Posts Tagged ‘Environmental Protection Authority’

EPA Chief Scientist is leaving to return to an education role.

The Environmental Protection Authority has announced Chief Scientist Jacqueline Rowarth’s resignation.

EPA chief executive Allan Freeth says she is returning to an education role (he did not specify it) where she will also continue independent analysis and commentary on issues for New Zealand.

His statement said:

During her time with the EPA Jacqueline has built up the science team, focusing on supporting other teams with the information they need to make decisions informed by science. In particular she has encouraged staff to get involved – through speaking and writing, starting with [our internal regular feature] Science Corner. She has also spread the word externally about the role the EPA plays in New Zealand.

Jacqueline’s last day of employment with the EPA as Chief Scientist will be Friday 2 March 2018. However, Jacqueline has agreed to undertake specific research/project work for EPA for up to two months after her employment with the EPA ends. The Executive Team wishes her all the best for her future work.

AgScience’s quick Google search found the announcement reported only by Stuff (here) and Radio New Zealand (here).

It was not recorded on the Scoop website, where EPA statements are usually posted.

The Radio NZ report described Dr Rowarth as the EPA’s “controversial chief scientist”.

It also said Dr Freeth would not be interviewed about the resignation.

EPA spokesperson Diane Robinson said: “We don’t have any further comment beyond the statement on our website”.

Dr Rowarth drew criticism late last year after describing irrigation as a “great boon” to the environment.

She said irrigation helped farmers remain profitable, and they then invested that money in environmental projects.

Conservationists described those comments as “bizarre”, while the government said irrigation caused enormous environmental damage.

This presumably was a reference to reasons given for a change of government policy on irrigation schemes after the general election.

The new Labour-led Government announced it was reversing the previous government’s policy of subsidising big irrigation schemes around the country.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said that was because of the enormous environmental damage.

Dr Rowarth started her EPA job in October 2016.


EPA to consider release of fungus in bid to blunt Chilean needle grass

New Zealand farming’s vulnerability to Chilean needle grass may be reduced if an application to release a rust fungus from Argentina wins approval from the Environmental Protection Authority.

Chilean needle grass is found at some 300 sites in New Zealand, covering around 4,000 hectares. But research suggests up to 15 million hectares may be potentially at risk.

Chilean needle grass is common in Australia and has caused production losses of up to 25 per cent in infested pastures. It displaces other types of grass, but is less palatable and nutritious to stock.

The grass also reduces the sale value of stock. Its sharply pointed seeds bore into the skins of grazing animals, damaging the pelt and reducing carcass value. It can also cause distressing wounds, sometimes blinding lambs and injuring farm dogs.

Marlborough District Council has applied to introduce the rust fungus on behalf of a consortium of regional councils and the Department of Conservation.

The fungus – Uromyces pencanus – infects the leaves of Chilean needle grass and competes with them for nutrients, with debilitating effects. Its spores spread rapidly on the wind.

A year-long study in Argentina found the fungus did not spread to plants other than the target needle grass. Other research suggests there is no direct threat to non-target plants in New Zealand, so no native or ornamental plants would be at risk.

This rust is unlike myrtle rust, which infects a wide range of plant host species within the Myrtaceae family. Myrtle rust arrived accidentally in New Zealand, whereas the introduction of U. pencanus would be intentional for a defined purpose – to control the invasive plant, Chilean needle grass.

The EPA will consider the risks and benefits before any decision is made to release the rust in New Zealand.

Public submissions on this application opened today and will close on 13 March.

EPA report says NZ has its share of science deniers

The global phenomenon of science denial and scepticism about the role of experts is alive and well in New Zealand, the Environmental Protection Authority says in its 2016/17 annual report.

Opposition to bureaucracy and scepticism about scientific endeavour and the role of experts are highlighted in the report as key pressures facing environmental regulators around the world.

“New Zealand has its share of science deniers whose opinions are reinforced and nurtured in the unmoderated milieu of the internet,” says the report.

