The chief scientist of the Environmental Protection Agency has been making waves since her appointment, articulating a pro-farming message around water use. Has agri-business captured our environmental regulator? Outspoken farming critic Rachel Stewart thinks so.
Apparently if you don‘t trust the decisions made by the Environmental Protection Agency, you’re part of a growing trend in New Zealand of science denial.
This is according to the organisation’s chief executive Dr Allan Freeth, who, in the EPA’s annual report, said the level of distrust in science and experts is getting worse in New Zealand – going on to blame the “unmoderated milieu of the internet”.
His timing was interesting, coming hard on the heels of his chief scientist’s latest flub. Let’s have a look at her back catalogue of missteps, and marvel at the irony of Freeth’s assertions. Previously professor of agribusiness at Waikato University, and a dairy farm co-owner, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth was appointed to the role of EPA chief scientist in October 2016, amid howls of indignation from environmentalists and freshwater scientists. Her appointment was viewed as a sop to the dairy industry, and given her history of outspoken views on cows having little impact on water quality, it was unsurprising.
By November there was already a petition circulating calling for her resignation. This was in response to comments she made to farmers at a Primary Land Users Group only a few weeks before starting her new role, when she said the Waikato River was one of the five cleanest in the world, based on OECD data. Rowarth’s basic argument was the Waikato should be held to a much lower, EU standard, and that such lower standards are safe. The New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society (NZFSS) were swift to take her to task, calling her claims false, and based on outdated data and factual errors. Massey University professor Russell Death, a freshwater ecologist, also entered the fray, and picked her assertions apart with the precision of a vulture on day-old carrion.
Asked to comment but declining to do so, an EPA spokeswoman said while Rowarth had been appointed in August, she was employed by the University of Waikato until the end of October. “It would be inappropriate for Dr Rowarth to comment, now she has taken up a new role, on statements she made while employed in a previous role in another organisation.” So suddenly Rowarth’s previous views – from only weeks before – on relevant environmental and scientific matters, will change to suit her new role as a proud “facts-based” science communicator for the powerful EPA? Worse was to come.
On 20 April 2017, Rowarth and soil scientist Doug Edmeades participated in a radio discussion with Jamie McKay on The Country. Edmeades had previously supported Rowarth’s statements about the quality of the Waikato River, and also wrote an opinion piece titled ‘Is Mike Joy a biased scientist?’ The radio topic? ‘Is freshwater scientist Mike Joy an extremist or does he have a point?’ It made for some pretty hair-raising listening, with Joy’s fellow scientists openly bagging him, and his call for fewer cows.
This discussion prompted the NZ Association of Scientists to write to its members – including Rowarth and Edmeades – with a “reminder of the rules” concerning public debates between scientists. They were told to conduct their debates according to the science, not the personalities. You could call it a rather large rap over the knuckles for the pair. And once again, Rowarth declined to comment.
Rowarth’s next faux pas? At a recent visit to an irrigation scheme in Central Otago, she said that irrigation, when done right, can be a “great boon” to the environment. This drew instant criticism from Fish & Game, Greenpeace, the president of NZFSS Dr Marc Schellenberg, and Dr Mike Joy – who called her views “bizarre.” Hard to disagree, given the extensive research around the negative effects of irrigation.
When asked about it on her regular appearance on The Country, rather uncharacteristically, Rowarth didn’t want to talk about it. She instead wanted to focus on glyphosate. Why? Because the EPA has ruled that the ingredient used in Roundup was unlikely to be carcinogenic. “This is very good news and of course it’s based on the fact that there is no link to human health issues when used as regulated,” she said. All so simple, and without a shadow of doubt clouding her perfectly pure scientific mind.
Except, sadly, she’s running into some strong criticism from the likes of the “unmoderated milieu of the internet” in the form of independent researcher Jodie Bruning, ex-Green MP Steffan Browning, the Ministry of Health, and a group of esteemed Professors from Auckland and Massey universities. Oh, and of course, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) who in 2015 listed glyphosate as a probable carcinogen for humans. Even the EPA recognises IARC as “one of the two respected sources for information on carcinogenicity”.
But she has supporters. Recently, Rowarth has been heralded by a director of industry promoter Beef + Lamb as “great advocate for the agricultural sector” and further noted, “we are very fortunate to have someone of her calibre willing to speak on the industry’s behalf”.
So Dr Freeth has got one thing right. New Zealanders’ “level of distrust in science” is growing. When our EPA is so patently pro-agribusiness, at the expense of the environment, is it any wonder?
Rachel Stewart is an award-winning columnist and former president of the Whanganui chapter of Federated Farmers.
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