7 thoughts on Media, science, and sustainable dairy

When science joins journalism, good things happen, as Mike Joy and Stephen Sackur showed. It was a big media science story, that should have been a bigger economic one: how to reconcile dairy’s growth industry with our “100% pure” brand

It’s an august line-up, on this Thursday’s Media 7 science special: Professor Sir Peter Gluckman; Robert, Lord Winston. Me.

The last part of that was a joke. It is true that after the professor and the peer of the realm I join a panel with freshwater scientist Dr Mike Joy, to talk, again, about the 100% purity (compared to the rest of the world) fiasco, and this post of mine about Fonterra.

Joy’s “little scuffle with the Prime Minister” was, in its way, the science meets journalism story of the year. He and Stephen Sackur joined forces to make Teflon John look a bit of a twit. Also, said Mr Key, scientists were a bit like lawyers, you could always find another to give another opinion. There we sat, on the panel, pre-filming last Sunday, the scientist and the ex-lawyer, a lovely little twist. Dr Joy’s news on water quality was bad; mine, about Fonterra, was good. Symmetry.

The theme was sustainability, my favourite. All of my favourites, in fact: environment science and the media, sustainable farming and our economy. Can our two big earners, dairying and tourism, co-exist? Can conservationists and farmers talk?

So: lots to talk about. Here’s what I would have said, had it been one of those comfortable typewriter interviews (as in, me interviewing mine).

What you see on tele on Thursday evening may or may not resemble this. Much of what I was asked and all of what I said is a blank, though I do recall some unnecessary blather about Fred Pearce. To put it in short simple terms: this is not something I do. It was either very brave, or very very stupid.

First up (I remember this one) was whether my story shows that if you make enough noise, something will eventually be done about it.

The question should perhaps be why, Fonterra aside, so little is still getting done, in spite of the noise.

Joy got air time when, via Sackur, he confronted the PM, and exposed his blarney. It was, in itself, news that a journalist had been unimpressed by the PM's boyish smile. There was conflict, and two sides to the story; we know media like to put both sides even when, as on climate change, there really aren’t.

It shouldn’t take a Stephen Sackur or Fred Pearce. The information is all there. Sackur had an op-ed from the New Zealand Herald, that Mike had written in April; Pearce, in a greenwash column (here I go again), exposing false environmental claims, said we were giving the world two fingers at Kyoto. Those stories were there to be written. Perhaps it shows that still, we see ourselves through overseas eyes; we do not see ourselves at all, until Mother England says. It’s a shameful lack of confidence, or something, among our own journalists.

Occam’s razor might give a different reason, about being slack or under-resourced. But I think it goes deeper. Kiwis cling to two articles of faith: we look quite empty and quite clean; we grow food for the world better than anyone else in the world. For a journalist to look past and challenge those assumptions, including his or her own, is tough, nigh impossible without hard facts.

I could, I think, count on my thumbs the local journalists giving environment science sustained attention, and understanding that each story is not just a biodiversity story, or a freshwater story, or climate change, etcetera etcetera, but a global story, about limits; and not just an environmental story, but an economic and social one, too.

Science is getting better at communicating, which journalists need. Among my best posts lately (as in, the ones that I myself like best) are three that owe pretty much everything to a scientist’s big day out. James Hansen has travelled well out of his comfort zone. Mike Joy, too, made a conscious decision to do two things: to advocate, as a scientist, and to do so from the heart, backing passionate beliefs with facts. On the show, he talks about why he can.

Is it harder to talk science when the news is bad, which, environmentally, it is? Well, perhaps. Journalists don’t have a problem communicating bad news of any other kind I can think of. But what interested and excited me about the Fonterra post -- and I was, as Russell will say, the only one to date to tell that story -- is that it was solution-focused. All the answers are not there, but it does offer hope for a way forward, for conservationists and farmers both. I think that it is too soon, to call it a good news story. But it is one with huge potential.

Can we have a growth dairy industry, and simultaneously claim to be 100% pure, clean and green? What does sustainable farming mean?

I do not think raising dairy consumption levels to those of the developed world is a sustainable global aspiration; or that exporting dairy from the bottom of the world is the best way to respond to a future food crisis, rather than local solutions.

But that is what we do. We need to talk less about the growth of the industry, and more about what is the right size. Because some has been good for New Zealand, it does not mean more is better. We need to set some limits, and start debating the costs, on freshwater, biodiversity, landscapes, emissions profile.

It is too often true that farmers and conservationists are at odds: over Resource Management; the right to pollute on farm with disregard for what happens off it; whether the Mackenzie should be green or brown.

Fonterra is doing things that can help them both. Sometimes conservation, profitability and productivity coincide, as when a farmer pours money into fertiliser, half of which runs off down the drain; or when, as Fonterra knows, its whole future rests on our brand. The challenge is not just to feed the world; it is to do it as the world expects. The world expects New Zealand, “the closest scientists will come to life on another planet”, to look after our national treasures.

Am I am optimist? Yes, when I re-read the Fonterra story, and when I wrote it, but also, a realist. It isn’t yet a good news story, because last year, 66% of Waikato dairy farmers were fully compliant with effluent discharge rules. Therefore, 34% were not. In Canterbury, 65% fully compliant means that 35% were not. The rates of “significant non-compliance” were 12% and 9% respectively -- down from a national rate of 15% in the 2008/09 year, and 27% in Waikato the previous year, and yet, still a failure of basic compliance, with rules that do not fully tackle the water quality problem.

Moving from basic compliance to best practice, on sustainability beyond freshwater, is a long way off. Worth asking, too, what Fonterra are focused on sustaining: their market, or the environment? I think they will do what the market demands -- but the science? According to the science, the environment may need something different.

So, to the media again, to finish. I’d like three things done better.

First, tell the truth, by which I mean, just report the science. The story writes itself; the questions are all there.

Second, get out and tell some good farm stories; quit just sticking a microphone under the nose of the nearest Fed Farmers “representative”, who is not representative of the whole range of farmers.

And remember: there’s another side to the cost-benefit ledger, not just the dairy payout.