Envirologue by Dave Hansford


The Power of N – Nutrient Caps and Peak Dairy

Chris Lewis quickly backed down from the suggestion of a dairy moratorium in the Waikato, but environmentalists won’t let it go so easily. The Waikato Federated Farmers president now insists he merely raised the notion as a “straw man” at an executive meeting, and that he was subsequently misrepresented. But the genie is out of the bottle again, so we may as well talk about it.

Lewis’ comments specifically referred to a plan by state-owned farmer Landcorp to run another 27,000 cows on 20,000 hectares of former forests at Wairakei, near Taupo, by 2021. They came as something of a surprise because until now, the Feds’ response to everything – climate change, the economy, food security – has always been to argue for still-greater production. But Lewis has spotted a game-changer coming: one that has only just begun to divide the country’s most muscular agricultural cartel.

It’s all about cows’ wee. Each day, every dairy cow in the country passes 23 litres of urine, and there are now 6.7 million of them. There are also around 3.6 million beef cattle, which means our landscape gets drenched with more than 230 million litres of bovine urine (plus the outpourings of calves and 29.6 million sheep) every day. The nitrogen load of a single urine patch can run to a tonne per hectare, and that’s far more than any natural system can absorb – more than 750 tonnes of nitrogen run into Lake Rotorua alone each year.

Depending on soil type and topography, it can take up to 100 years for nitrogen to leach into the nearest waterway, and that’s the zinger right there. Many of our waterways are already saturated with nitrogen (and its evil twin, phosphorus), such that regional councils are spending tens of millions of ratepayers’ – and taxpayers’ – dollars trying to clean them up. But we haven’t even begun to see the worst of it. Beneath every dairy district, there is a subterranean tidal wave of nitrogen seeping inexorably downhill, into groundwater, into creeks, then rivers, then estuaries. As it goes, it whips plants into superfertile overdrive: freshwater algae run riot, exploding into blooms of sometimes-toxic scum.

All this comes at the expense of other creatures: studies show that high levels of dissolved nitrate can stunt development and reproduction in aquatic invertebrates and fish, or straight-out kill them. People cannot swim, or fish, or paddle, or drink the water. By any sane measure, it becomes clear that New Zealand reached Peak Dairy years ago. It has to stop; councils know it, and now some farmers understand it too. Nitrogen caps are limits, set and enforced by regional councils, on the amount of nitrogen allowed to leach from a given farm. Horizons Regional Council in the Manawatu has finally, after years of litigation by farmers, imposed a duly compromised set of restrictions around land use and runoff, and requires each farmer in the Manawatu River catchment to prepare a nutrient budget. The Bay of Plenty Regional Council, faced with crippling bills to rehabilitate Lake Rotorua, has moved too. Similar restrictions now guide agriculture around the margins of Lake Taupo.

So Chris Lewis – and most thinking farmers – can see the writing on the wall: if they’re not already regulated, they soon will be. And the more farms – or more correctly, the more cows – in a catchment, the smaller will be each farmer’s nutrient allowance. Don’t underestimate the magnitude of what’s happening here: for the first time, the headache of nutrient leaching is slowly being transferred back to those who caused it. Farmers have enjoyed a privileged status since the country was founded. They may have had subsidies wrenched off them in 1984, but make no mistake; they’ve nevertheless enjoyed a form of protected status ever since. In the realisation of their profits, they’ve left 56 per cent of monitored lowland lakes eutrophic – full of enough nutrients to trigger a bloom – or worse. The National River Water Quality Network, a monitoring programme that regularly samples 77 river sites country-wide, recorded nitrogen loads increasing by 1.4 per cent a year between 1989 and 2007.

The Government has committed a shade under $14m to rehabilitating such fouled reaches as Lake Ellesmere, and the noxious Manawatu River, found by the Cawthron Institute to be the filthiest river in the western world. The Lake Taupo clean-up was projected to cost at least $80m, but needs much more. The Waikato River will need at least $210m to return to health. The Rotorua Lakes will cost at least the same. All these projects are funded by some mix of central and local Government funding. According to Environment Minister Amy Adams, New Zealanders have already committed more than $450m in taxes to cleaning up their own iconic lakes and rivers after farmers have finished with them. That, in any language, is a subsidy.