“Protecting the environment does not mean building a wall around it or immunising it from change.

“Environments are dynamic, always evolving, and the threats to them are ever-changing. We must find a balance among competing pressures in the search for a better New Zealand.

“Our decisions matter. Though they do not always meet with universal favour, our role is to work within the law and make decisions based on facts, data and science, using the expertise of our high-skilled scientific and technical staff.”

The report covers a range of activities, including:

– The reclassification of 200 hazardous substances as part of an ongoing review of New Zealand’s chemical landscape to ensure risks to people and the environment are adequately managed

– Helping kiwi families stay safe around household chemical products through a public information campaign and Facebook page that had 93,000 hits in its first year

– Working alongside Australian regulators to promote coherent regulatory practice and policy, and prioritising the formulation of consistent regulation across both countries

– Development of a Red Alert system to raise public awareness about the dangers of certain chemicals

– A nationwide series of territorial authority workshops addressing system-wide approaches to managing hazardous substances to protect local environments and communities

– Strengthening scientific leadership through the appointment of a chief scientist

– Supporting New Zealand’s obligations under international treaties and agreements, for example the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

– Providing logistical support to the decision-making process for Trans-Tasman Resources marine consent and marine discharge applications and two Proposals of National Significance – Auckland’s Northern Corridor and East West Link.

EPA chief executive Allan Freeth said 2016/2017 had been a year of executing the agency’s vision to be a proactive regulator, to anticipate and lead change.

NZ experts react to results of field tests on insecticide impact on bees

The Science Media Centre has posted comments (HERE) from New Zealand scientists on two large-scale field experiments on the effects of certain insecticides on honey bees and wild bees.

Neonicotinoids, insecticides that have been broadly applied to many major crops, have been implicated in the decline of bees globally.

Two studies, published this week in Science, found mixed results.

* Insecticide residue in bees nests was associated with lower reproductive success in Germany, Hungary and the UK, but survival over winter was unaffected in Germany.

* The second study, in Canada, found that worker bees exposed to neonicotinoids had lower life expectancies and their colonies were more likely to lose queens.

More information about the studies is available HERE.  

Dr David Pattemore, pollination & apiculture team leader, Plant & Food Research, comments:

“Two new studies published this week claim to show negative effects of neonicotinoids on honey bee colonies in real-world scenarios. One study does not really present clear evidence to support this conclusion, but the second does link neonicotinoid exposure to key longevity, hygiene and reproductive traits of honey bee colonies.

“One of the studies demonstrates synergistic effects between fungicides and neonicotinoids, which increase the mortality of bees exposed to the pesticides. One of the studies shows evidence of negative neonicotinoid effects on bumblebee and solitary bee reproductive output.

“Overall these provide  little more evidence about the effects of neonicotinoids, but there is still no scientific consensus emerging about the effect of neonicotinoids on honey bee health in realistic field situations.

“These two studies are unlikely to have implications for New Zealand in terms of regulations for the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. After reading these papers, my view is that we need to consider the synergistic effects of multiple agrochemicals on bee health and that it is timely to consider establishing long-term monitoring programmes for wild pollinator populations, including native and introduced bees, in New Zealand.”

Note: Dr Pattemore has also written a blog in response to the studies. Plant & Food Research occasionally has contracts to evaluate the efficacy or toxicity of pesticides, but Dr Pattemore hasn’t been personally involved in these trials to date.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, chief scientist, Environmental Protection Authority, comments:

“Research published this week indicates that prolonged exposure to neonicotinoid insecticides can negatively affect bees. The researchers also concluded that local environment and species influence impact of the chemicals. The research was done in the northern hemisphere near oilseed rape crops in Germany, Hungary and the UK, and in the commercial corn (maize)-growing area of Canada.

“For New Zealand, and the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) which regulates the use of chemicals, focus on new research results includes applicability. Experts scan for new research constantly, and consider the results in the New Zealand context.

