIWA for his matter-of-fact and balanced interview with Cathryn Ryan yesterday and RadioNZ who finally sought out and interviewed farmers who were making a difference.

The current polemic has however left us with an outraged public demanding that farmers pay for their externalities.   By this they mean farmers pay for the negative effects they cause.  But I have to ask what about the positive externalities.    In the words of former US Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsac, farmers farm so the rest of us don’t have to.  Farmers grow the food for us so we can be doctors and lawyers and peace-corps workers and do all the other things.  We don’t, he said, give farmers enough credit.

Farmers in New Zealand have been proud to live without trade distorting subsidies and this has enabled us to make decisions in response to market signals rather than government whim.  Farmers also stand against the imposition of market distorting penalties such as carbon charges and water taxes.  You only need to go to Argentina to see the corrosive effect of export taxes on farm productivity and environmental outcomes.  We have seen the constant ramping up of regulation with the cost being borne by farmers.  We cannot get that value back from the market but perhaps society should consider how our positive externalities, such as the ecosystem services farmers provide every day, can be recognised.

I am optimistic that science will win the day in the end and there will not be a tension between scientific evidence and public perception just as we now accept as a society that the earth goes around the sun.

But, to do this, farmers need to take charge of the narrative.  The Prime Minister made the point to me that farmers look like they are behind the game on water quality when in fact we are ahead.  It is up to us to bridge that gap.  The Farmers Pledge to have swimmable rivers is a start but we need to be more open and transparent in what we are doing.  Positive environmental outcomes happen when farmers see the problems, are given ownership of them and when solutions are reasonable, practical and affordable.    Farmers are already well along this journey but the public need to know that it will take time.  Farmers need scientists to help them tell their story as Sir Peter has done in his excellent report on water quality.  We need to be open, transparent and interactive.

Change in crime rates in the USA are attributable to co-ordinated GIS data shared onto a single platform through geospacial mapping.  We can do the same here in New Zealand with the wealth of information we already have on water quality and what is happening at the sub-catchment level.  We can use this technology to work together as a society and take the activist groups along with us or bypass their negative filter.  The goal we must all aim for is for there to be no tension between the scientific evidence and public perception.  Just as in the climate change debate, in the immunisation debate and in the debate on fluoridation those who hold views contrary to the evidence will eventually be marginalised.  Farmers will be well on their journey and the rest of New Zealand will be behind them.