And that’s the damage already done: future generations will grapple for decades with the insidious, lasting legacy of what we enjoyed as a dairy boom.

Endlessly citing the familiar litany of dairy pollution, though, doesn’t get us any closer to a solution. We need to understand the position some farmers have found themselves in. The Government has saddled them – dairy farmers in particular – with the responsibility for resuscitating a moribund economy (don’t confuse the cost of earthquake rebuilds for prosperity). Under the terms of the Primary Growth Partnership, ag minister Nathan Guy wants primary sector export receipts to double in value by 2025. Given that they have already wrung monumental production increases from their properties – an average 57 per cent per hectare between 1992 and 2012 – that demand in critical markets like China has flattened, exchange rates routinely swing against them, and international dairy prices tumbled more than 50 per cent last year, the only practical thing left for dairy farmers to do is to stock more cows.

That, of course, is precisely what regional councils don’t want them to do – and nor does the public. But farmers find themselves in a crossfire of signals. The Government, like some Harlem pusher, is doing everything it can to coax farmers into still more expansion. It has adopted fresh water quality standards so lax they would give the filthy, lifeless Yangtze a clean bill of health. It removed the obstacle of a democratically-elected regional council in Canterbury that was proceeding on water issues with a caution mandated by voters. Instead, it installed pro-irrigation, agri-business-friendly “commissioners.” It has devoted $35m of taxpayers’ money to facilitating irrigation schemes. It granted agriculture exemption from the Emissions Trading Scheme on what is unfolding as a perpetual basis.

That’s only a small part of the onus on dairy farmers to intensify: many operate on land valued at close to $40,000 a hectare, with assets – stock, plant and machinery – worth an average $1.2m per farm. These costs are far in excess of what their international competition must meet, and the result is breathtaking levels of debt. Over the past decade, dairy sector debt almost trebled to around $32b – an average of more than $2.2m per farm (but debt is in reality heavily concentrated: around half of it is held by just 10 per cent of farmers). There are cases of individual farmers presently more than $10m in the hole. With that much riding on assets so exorbitant, there’s a powerful incentive to produce as much milk as you can.

So it’s all the more laudable that many farmers are spending big money to curb nutrient losses and adopt best environmental practice; writing up nutrient budgets, analysing nitrogen and phosphorus losses through dedicated software. Restoring wetlands so that they can help absorb the losses. Building stand-off pads and winter houses to get cows off boggy paddocks, when nutrients run straight off.

Which is one reason Chris Lewis is wary about the expansion plans of Landcorp and others. He insists that he doesn’t want any good work already done undermined by industrial-scale operations upstream. But most of all, he knows what will happen when regional councils eventually put a price on nitrogen and phosphorus. He knows that first-come, first-served mechanisms in the RMA will not serve smallholders and family farms well. That they couldn’t possibly compete with the likes of Landcorp when it comes to buying up allocations or credits. He knows that nutrient charges would tip scores of farms presently running on a knife edge of viability clean over that edge. The jostling for position has already begun.

For the first time in the country’s history, we are seriously considering two transformational ideas: farming within limits, and polluter pays. A very small molecule is having a profound effect.


Hook, Line and Sinker – National’s Empty Bribe to Rec Fishers

Whenever something distasteful oozes to the surface, the Government mounts some artful distraction to keep the public’s eye off the ball. In its final-term legislative spree, National is pushing through the most unpopular elements of its right-wing agenda – RMA reforms, the TPPA, state housing sell-offs, the Canterbury council coup – at an accelerated pace. Then there are the tainted pratfalls – Dirty Politics, revelations around GCSB spying on foreign government officials, child poverty, the ‘rock star’ economy that actually hasn’t had a number-one hit for many a year.