“New Zealand does not have the large tracts of land under cropping that are common in the northern hemisphere, and does have very strict regulations around timing of chemical application (e.g., not when the target for protection is flowering), delivery method, and seed treatment dust reduction. The northern hemisphere research comments on neonicotinoid dust being found in the pollen of flowering species surrounding crops ‘despite the use of dust-reducing lubricants’.

“In New Zealand the use of neonicotinoids in seed treatment has enabled very low rates of active ingredient, thereby reducing the number of insecticide treatments required to protect the crop. Residues of neonicotinoids have not been found in pollen or nectar of when the insecticide has been applied at label rates.

“The chemical of particular concern in the new research, clothianidin, is a seed treatment approved for cereals, maize/sweetcorn, grasses and forage brassicas. Only the brassica is a flowering crop, and it is eaten before it reaches maturity. The crops are not considered to be attractive to bees, unlike oilseed rape.

“The northern hemisphere researchers also comment on the increase in negative effects in bees when fungicides were used as well as the neonicotinoids and the confounding factor of climate change. This points to the complexity of identifying the problems with chemical exposure. Cold damp winters affect bee survival and there is an interaction with pests as well as food supplies (quantity and quality). These factors are difficult to disentangle. In New Zealand, feral bee numbers have been decimated by varroa mite, but managed bee hive numbers have increased. In Australia, which is varroa-free, no problems with bee survival have been reported. Neonicotinoids have been used for two decades.

‘Recognising on-going public concerns, the EPA is developing a pollinator strategy, working with the chemical industry and the apiculturalists, to ensure that decisions about chemical use are made on the basis of robust and appropriate research, whilst supporting pollinators and pollination.”

The EPA sets the rules for use of hazardous substances under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 by assessing the environmental and economic risks and benefits to New Zealanders and the environment.

Associate Professor Peter Dearden, director, Genetics Otago, University of Otago, comments:

“The two Science papers (Tsvetkov et al and Woodcock et al) attempt to test the effect of common pesticides on bee colonies in situations that are as close to reality (in terms of exposure) as possible. This is a tricky thing to do, and something that has been criticised in previous studies of neonicotinoid exposure in the past. These papers do this well, and show that the effects of neonicotinoids are complex, but detrimental to bees.

“In Canada, Tsvetkov et al show clearly that neonicotinoid seed coatings have detrimental effects on bees, and that these effects are exacerbated by other agricultural chemicals. Woodcock et al show similar things in Europe, but add that the different cocktails of agricultural chemicals used in different countries have different effects, causing variation in the impact on bees in each location.

“This complexity of response to insecticides is not surprising, but these results clearly show that in general neonicotinoid exposure, even in sublethal doses, in field realistic tests, is detrimental to bees. This is a problem, but so is growing crops without pesticides.

“There is a balance to be had here if we are to produce food in large enough quantities to feed a burgeoning human population, without devastation of managed, and wild, pollinators. The hope of these papers is the variability seen in European countries, and the synergistic effects with other agri-chemicals seen in Canada. This suggests that we may be able to identify ways of using these chemicals, or combinations of these chemicals, to be less damaging to bees, and wild insects.

“The key message is, however, that in field realistic conditions, neonicotinoid seed treatments are bad for pollinators. Limiting their use in New Zealand, as well as researching how to develop pollinator friendly insecticides, or using insecticides in a less damaging way, is critical. The European studies show that agricultural practice varies the impact on bees. We need this research to be done in New Zealand to see how our practice is affecting our bees.”

Note: Dr Dearden has a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise grant to develop bee-friendly insecticides.

Professor Phil Lester, insect ecologist, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Neonicotinoids are some of the most widely used pesticides in the world. They were developed in the hope that their use would be less harmful to non-target organisms, because by only coating crop seeds in this pesticide prior to planting the need for spraying entire environments can be reduced. Neonicotinoids are then expressed throughout the mature plant and affect only those organisms eating the plant. The issue is that neonicotinoids are expressed in the pollen and nectar too, which beneficial organisms like bees collect and eat.

