05 May 2009
Unfair ERMA decision has wider implications
|Few tears will have been shed when ERMA decided in December to ban the use of the insecticide endosulfan in New Zealand.
It was used only by a relative handful of horticultural growers and turf managers. It's also a particularly unpleasant product in its concentrated form - highly poisonous, an endocrine disrupter and a bio-accumulator. While it poses no known hazard when used as directed, its misuse and overuse overseas has led to human and environmental harm.
Horticulture New Zealand was apparently the only organisation to publicly register its dismay and their main gripe was with the one month's notice given before the ban went into effect. One month's notice over the Christmas-New Year period was clearly unreasonable in the context of a product that has been used in New Zealand in New Zealand for more than 50 years - for the most part uneventfully. There was no urgent threat associated with its continued use and the decision gave growers insufficient time to find alternative products or to adapt their growing methods.
Other primary industry observers may have been publicly silent. But there was a widespread suspicion that ERMA used endosulfan to demonstrate its evenhandedness with those green activists who had not forgiven ERMA for its decision a year before to sanction the continued use of 1080 to control possums.
We hope that wasn't the case. But the citrus growers who bear the main impact of the endosulfan decision have zero political clout, so they would have been an easy target. This is a big contrast with the economically important products used by major industries that ERMA now has on its 'to do' list.
Making ERMA's job even harder will be the decision of the European Parliament on 13 January to halve the use of ‘toxic' products in farming, with toxicity assessed on perceived hazard rather than a scientific assessment of risks and benefits. Although this decision (which was carried with a large majority) has yet to be ratified by EU member governments, it does highlight a change in official attitudes toward risk management, especially in Western Europe.
Already forest owners in New Zealand and overseas are battling with new Forest Stewardship Council pesticide rules initiated by European ENGOs that are impractical and lack scientific integrity. The resulting impasse now threatens the future of FSC eco-certification.
As an exporting nation, our products have to meet the standards of the marketplace, even if these standards are unscientific. Explaining risk management to the public is difficult at the best of times. But rationalising having less stringent standards applied at home than those applied abroad is on another scale of difficulty entirely.
The decision by the European Parliament ushers in an era in which ERMA will constantly have its public credibility put to the test. To come through without too many bruises, its best strategy will be to cultivate a reputation for rigour and fairness regardless of the economic clout of the industries affected.
- Trevor Walton