Governments always keep a stock of sweeteners/distractions to hand at times like this, just in case the media and the public notice these unsavoury issues and asking awkward questions. Lately, John Key has kept them preoccupied with the idea of a new flag, and last week, Nick Smith and Nathan Guy re-floated a favourite: “recreational fishing parks” in the Hauraki Gulf and Marlborough Sounds.

Fishing parks have been a staple distraction/election bribe for years now. The proposal of last September, bang before the election, closely mimicked a similar sweetener announced – you guessed it – just before the 2008 election. To be fair, any campaigning party would be negligent in NOT throwing a baited hook out to the rec fishing electorate: an estimated 600,000 people go salt water fishing at least once a year, with 81,000 going out at least once a week. What’s more, rec fishers often tend to be distinctly positional, nay militant, about what they roundly regard as a birthright. Of course politicians will chase that vote.

The argument over fisheries normally rages between the rock of recreation and the very hard place of commercial fishing. Each side blames the other for the seasonal, annual and multi-annual paroxysms of fish stocks. In the middle are iwi, left trying to prosecute their own pan-generational strategy for fisheries.

To offer recreational fishers some enshrined grounds, like the inner Hauraki Gulf (more than 178,000 rec fishers are reckoned to live around the inner Gulf), to the banishment of commercial vessels, is sweet music indeed from the piper’s flute of Nathan Guy. He says he will set aside inner Hauraki Gulf waters – those roughly coincidental with current management boundaries known as Statistical Area 7, the shallowest of Fisheries Management Area 1 – “so families in Auckland ... can continue to enjoy one of the country’s best-loved pastimes.”

In the Marlborough Sounds the proposal roughly equates to the established blue cod management zone, but doesn’t preclude marine farms or commercial harvest of paua, scallops or crayfish.

But here’s an odd thing: trawling, pair trawling and Danish seining is already banned from Area 7. Indeed, most of the Gulf is off-limits to trawlers and seiners longer than 20m. The only commercial fishing going on in Area 7 at all is a little low-intensity long-lining, potting and set-netting for snapper, flounder, john dory, crayfish and kahawai. The story in the Marlborough Sounds is much the same: finfishing would be banned, but existing fisheries – snapper, groper, bass and blue cod – are, according to National, already low-value. Guy says these fishers would have to venture further out to sea or go out of business.

Last November, John Key told the Ponsonby Cruising Club that affected fishers who could not move on would be offered compensation from a package of between $5m and $20m.

This is something of a departure from a Government that has steadfastly refused to discuss proposals from conservationists to buy fishers out of set net quotas along the North Island west coast that continue to present a threat to the critically endangered Maui’s dolphin. Presumably, Auckland votes are more valuable than the last few strands of DNA of the 55 surviving animals – the world’s rarest marine dolphins.

Environmentalists might applaud any move to banish commercial fishing from inshore waters, but let’s take a more critical look at this: the parks exclusively disadvantage small-scale, mostly solo operators – owner-fishers, or those fishing under leased quota. Typically, vessels are small, shorter than 20m, and finfish are often caught by bottom and middle-depth long-lining, a low-impact method with which skilled fishers can target precisely the species they want.

Yes, there’s still some by-catch, but let’s remember that a hook with an unwanted species – or a seabird – on it doesn’t turn the fisher a buck. In recent years, inshore fishers have developed more polished setting techniques and adopted new gear to reduce that very overhead. Some have put equal energy into imaginative innovations and practices that lessen seabird bycatch or prevent it altogether.

Guy and Smith cannot seriously expect these fishers to move such operations into the outer gulf – they would have to borrow tens, if not hundreds, of thousands to invest in bigger vessels and heavier gear, more sophisticated nav equipment, and probably deckhands. In short, they would have to try to enter the already burgeoning offshore fishery dominated by big pair trawlers and seiners. Twenty million dollars of compensation – in total, for both Marlborough and Hauraki – probably wouldn’t even cover the value of lost Hauraki inshore quota. The suggestion is laughable. Yet their press release assures us that these are not significant businesses.