“The European Union imposed a temporary moratorium on the use of the three key neonicotinoids in 2013 because of their potential to harm honey bees. In contrast, the government of New Zealand has joined with Australia in not imposing a ban or moratorium on the use of these chemicals. I think our governments have made exactly the right decision at this time.

“The work published by Tsvetkov and colleagues in Science today that indicates ‘Chronic exposure to neonicotinoids reduces honey-bee health near corn crops’. This study agrees with a large amount of previous work. If honey bees are exposed to and feed on high amounts of neonicotinoids the outcome is simply bad. Workers and queens will die. For those experiencing a sub-lethal dose, their foraging becomes less efficient. They undertake reduced hygienic behaviour in the hive and their immune system seems to be impaired. And their tolerance of other stressors bees experience in bee environments, in this case a fungicide, is reduced.

“The Tsvetkov study in cornfields of Canada clearly shows that field-realistic exposure to neonicotinoids can substantially reduce honey bee health.

“The second paper in Science today is from work within three different countries and examines three different bees. It also attempted to use field-realistic exposure to neonicotinoids. Populations of honey bees, bumble bees and a solitary bee were followed in the United Kingdom, Hungary and Germany.

“The team of authors led by Woodcock examined two neonicotinoid pesticides. They found a fascinatingly mixed bag of results. Both neonicotinoids resulted in significantly reduced numbers of honey bee eggs being produced in Hungary. But exposure to both pesticides in Germany resulted in significantly more eggs being produced. Neonicotinoids also seemed to result in higher numbers of workers surviving winter in Germany. In Hungary, fewer workers survived winter after exposure to one pesticide, but not the other chemical. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, there were negative and some positive effects of exposure to the different neonicotinoids.

“A take-home message the Woodcock publication is that the use different neonicotinoids can have different effects and these effects can be very country specific. After reading these results, if I was a grower in Germany I would be starting to question the European Union’s temporary moratorium.

“These studies highlight that for countries like New Zealand to effectively manage the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, we need data. We need to know what the effects of neonicotinoids are in our specific country and in the way we specifically use them. And we also need to know what the effects would be if we took them away. I’ve read reports that growers in the UK have had to now revert to broad spectrum pesticides that are considered worse for the environment and mean they cannot grow certain crops.

“In 2013, the Australian government undertook a review of “Neonicotinoids and the Health of Honey Bees in Australia”. They concluded that “the introduction of the neonicotinoids has led to an overall reduction in the risks to the agricultural environment from the application of insecticides”. They don’t currently think there is the scientific evidence to show that neonicotinoids are of widespread harm to bees in Australia. In fact, they stated that “The introduction of the neonicotinoid insecticides has brought a number of benefits, including that they are considerably less toxic to humans (and other mammals) than the organophosphorus and carbamate insecticides they have significantly replaced.

“Honey bees in New Zealand have a plethora of known and scientifically demonstrated threats. Our honey bees have invasive, blood sucking mites. They have the Deformed wing virus which has been described as a key contributor to colony collapse around the globe. Our bees have bacterial pathogens like American Foulbrood that result in beekeepers burning their bees and hives. Fungal diseases are widespread. We also have management issues with the higher-than-ever numbers of managed hives, which are often managed poorly and over-stocked. These are real and known issues occurring for our honey bees now.

“I hope that the New Zealand government acts on studies like those from the Woodcock and Tsvetkov teams.

“But I’d personally be disappointed if that action was anything other than evidence- and science-based. Let’s gather the data. Then make the decision. It might be that like results from the Tsvetkov study, we find neonicotinoids are bad for our bees. Or we might be a Germany and find that they have few or even positive effects.”

Note: Professor Lester’s comments also appeared on The Conversation.

