Opinion divided on '100% Pure'

You have to laugh, sometimes. Either that or go mad. I mean, it was only a few weeks ago that people were rushing to agree with an Aussie philosophy lecturer who reckoned we should pay more attention to our experts and less to those who were not. Readers may remember Patrick Stokes' blog entry: Actually, You're Not Entitled To Your Opinion. Auckland's biggest newspaper even wrote an editorial of support, applauding his insight.

"It is a quirk of modern life that expert opinion is often tossed aside as if it has little relevance," the editorial noted. And on the merits of qualified experts: "They deserve to be given more value than views motivated by the unpleasant consequences of a scientific consensus or the failure of a conventional practice to offer a satisfactory outcome." Or, in a nutshell, if you want to disagree with the findings of experts, you'd better come up with some supporting proof.

So you could imagine my surprise the other day when the same newspaper ran an editorial rubbishing the warnings of Dr Mike Joy, a senior lecturer at Massey University's Environmental Science and Ecology Group. For daring to offer an assessment of New Zealand's waterways completely at odds with Tourism NZ's 100% Pure promotion, the anonymous author/s took him to task without a skerrick of supporting evidence.

Thankfully, the New Zealand Association of Scientists has backed Dr Joy, describing criticism of his views as "manifestly incorrect". As NZAS president Shaun Hendy noted: "On a per-capita basis we have one of the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the world and data from NIWA's National Rivers Water Quality Network shows that our water quality is declining, with the health of a large proportion of our lakes in danger from agricultural run-off".

For his part, Dr Joy hasn't backed off. Down at the New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society's annual conference in Dunedin, he's been reported as saying our waterways would continue to deteriorate until the Government tackled the issue of land intensification, and nutrient-loading from dairy waste. Another expert, Professor David Hamilton, described the status of New Zealand's freshwater as "crucial". In other words, our 100% Pure vision is being buried in cow shit.

It's been instructional to note who's rejecting these expert findings. Lobbyist Mike Unsworth called Dr Joy a "traitor", essentially for allowing the facts to get in the way of a good story. Federated Farmers chimed in to support Unsworth on Twitter. Chairman Lachlan McKenzie squealed that Dr Joy just didn't like farmers. So, what to believe. The views of an independent expert, or the propaganda offered by those with a direct pecuniary interest?

As Gareth Morgan and Susan Guthrie the other day pointed out in another outstanding missive, farmers who rely on irrigation to support stock, who grow crops or vegetables, or practice dairy farming with industrial intensity... "reap private benefit from their activity but pay very little to cover the environmental damage they cause, some of it irreversible, the rest requiring clean-up which the general public has to pay for. The natural injustice in this is a no-brainer".

The Prime Minister can talk all he wants about New Zealand's "comparative" environmental status. A recent report ranked the country 18th worst out of 189 countries in terms of preserving its environment. Another reveals most of our recreational waterways are no longer fit for swimming. Sixty percent of our freshwater fish species are now threatened. What's the problem? According to Dr Joy, everything points to an out-of-control dairy boom.

Don't know about you, but I'd trust his assessment much more than a bunch of self-serving farmers.

» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
» Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardboock.

Follow @AucklandNowNZ

Auckland Now