Besides, do we really want shut down such low-impact, artisanal fisheries? In their wake will go the processing plants, transport and marketing businesses they support, such as Leigh Fisheries. For a Government to throw such local industry to the wolves while our frigates stand helplessly by while pirates pillage the Ross Sea of thousands of tonnes of toothfish doesn’t just look callous: it looks downright cynical.

So just what are National’s fisheries parks supposed to achieve for fisheries management? Certainly not stock enhancement. Rec fishing catches are already regulated by bag limits. Last April, the limit for snapper along the east coast of the North Island dropped from nine fish per person, per day to seven, and the size limit increased from 27cm to 30cm. Those limits are meant to constrain recreational snapper catch between North Cape and the eastern Bay of Plenty to 3050 tonnes – the estimated five-year average catch of all recreational fishers.

Declaring a fishing park doesn’t change any of the figures or dynamics of the Gulf snapper fishery – except to offer those fish that would be taken off the commercial sector to the fishing public. Of the total landed recreational Gulf catch over the 2011-2012 summer, a shade under 80 per cent was snapper, calculated by NIWA to weigh in at 2490 tonnes. Total snapper stocks in there are estimated at just over a quarter of their unfished biomass of 1000 years ago, and fisheries managers are still concerned for the health of the fishery.

If National were trying to achieve something for conservation, then, they would instead get behind no-take marine reserves. New Zealand has signed up to international agreements promising to protect 10 per cent of our total marine environment in no-take reserves by 2020. With five years to run, just 0.4 of our EEZ is protected. In 2000, surveys of three coastal reserves found that legal-size snapper (27 cm at the time of survey) were 14.3 times more abundant inside marine reserves compared with fished areas. A comparative survey at the Poor Knights recorded a 300 per cent increase in legal-sized snapper in the first year of protection. When compared with fished control sites, snapper were found to be 8.3 times more numerous in the marine reserve after just three years.

The spillover effect on rec catches from a comprehensive, representative network of no-take reserves would seem to be obvious. Yet new marine reserves take an average ten years to establish in New Zealand, and rarely realise the full extent originally proposed, thanks in part to dogged opposition from rec fishing groups like LegaSea and iwi.

In March, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the creation of an 834,334-square-kilometre marine reserve – roughly three and a half times the size of the UK – around the Pitcairn Islands. Last September, Barack Obama hung a no-fishing sign on one of the planet’s biggest marine environments when he increased the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument near Hawaii by more than 500 per cent to 1.2 million square kilometres.

By contrast, the National Government’s response to an ailing inshore marine environment was to cynically offer it up as an election bribe to fishing fans. Again. Nathan Guy will never deliver on his promise. The 2008 bid failed in the face of industry litigation, and so will this one. Iwi were not even consulted, and they too, will rightly oppose it.

Non-fishing taxpayers should, too. Why should they bankroll a gambit that benefits just a couple of hundred thousand people in two narrow localities? There are well-established, legally enshrined property rights at stake here. If rec fishers want to acquire quota from the commercial sector, they should pay for it, just like commercial fishers have to. A fishing license fee would be an excellent way to start, as the Australian Government has already decided.

National, of course, knew all along that this proposal cannot, will not, fly. But it probably won them some votes. 


The Agony of Vanuatu and the New Climate Colonialism

We used to detonate atomic bombs among the Pacific peoples – now we drop weather bombs. Vanuatu lies in ruins. Aid workers arriving in Port Vila have already described the death toll and damage as catastrophic, and Vanuatu’s lands minister, Ralph Regenvanu, expects that much of the population – 266,000 people – will have been affected. Eight people are confirmed dead so at time of writing, but more will almost certainly be reported as communications are re-established with the country’s many remote offshore islands.

“This is the worst disaster to affect Vanuatu ever, as far as we know,” Regenvanu told media yesterday.

Everybody is blaming a Category Five tropical storm called Pam. But in fact, we all had a hand in Pam’s rampage across the Pacific, which also mangled Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands. I drove my car just yesterday, and I probably will again today, as though nothing has happened. After all, it looks like New Zealand will get away pretty lightly – again.