EPA to consider AgResearch application to evaluate new grass species

AgResearch’s Margot Forde Germplasm Centre has applied to the Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate 18 new grass species in real farm conditions, rather than in the laboratory or containment facilities.

The EPA, which is  calling for submissions on this proposal, says the new grass species could help make New Zealand’s pastures become more tolerant to disease, pests and drought. This could improve productivity, increase returns to farmers and enhance the environment.

The grasses are all closely related to perennial ryegrass, New Zealand’s most common pasture grass. The aim is to transfer desirable traits from the 18 species to ryegrass by integration and crossbreeding. The new species would not themselves be grown as pasture.

While new to New Zealand, the 18 grass species are distant relatives of New Zealand native grass species. The EPA says it is therefore highly unlikely they would hybridise naturally with native grasses. They are wild relatives of pasture grass species already in cultivation in New Zealand.

The new grasses have adapted to harsher growing environments overseas and possess desirable traits such as drought tolerance, pest and disease resistance, and being nutrient efficient. Incorporating these traits could improve the resilience of local pasture and reduce the need for fertiliser, irrigation, pesticides and herbicides, lowering farmers’ input costs and enabling more sustainable, environmentally friendly farming practices.

Another potential benefit is being able to reduce grazing animals’ methane emissions, which would help New Zealand to meet its target under the UN Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

AgResearch says it will pay particular attention to the potential for any new cultivars to become weeds affecting maize, wheat, barley and other crops, and will work with Plant and Food Research on this issue. After a weed risk assessment it ruled out one species for entry into New Zealand.

Public submissions on the proposal opened on Wednesday and will close at 5pm on Wednesday 22 February 2017.

Greens raise questions in Parliament about Waikato River quality remarks

The quality of the Waikato River’s fresh water and remarks about the river by Jacqueline Rowarth this week became the subject of questions in Parliament. 

Green Party MP Catherine Delahunty kicked things off with a question to Environment Minister Nick Smtih: did he agree with the comment from Dr Rowarth, the Environmental Protection Authority’s Chief Scientist, that the Waikato River was one of the five cleanest rivers in the world?

In reply, Dr Smith said Dr Rowarth’s comments were made before she took up her position with the EPA, when she was a professor at Waikato University.

More important to the environmental debate that has been triggered by her comments, she had advised him that her comments were taken out of context.

He explained:

Water quality in the Waikato is superb and amongst the very best in the world in the upper reaches, like around Huka Falls, but deteriorates in the lower reaches due to nutrients, pathogens, and sedimentation, particularly below the confluence of the Waipā River.

The data shows that in the lower reaches these problems have been increasing in recent decades, and steps are required to reverse those trends. That is why this Government has invested over $300 million in its clean-up.

I do note the EPA does not have a role in the regulation of water quality, and its principal function is the regulation of hazardous substances and new organisms.

Delahunty followed up, asking if Dr Smith considered the comments of the EPA’s new chief scientist showed a robust understanding of science and of a waterway that has more than $8 million of Government funding dedicated to cleaning it up because it is so seriously polluted?

In reply, Smith said the Government is spending a lot more than $8 million; it is spending over $300 million (“such is the importance of Lake Taupō and the Waikato River to this Government”).

“In respect of this particular individual, I think the member should be cautious of taking her comments out of context, because, actually, in the upper reaches, the water quality is very good at Huka Falls, and it would be wrong for the Green Party to run that down.”

Delahunty then drew attention to the New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society, comprising 400 freshwater scientists and professionals. In light of the way it disputed Dr Rowarth’s full claims, “should we have faith that the EPA is able to make good decisions about hazardous chemicals and water and protect our environment?”

Dr Smith said Dr Rowarth, a new appointment to the EPA, is a well-qualified scientist. The decision as to her appointment had been made independently by the EPA, “and I think this House should be cautious of being openly critical of neutral public servants, which is the new role she has, after completing her term as a professor at Waikato University”.

