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Analysis of submissions on 'Towards a pesticides risk reduction policy for New Zealand'

Student: Alison White
Supervisor: Kevin Dewe
Sponsor: Public Health Research Theme (U of Otago)

Brief Description of Research

111 submissions were made to the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) discussion document “Towards a pesticides risk reduction policy for New Zealand” in June 2002, including two reports commissioned by MfE to provide a Maori viewpoint. From these submissions the MfE has yet to develop a set of policy options for how the level of risk to human health and the environment from pesticides might be reduced.

This project analysed the submissions using content and discourse approaches, identifying a range of views and social locations of those articulating those views. The project also explored epistemological and action orientations of those views, as well as reifying and ironizing discourses within the submissions. The use of both defensive and offensive rhetoric devices were noted, along with various strategies for building up arguments and making them persuasive.

Significant Outcomes

The debate on whether the use of pesticides should be reduced in New Zealand remains controversial, with a clear demarcation between those who would prefer to do without pesticides and at the same time support organic growing, and those who want no more restrictions on pesticides and who believe that pesticides are a crucial method of controlling pests and diseases. Generally, Maori, organic growers, environmentalists and those who had been made sick from pesticides fitted into the first group, while manufacturers, users of pesticides, both individual and groups, belonged in the second group. Various regulatory authorities, such as health boards and regional councils, as well as scientists, both individual and within institutions, were generally in favour of some sort of change as opposed to preserving the status quo (16 out of 28 submissions). All in all, more than half of the submissions supported a pesticide risk reduction policy, favouring changes to the status quo (60 out of 111).

The most frequent and strongest use of defensive and offensive rhetoric came from those who wished to protect the status quo, the user organisations and various individual users. This group felt threatened that a risk reduction policy would not only add compliance costs but would also restrict their freedom to use the pesticides they wanted to. The organisations especially felt that not enough acknowledgment had been given to the progress they had achieved in pesticide reduction so far, progress which had been demanded by overseas markets. Problems from pesticide use were regarded as ‘perceived’, ‘unquantifiable’ or ‘irrational’, and these were contrasted to their perception of the ‘real’ risk, which could be quantified in science.

Attitudes to the value of science in solving this debate varied greatly, with those in institutions and some users tending to the view that science can provide answers to the question of achieving risk reduction in the face of uncertainties. Others, however, usually NGOs, remarked on the imprecise, impartial and reductionist nature of scientific methodology. Maori organisations commented on how ‘western’ science did not take sufficient account of cultural values, as well as pointing out the contamination occurring to traditional Maori kai, such as watercress and puha.

A variety of strategies were used by many submitters to boost their arguments. The use of the passive and impersonal constructions were commonly used to add neutrality, eg ‘It is worth noting…’, ‘[more] IPM systems need to be developed’. Footing shifts, where something is not treated as the author’s own, occurred frequently to claim neutrality. Apostrophes or bold italics were used by both sides to denigrate: “sustainable” IPM (organic supporter), ‘suspected’ [harm from pesticides] (user). Quantification was often used to maximise or to boost category entitlement, sometimes increasing figures systematically, eg ‘representing 230 commercial… growers… occupy[ing] 1,750 hectares of land…export value of $20 million…horticulture industry directly contributed $3.7 billion… Total investment exceeds $8 billion’. Other rhetoric devices used included extremization, eg the abolition of pesticides means the ‘abandonment of pest control’; minimisation, eg ‘much of the concern associated with pesticides are to do with their historical effects’ (regulatory authority); euphemization, eg a pesticide is redefined as a ‘health and crop protection product’ or ‘environmental medicine’(manufacturers).

The attitude expressed towards organic growing was pivotal in separating the submissions into the two opposing ideological groups. Supporters of organic growing expressed values that were totally different to that of users of pesticides including Integrated Pest Management (IPM) advocates: it was important to work with nature rather than dominate it, or to use a ‘holistic’ rather than a ‘reductionist’ approach. On the one hand organic growing was held up as the obvious answer to not only achieving pesticide risk reduction and caring for the environment and people’s health, but at the same time giving overseas markets, and increasingly the domestic market, what consumers are demanding. Manufacturers and users of pesticides, on the other hand, criticised organic growing for using dangerous, man-made sprays with unknown impurities or else labelled it as ‘uneconomic’, ‘expensive’ or ‘unrealistic’. IPM advocates were likely to minimise the difference between organic growing and IPM, or else simply not mention organic growing.

In spite of this clear ideological split between the two main groups, some issues were agreed upon by submitters on both sides. These included: more monitoring needed of the effects and usage of pesticides; a concern about the higher cost of newer chemicals, with the effect of continuing usage of older chemicals with undesirable properties; education programmes emphasising ways of minimising risk from pesticides and alternatives to pesticides; IPM a good idea – to some a goal in itself, to others a useful transition from reliance on pesticides to using organic growing. Many also felt that the sale of pesticides should be restricted to licensed outlets where there are trained staff and that there should be compulsory training and licensing of commercial applicators.

The subsequent delaying of the development and implementation of a policy of pesticide risk reduction, is, in effect, maintaining the status quo and favouring certain values as opposed to others.

Contribution to the Aims of The Theme

The research applies a methodological approach that has not been widely used in public health research in the University of Otago. The advantage of this particular approach is the insights it can offer on public health issues, particularly where there is controversy. The report I will be writing to the Ministry for the Environment based on my analysis will feed into a final policy document they will be preparing for the Minister towards the end of this year.