As usual, nobody – except bloggers and climate campaigners – will present Pam as the unqualified enfant terrible of climate change. But they will suggest the link, as already has Rachel Kyte, World Bank vice president and special envoy for climate change. You already know how this goes:

I don’t think I would say climate change caused (Cyclone) Pam, but I would say the fact is in the past three or four years we’ve seen category fives coming with a regularity we’ve never seen before. And that has some relationship with climate change. It is indisputable that part of the Pacific Ocean is much warmer today than in previous years, so these storms are intensifying.

That’s fair comment. Wind speeds of up to 270 km/h have not so far been common – only Orson in 1989 and Monica in 2006 have matched her, but in terms of sustained wind speeds, Pam has hiked a furious new bar. At the bottom of it all lies some incontrovertible physics. Warmer air can hold more moisture – roughly four per cent for every 0.6ºC increment – one reason blizzards shut down New England cities in January. More moisture means more energy, higher wind speeds, more destruction.

Those doing all they can to avoid action on climate change – governments, industries, corporations, business lobbies – will go on insisting that no link has been proven, much like the one the tobacco industry insists doesn’t exist between smoking and the premature death of its sales base.

But scientists are getting bolder in their findings, and more assertive about presenting them. In January, researchers published a paper that found 35 per cent of the deluge unleashed by Superstorm Sandy, the Atlantic Hurricane that killed a least 233 people in eight countries, was a consequence of climate change. And there, at the very least, lies one truth we cannot go on denying: such storms are not conjured by climate change, but it undoubtedly makes them very much worse.

New Zealand has lately donated between $14m and $12m in development aid to Vanuatu each year. Much of what that helped build is now rubble. Vanuatu must start over, beginning with $1m of emergency funding from us and AUS$5m from Australia. The Government would likely point to such largesse as nothing more than the compassion of a good Pacific neighbour, but while it’s happy to be seen bankrolling band aids for the symptoms of climate change, it cynically obfuscates action to ease the cause.

Come December, a New Zealand delegation will sit down in Paris at what commentators are calling our last, best chance to reach agreement on climate action. Our Climate Change Minister, Tim Groser, has been tight-lipped about the position they will take there – unsurprising, since Cabinet has yet to announce any post-2020 emissions commitment targets (the deadline for our national plan is the end of this month). But pre-2020, our commitment has looked less than total – a cut of just five per cent from 1990 levels – and a number of countries have called us out on it.

In 2012, Naderev Saño, lead climate negotiator for the Philippines, broke down midway through his address to the COP18 climate talks at Doha. Overwhelmed by the destruction of his homeland by the shrieking violence of typhoon Bopha: he begged for action: “I appeal to ministers: no more delays, no more excuses. Turn things around at Doha. Let 2012 be the year the world found its courage.”

That was, instead, the year Aotearoa walked away from the Kyoto Protocol, even as climate bad boy Australia confirmed its re-commitment to what was the only binding climate game in town. In doing so, the National-led Government neatly escaped having to pay any penalties in the event of missed targets, which will likely be the case.

Now, New Zealand is party instead to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an entirely voluntary proposition that provides the perfect set of eminently moveable goal posts and vertiginous playing field the Government much prefers.

Groser, who by now must be suffering OOS from having his fingers perpetually crossed behind his back, defends our climate position in artful language: in 2013, he insisted that our dismal five per cent target “demonstrates that New Zealand is doing its fair share to address global climate change.”

In fact, Ministry for the Environment briefings show that the only way New Zealand might meet even this pitiful token is by buying cheap overseas “hot air” carbon credits at an estimated cost of $68m. Without them, we’re on track to blow out to a roughly 20 per cent increase in emissions – more than 130 million tonnes extra – by 2020, and a 50 per cent rout by 2050.

Yet Groser must have been feeling lucky, because he went still further to claim the target “compares favourably with our traditional partners’ actions”, assuming that nobody would go away and check, thereby discovering that the UK and EU had actually committed to cuts of 30 per cent and 20 per cent respectively over the same period.