Remarks about Waikato River spark petition – and revitalise concerns about silent scientists

The need for more scientists to be heard in public, not fewer, has been spotlighted by the row over Jacqueline Rowarth’s remarks about the Waikato River being one of the world’s five cleanest reveals, says Shaun Hendy.

Dr Rowarth has just taken up her post as chief scientist at the Environmental Protection Authority.

At a Primary Land Users Group meeting on October 3, she said the Waikato River was one of the five cleanest in the world, based on the OECD data she was using.

The New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society said the claims were false and were based on outdated data and factual errors. Her analysis was based on OECD river nitrate data from 2002-2004, the society said, whereas the most up-to-date (for 2011) showed the Waikato had dropping from its 5 per cent ranking in 2002-2004 to a 24 per cent ranking.

A Dunedin environmental contractor and Green Party supporter, Matt Thomson, has followed up by launching a petition demanding Dr Rowarth be removed from her position. His reason, reportedly, was mainly to “rark things up” and he was not sure what he would do if the petition gained traction.

But Dr Rowarth had been appointed to a  new job at the EPA although “she was already sympathetic to the farming industry”.

Shaun Hendy, director of the Te Pūnaha Matatini, a Centre of Research Excellence, and a Professor of Physics at the University of Auckland, has set out his thoughts in an article for Spinoff.

When more than 5,000 people became sick thanks to the contamination of Havelock North’s water supply in August, science experts “made themselves rather scarce”, he writes..

When Hawke’s Bay Regional Council chair, Fenton Wilson, was asked by Radio New Zealand about his Council’s reports concerning the woefully unhealthy state of the nearby Tukituki river, he said “I don’t have any of that information to hand.” When it was put to him that recent flooding may have driven contaminated water into one of the town’s aquifers, Wilson speculated that “speculation is not helpful at this time”.

Did we really not have any scientists who could speak knowledgably on whether contaminated surface water could have gotten into Havelock North’s groundwater?

Remarkably, science confirms that remnant populations of such scientists do still reside in New Zealand. They work for the government, and as I wrote in Silencing Science earlier this year, they are the sorts of experts we almost never hear from.

Dr Rowarth, previously a professor of agribusiness at the University of Waikato, has been employed by the  EPA to use her “expertise to explain our science, so people can have trust and confidence in the decisions we make”, according to EPA chief executive Dr Allan Freeth.

Professor Hendy comments:

This may have sounded like a good plan at the time, but Rowarth’s stance on water quality has had other experts increasingly alarmed.

New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society president Marc Schallenberg said that Rowarth’s “comments concerning the condition of the Waikato River are not only false, but distract from the important work being done to improve water quality in New Zealand”.

Bryce Cooper, a water quality expert at NIWA, said, “Water quality in its [the Waikato River’s] lower reaches ranks in the bottom half of 500 sites nationally for key indicators such as nitrogen, phosphorus, E.coli (a measure of faecal contamination) and water clarity.”

If you are predisposed to think that the science of tides was fabricated 400 years ago in preparation for Project Fear, then you may also be tempted to dismiss these water quality experts as having a vested interest in spreading alarm in order to keep themselves employed.

But if you actually want to be better informed about our rivers, you do need to hear from scientists like Cooper and Schallenberg – and, yes, Rowarth too. Because this is how science works. Scientists make claims, present their evidence, and wait for the judgement of their peers.

Better that we know how Rowarth views the evidence than not. Now those views are in the open, they can be scrutinised and critiqued.

Professor Hendy noted that when Dr Rowarth was asked to comment on her views by Radio New Zealand, the EPA replied, saying, “it would be inappropriate for her to comment on statements she made while employed in a previous role.”

In Silencing Science he complained that  the last thing a government scientist is allowed to do is speak about matters actually affecting the public.

But (as he muses) who needs an expert when helpful prime ministers can always find you another with a different point of view?