Farmers, scientists and governments need to beware of anti-scientists

Published 20150412

Two issues that have attracted media attention over the past month are the Easter holidays road toll, and the influence of anti coal seam gas sentiments on the outcome of the NSW state election. The contrasting attitudes of the media and the wider community to both these issues is curious, and highlights a worrying trend that has the potential to seriously damage the competitiveness of Australian agriculture in the future.

Easter is traditionally a dangerous time to be driving on Australian roads, and the recent holiday period was no exception. By midnight on Easter Monday, a total of nineteen people had been killed, fifty percent more than for the same period in 2014, and slightly less than the 2013 figure. Despite this terrible toll, there have been no calls for motor cars to be banned, and no apparent change in the willingness of Australians to drive their cars.

Two weeks before Easter, the NSW State election was held. Groups opposed to coal seam gas (CSG) campaigned strongly during the election campaign, one of the major parties vowed to severely restrict if not ultimately ban CSG in NSW, (ironically, the same party that when in government added hundreds of millions of dollars to government coffers through mining and exploration licence fees) and the anti-CSG vote is widely interpreted to have resulted in the election of at least one Green candidate, and helped the vote of several others. This, despite the fact that CSG extraction has been occurring in NSW for at least the last fifteen years with no apparent ill-effects and certainly no deaths, with a major extraction area consisting of approximately 100 wells located less than 70 kilometres from the Sydney CBD, and supplying 5% of NSW gas needs.

The outright opposition to CSG – encouraged by the likes of radio broadcaster Alan Jones – does not appear to be justified on the basis of available evidence. Indeed, a detailed review of the science and the risks associated with CSG by the NSW Chief scientist concluded;

Having considered all the information from these sources and noting the rapid evolution of technological developments applicable to CSG from a wide range of disciplines, the Review concluded that the technical challenges and risks posed by the CSG industry can in general be managed through:

• careful designation of areas appropriate in geological and land-use terms for CSG extraction

• high standards of engineering and professionalism in CSG companies

• creation of a State Whole-of-Environment Data Repository so that data from CSG industry operations can be interrogated as needed and in the context of the wider environment

• comprehensive monitoring of CSG operations with ongoing automatic scrutiny of the resulting data

• a well-trained and certified workforce, and

• application of new technological developments as they become available.

All of this needs to take place within a clear, revised, legislative framework which is supported by an effective and transparent reporting and compliance regime and by drawing on appropriate expert advice. 

This is not to ignore the fact that the NSW Government has considerable work to do in order to comply with these recommendations, and mining companies that have assumed they could just walk onto farms unannounced and start drilling have a lot of work to do in rethinking how they manage coexistence with farmers. That said, the risks and the science associated with CSG do not generally provide support for the outright opposition that now appears to have developed.
This apparent lack of community trust in science, and the absence of rational consideration of relative risks, is not confined to the issue of CSG. In fact it is in evidence more generally in the community in response to a range of different technologies and scientific developments, with the opposition to childhood immunisation being a case in point..
In the agriculture sphere, the example of genetically modified crops springs readily to mind. Despite the clear evidence that GM crops confer major advantages that benefit farmers (through improved management options) and the community (through reduced pesticide use), and despite almost thirty years of intense testing and use during which time not a single illness or death has occurred, activist groups still shamelessly preach about the evils of the technology, and broadcast endless reams of misinformation that seems to have more credence in the community than all the available science. This occurs despite the fact that millions of people worldwide quite happily inject or use GMO-derived insulin on a daily basis to manage diabetes.
The community attitude towards the use of hormonal growth promotants and  bovine somatotrophin in livestock production is another case in point. Either of these products can increase livestock performance by between ten and twenty percent in specific production systems, are administered in doses that are clinically undetectable, are indistinguishable from products created naturally by the livestock’s own metabolic processes, and have never been implicated in any human health risks. Despite this, governments including the EU, and major retailers such as Coles ban their use, largely due to ‘consumer’ opposition, stoked by activist opponents.
More generally, the increase in demand for organic foods is partly a reaction against the science that has resulted in the development of very safe pesticides that have dramatically increased farm productivity and reduced the risk of catastrophic crop failures in developed and increasingly in developing nations. In the absence of these, agriculture’s land and water footprint would need to be many times greater than it currently is, given the substantial gap that exists between the yields of organic and conventional crops. That is not to say that people should not be allowed to choose organic foods, but rather there should be no misunderstanding about the implications of widespread adoption of such production systems.
The risk that this trend poses for Australian agriculture is that farmers will be denied opportunities to increase productivity and improve their international competitiveness because of community unease (or often activist instigated community unease) about the safety of particular technologies or products. This is already occurring, evidenced by the unjustifiable bans on GM crops in several states, and the bans imposed on specific technologies by major retailers.
To turn around this trend will require considerable effort on behalf of governments, the science community and industry. The agriculture sector has prime responsibility and needs to devote considerably more resources to better inform the community about modern agricultural production systems. Scientists involved in agriculture similarly need to become more vocal, especially in response to outright distortions or mistruths pedalled by activist groups. Governments need to adopt a great deal more scientific rigour in decision-making, and take considerable care to ensure relevant independent information is transparently available to the community – and this applies as much to CSG as it does to technologies in use in agriculture.
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