Aotearoa has become a pariah at climate talks, not least because it leads a camp seeking “opt-in, opt-out” provisions, and a ban on any legally-enforceable penalties should national targets be missed. It also seeks to have the warming effect of methane – one of New Zealand’s most voluminous pollutants – redefined so as to lessen our total emissions.

It continues to seek exemption for agriculture, claiming – fatuously – that it is our role to “feed the world”, when in reality we barely figure in the grand scale of global food production rankings (we’re the largest global trader in dairy, but not the biggest producer by some margin).

It insists that, given our preponderance of hydro power, there’s little more we can do to curtail energy emissions, as though our almost entirely fossil-fuelled land transport and industrial energy sectors were not, in fact, the fastest-growing sources of new emissions. As though this Government hadn’t borrowed billions for an orgy of motorway building. As though it hadn’t slashed spending on public transport, walking and cycling, even as it woed oil and gas companies with $8m of enticements last year.

Our delegates point also, to the fact that we have an emissions trading scheme. Well, yes we do, and it’s widely recognised as one of the most dysfunctional, ineffective and grossly unfair regimes to have been floated anywhere. It has repeatedly exempted farmers, who are responsible for nearly half of all New Zealand emissions, and will likely go on doing so until somebody summons the courage to start making them pay for their own pollution, as the forestry and energy sectors are already forced to do. Most significantly, it has manifestly failed to make the slightest dent in greenhouse emissions. This is the travesty the Government offered up as “New Zealand’s primary tool to help reduce New Zealand’s emissions and help New Zealand meet its international obligations ...” when it signed the Majuro Declaration for climate leadership in the Pacific in September 2013.

But of all our deceits around the climate table, the one that raises the most ire is our insistence that, because New Zealand contributes something like 0.15 per cent of global emissions, our response should be somehow commensurate until, as Groser has stated, “we can see more effective global action. Then we will increase the pace.” In other words; “you go first.”

Breathtakingly, he told Lisa Owen late last year that he believed the key to success was “to get more countries to do stuff.” Until recently, Groser has been able to point to China and the U.S. and chant the same facile excuse that, so long as the world’s largest emitters had shown no commitment, we should feel no moral compunction ourselves. As though New Zealanders were not the fourth-highest per capita emitters on the planet.

But in November last year, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping announced a bold deal to slash their respective countries’ greenhouse gases. The U.S. has pledged to double its current reduction trajectory, to between 26 and 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025 – on top of the 17 per cent reduction it’s already committed to before 2020. China has promised that its climate emissions will peak by 2030 (its dependence on coal-fired generation means it’s starting from the back of the grid). The EU has already adopted a new, higher target of 40 per cent reductions by 2030 that it will take to Paris.

It will be fascinating to see how the New Zealand Government responds to this gauntlet. The game is well and truly up: the last of its excuses has been whipped out from under it. Any further attempts to weasel out of meaningful binding reductions, to cynically sandbag our agricultural exports behind a wall of protectionism, to keep on denying our role and responsibility as a global citizen at this last, best chance for action, will be received very poorly.

New Zealand has a history of colonialism in the Pacific, its copybook blotted by the annexation of Samoa, and its subsequent shameful treatment of Samoan independence fighters. Today, we see a new kind of colonialism, in which the interests, the welfare – even the survival – of our Pacific neighbours is still a matter of minor importance compared to those of the business interests that this Government believes are all that shore up our domestic economy. So it will slip another cheque inside a condolences card and send it to Vanuatu. Let’s hope that the Government has more stomach for this cynical climate colonialism than the voting public.

As I write this, people are being evacuated from coastal communities along the East Coast. Pam, and the superstorms that will inevitably follow, will draw ever closer, and ordinary New Zealanders will one day understand the agony of Vanuatu, and Tuvalu, and Kiribati, and finally behold our true place and predicament on this small, shared planet. Maybe then we can approach the climate table with our heads high, and our fingers uncrossed. Look our Pacific neighbours in the eye. Because we’re all in this together …


1080, "eco-terrorism" and agendas

When he labelled a threat to contaminate infant milk formula with 1080 Tuesday as “eco-terrorism”, John Key was drawing on equal parts opportunism and ignorance.

