Get foliced! Now science is just a 'nice to have'

If a majority of submissions said dragons were the biggest risk to our nation's defence, would National change its foreign policy? Such are the questions that arise when a minister shrugs off science in favour of "listening"

When it comes to making it mandatory to put folic acid in our bread, I've kept an open mind these past three years. Mandatory is a pretty big step, one that you should only take if you're utterly convinced of the science urging you in that direction.

Ah yes, science.

In 2009 when the new National-led government stalled on Labour's commitment to fortify all bread with folic acid, there was a fair bit of doubt floating about. Britain and Ireland had delayed their intended fortification because of three pieces of research that raised the possibility of a link with folic acid and cancer.

When you had ACT and the Greens both urging you to jam on the brakes, perhaps it was time to adhere to the old journalists' maxim "if in doubt, leave it out".

So the government set up a working group and spent a long, long three years working through the issue. In that time, so the likes of the Paediatric Society say, further research has down-played the cancer link. Any number of doctors are prepared to say that, without question, folic acid is safe, nothing more than a vitamin with no adverse side effects.

Now some still disagree. They seem to be in the minority, but if after three years of debate that was the consensus, fair enough. Or a minister might say that even the concerns of the expert minority are enough to make her pause. If after three years of working group work remaining voluntary was their considered advice, a minister could point to that as grounds for a difficult decision.

But surely one thing a minister wouldn't do, after all this time spent by the working group, the controversey and the screeds of global scientific research, is say 'meh' to science and that her priority was to listen to submissions in an eight week consultation period.

With the risk of several hundred more cancer cases per year being argued by one side and the potential to save 20 kids a year from spina bifida being argued by more doctors on the other, surely the one thing you don't do is say science doesn't matter.

And yet that's just what Food Safety Minister Kate Wilkinson has said. Or should we call her Food Choice Minister, because safety implies a focus on scientific evidence as to risk, and that's clearly something that doesn't trouble her.

Wilkinson blithely said on Q+A that:

"The decision that was made was really based on consumer choice rather than the science..."

She repeated the assertion (eg "consumer choice was really the one that made the most difference in terms of the decision"), mentioning that the science was conflicted and as she was no scientist, she wasn't well placed to judge. The cancer risk, however, didn't influence her decision. It really was all about choice and people making up their own mind. She stressed that as minister her job was to listen to consultation. Given that 88 of the 134 submissions favoured remaining voluntary – largely on the grounds of consumer choice – that was what she'd do.

Which is a quite remarkable statement. I'm sure many of you can think of examples when a majority of submissions has been ignored (mention them in comments). For one, if this government is so committed to listening, it'll surely announce an end to its partial asset sales programme today!

Is National now going to make policy simply on the weight of public submissions? Will no judgment be applied? Is all you have to do is convince National now is simply stack submissions? Is that good governance?

There are questions about the decision itself – such as whether "choice" is a sufficient reason when over 50% of people surveyed by her own ministry last year put 0,1, or 2 out of ten when asked if they knew much about folic acid. And there's the point that starting to take folic acid as soon as you learn your pregnant won't save the extra 20-odd kids a year from neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, that could have been saved by mandatory fortification.

But that's not what this post is about; it's about the decision-making process.

As we saw in the debate on the alcohol purchasing age, there can be there intense debate over what evidence means, but it's expected these days that good policy is evidence-based policy. I can't remember ever hearing a minister simply say that evidence wasn't part of her decision making and that she relied entirely on submissions.

So who were the submitters and what did they say? Here's the Ministry for Primary Industries' summary, which noted that 88 of the 134 submissions were against mandatory fortification and 39 were pro:

Submitters who favoured mandatory fortification considered that the benefits of fortification outweighed the costs and said the risks to the general population were minimal or non- existent. Submissions favouring mandatory fortification were mainly from professional medical associations, doctors and families affected by a neural tube defect (NTD) pregnancy.

Those submitters who did not support mandatory fortification were concerned about the risks associated with adding folic acid to bread, questioned the proportionality of the response (fortifying all bread when only a very small subset of the population would benefit) and objected to the lack of choice mandatory fortification would impose on consumers. Submissions favouring voluntary fortification were mainly from individual consumers, industry associations and individual bakery firms.

So the baking industry won the day over the medical folk, not by the strength of their arguments or superiority of their science, but by the weight of numbers.


We're an anti-intellectual enough country at the best of times, but to be so cavalier about science is a terrible signal to send.

Of course Wilkinson may totally understand the science and may be stressing the importance of choice for political gain and to avoid taking sides in the scientific debate. But in a way that's even worse. It's like dumbing yourself down so you fit in with the cool kids.

I suspect politically she's with the majority here; New Zealanders hate being told what to do and public opinion tends stress that people don't want to be "dosed" without their consent or face "mass medication".

And if Wilkinson shared that view and was worried about the risk to the many over the benefit to the few, then she could and should have made that case.

But to simply shrug off the science and choose choice is to abdicate any responsibility as a minister. We might as well just have accountants in that role to tally up submission numbers.