Facts must support fertiliser claims

FACING THE MUSIC: A ground-breaking change to the Fair Trading Act has Doug Edmeades dancing with glee.
FACING THE MUSIC: A ground-breaking change to the Fair Trading Act has Doug Edmeades dancing with glee.

Caveat emptor, that grand motif of laizez faire politics, gave modern businesses the license to put any old junk on the market, supported by any number of unsubstantiated claims - to hell with it, "Let the buyer beware".

This has been a particular problem in the fertiliser industry and is exaggerated in these new age environmentally sensitive times.

You know the patter: "My new fertiliser product or soil additive is so good it enhances soil health, plant health and human health, and does not pollute the water." In short it does everything. You almost get the feeling it is better than ground unicorn horn.

But now Bob Dylan's famous song applies "... the times they are achanging".

A seismic shift has come in an amendment to the Fair Trading Act which came into force in June. A real life example will help to explain this ground-breaking change.

In 2007, a farmer complained to the Commerce Commission, which administers the Fair Trading Act, about the claims being made for a silica-based fertiliser product called Probitas.

The commission investigated, and based on expert evidence (in this case provided by one Doug Edmeades), reached the conclusion that the claims made for the product were false and misleading.

It decided to prosecute the company concerned and so off we all went to the Tauranga District Court. Justice Callander accepted my evidence and duly fined the company some $272,000 for breaches of the Fair Trading Act.

Note, and this is the key issue here, the burden of proof fell on the commission to prove that the claims made for the product were false.

Needless to say, it cost a lot of taxpayer money to take this action.

The recent changes to the Fair Trading Act reverse the situation. The burden of proof now lies with the proprietor.

If a claim or claims are made for a fertiliser product or soil additive the proprietor must, at the time of making the claim(s), have evidence to support that or those claim(s).

I must admit to dancing in the office when hearing this news because for a long time now (going back to my involvement in the famous Maxicrop case in the mid-1980s), I have been making the same argument.

Surely it is for the proprietor to prove their product works as claimed prior to putting it on the market.

Incidentally, this is one reason why the voluntary Federated Farmers Fertmark scheme is toothless.

Anyone can register any fertiliser product providing it is true to label in respect to its nutrient content. Proof of efficacy is not required.

In the past, when I have challenged some proprietors on this point, they have defended themselves saying that their company does not have the financial resources to undertake the necessary research to test their product before it goes onto the market.

This may be true, but surely there is a moral argument here. Why should the farmer be used as a guinea pig? Why should he take the risk? And in any case it is almost impossible for a farmer to know if a particular product he has used, works as claimed.

Consider a very basic claim: Product X increases pasture and/or animal production. A farmer applies it. Production post-application may well increase.

Is that because of the product? Or was it a better season? Or maybe the stock and pasture management policies were changed. Maybe the insect pressure or worm burden was less. Maybe he simply got his A into G and farmed more conscientiously.

The list of possible factors can be long.

Anecdotal evidence, as in farmer testimonials, I suspect will no longer work.

The only way to prove unambiguously that product works as claimed is to undertake some bone fide scientific research, which removes all the confounding factors.

How about some of the more fanciful claims made for some fertiliser products and soil additives?

Product X reduces P lockup, or Product Y increases earthworm numbers, or Product Z increases pasture-rooting depth.

Under the new legislation such claims will need to be soundly based before they are asserted in the marketplace.

Such claims while readily made are very, very difficult to prove unequivocally without the need for expensive, robust, sound science.

So now the proprietors have to face the music.

Crudely - put up (your scientific data) or shut up (don't make claims that cannot be substantiated).

Knowing as I do the havoc that the "muck and mystery boys" have created in New Zealand over the years, by wasting farmers' hard-earned dollars or undermining their confidence, I can feel crocodile tears welling up.

* Doug Edmeades, MNZM, is an independent soil scientist and managing director of agKnowledge. He was Federated Farmers' Agriculture Personality of the Year in 2012, and is a former Landcorp Agricultural Communicator of the Year.