Clearly, the revelation that Fonterra and Federated Farmers had been posted, back in November, 1080-laced milk packages was a gift to the Prime Minister, who has for months now been trying to convince us that his cavalier attitude to public surveillance and enabling laws has all been for our own protection. The opportunity to get the “t” word onto the front page was irresistible and eagerly seized, but when he prefixed it with “eco”, he knew not what he was saying or doing, because none of us has any clear idea what “eco-terrorism” is.

The two prevailing definitions almost contradict one another – one calls it an act of terrorism committed by “environmentalists” – whoever or whatever they are – while the other calls it an act of destruction against the environment, often for political ends.

The baby formula threat clearly shrugs off the first definition, because nobody concerned about the environment would do such a thing. That leaves a political motive, and now we’re getting warm. Here, Key may well be right for all the wrong reasons. He’s had his back to the environment for so long that he probably doesn’t understand that the vast bulk of opposition to 1080 in New Zealand – certainly the best-organised and funded – has a political, not environmental, motivation.

There are, broadly speaking, two wellsprings of anti-1080 sentiment in this country. One is a largely reasonable, mostly peaceful-though-passionate sector sitting out left of the green movement. These people are vehemently opposed to the broad-scale application of any toxin, for whatever end.

This is not unreasonable – it would be difficult to find anyone on either side of the 1080 imbroglio comfortable with the notion of laying poison. But many of these opponents can only hold their strident position if they ignore 60 years’ worth of inconvenient truths – intensive field research, toxicology studies, persistence tests, public health studies and monitoring – and chant instead many execrable claims about ecological collapse and endocrine disruption.

Only a month ago, a former public health worker insisted to me that what she believed was a disproportionate incidence of cancer in Southland was down entirely to the application of 1080. When I asked her just how it was supposed to get into the human food chain, when it been proven in dozens of studies and simulations not to persist in water, she said “well, they’re all hunters down there aren’t they?”

The media could have laid all this to rest years ago, simply by reporting that which has already been scientifically, empirically established, peer-reviewed and published in a whole library of academic journals. But as we know, editors – especially those struggling with falling readership – love stories with “legs” – those that run on and on. Reported straight, 1080 would in fact, have rather short legs. But mainstream media has given it stilts by faithfully quoting a now-familiar litany of risible claims, knowing that will keep the letters to the editor coming.

In January this year, a piece in The Press, '1080 Drop May Have Killed Rare Birds' penned by Helen Murdoch, led with the inflammatory line:

The Battle for our Birds campaign may have almost wiped out a population of the very species it aimed to protect in Kahurangi National Park.

This sort of intro is a gift to the hunting lobby, and, it turns out, that’s who it was faithfully parroting. The claim had been made by long-time 1080 opponent Bill Wallace, who had filed an OIA with DOC to find out about the number of rock wren re-recorded following a drop last October. Of 39 birds noted before the operation, only 14 were found again after it. Wallace – and The Press – went large with the assertion that the birds had been poisoned. Wallace then extrapolated, and claimed that the rock wren was only rare because of 1080, a position that ignores everything studied learned and recorded about stoat predation on rock wrens. That too, was dutifully reported without check.

What the piece only told readers in passing, well down the order, was that a storm had blanketed the drop area in heavy snows days after the 1080 operation. It was entirely plausible – likely, in fact – that the missing birds had simply headed down-valley to escape the worst of the weather for a while. After all – and this critical point was never made – the birds were not found dead, they were simply not re-located.

Wallace’s claims rightly belonged in the opinion section – he had presented not a jot of evidence to support them (and the journalist had asked for none) but here they were, a hidden agenda cloaked in junk ecology, being reported in a metro daily as news.

In 2009, hunters and 1080 opponents Clyde and Steve Graf released an anti-1080 DVD, Poisoning Paradise – Ecocide in New Zealand – funded in part by the Deerstalkers’ Association – which claimed, among other things, that an aerial 1080 operation in Nelson Lakes National Park had killed 12,000 native birds. The Press duly ran a story, entitled Our Poisoned Land?'

There was a photograph of the two hunters with nine tiny, feathered corpses lying in the snow. And therein lay the first clue that all might not have been as it seemed; old birds, or males that cannot secure optimal territory with adequate food supplies, routinely die in winter, when the operation took place.

Furthermore, the nine birds were all the pair recovered; their tally of 12,000 deaths was, they told me in a subsequent interview; a “tongue-in-cheek” figure they claim to have extrapolated by “turning DOC’s science on itself.” DOC duly performed post-mortems on four of the birds (five were blackbirds, introduced species which DOC has no mandate to protect) and found 1080 in none of them.

But the damage had been done. This is how such nonsense gains currency in the minds of an unknowing public, and the hunting lobby knows it. When it reports unqualified conjecture – or outright propaganda – this way, the media repeatedly fails its own tests of accuracy, fairness and balance. No wonder we cannot have a rational, informed conversation about it. 

The media, more than any other institution, is responsible for the dismal quality of "debate" around 1080. It is a scientific issue that can only sensibly be discussed within scientific terms of reference, guided by scientific rigour. But like climate change, it’s been politicised for private self-interest. Instead, lobby groups keep rolling Trojan horses up to the doors of the newspapers, ramshackle constructions of tin foil and tape dressed to look like science, but packed tight inside with self-interest and agendas.

Just who are these plotters? Well, like editors, there are others with self-interested motives, who believe they have still more to lose. Many – though not all – recreational hunters detest 1080 because, in its standard formula, it kills deer, as well as rats, mice, stoats and possums. This is insufferable to a lobby group motivated – characterised – in large part by a florid sense of entitlement. They believe that the only way a deer should die is by the spreading, soft-nosed, organ-shredding smackdowns of one of their own bullets.

But lobby leaders are careful ever to publicly distance themselves from 1080 protests. They well know that the public would have little sympathy for their claim to entitlement over a "resource" accessed by a minority. They know too, that they cannot oppose 1080 on animal welfare grounds, given their habit of felling creatures with expanding, high impact rounds. That only leaves them recourse to the standard strategy – profess instead a concern for the environment and keep repeating the same untruths about the toxin, safe from any challenge by reporters, until the public no longer know what to believe. Manufacture doubt.

At the other, far-right, end of the lobby lurks a paramilitary element that has routinely resorted to “eco-terrorism” to try to force conservation and policy backdowns to protect “their resource”. In 2004, memos orbited the fraternity urging hunters to release stoats onto Stewart Island in reprisal for 1080 pest control operations. A leaked circular, purportedly issued by a fringe then known as Hunters’ Heritage, enjoined:

Let Animal Health and Forrest (sic) and Bird have their little victory over the Blue Mountains and while they are poncing about patting themselves on the back we should just quietly go ahead and establish new herds.

This blatant deceit caused more than one suggestion that a few takahi (sic) and kakapo should be popped just to teach the lying pricks a lesson. We couldn’t possibly comment on such a suggestion. But if a few of the boys drop off stoats on Breaksea or Maud Islands who could blame them?

There is nothing yet to suggest or disprove that the infant formula threat has come from some delirious hunting/survivalist fringe, but it’s important to note a certain M.O. here. We all understand that toxins – like fracking, like alien activity, like contrails, like bar codes – can and do attract a certain type of personality – witness the hysteria around fluoridation. The fact that this person has threatened public health when presumably they oppose 1080 on the same grounds is confusing, and hints that it is not the considered action of anybody in good mental health. People on all sides of the argument will be rightly appalled by it; conservationists, hunters, scientists, whoever.

As for John Key, he’s simply managed to squeeze off a cheap shot of his own – whether it lands in the ranks of the greenies or the terrorists, who cares? He landed his hit. The media has done it again...