Looking at the bigger picture

In order to preserve New Zealand’s rich biodiversity, we may need to rethink our approach to pesticides—even if that’s a fly in the ointment for farmers and others who use them.

“We use a lot of pesticides in New Zealand because we’re a very agricultural nation,” says Catherine Iorns, a reader in the Faculty of Law. “But they may be doing more harm than good. We need more than a review of the pesticides under the current framework; we need an overhaul of the whole system.”

After attending an international seminar in Perth on comparative approaches to pesticide regulation in 2017, Catherine published an academic article calling for a complete overhaul of New Zealand’s pesticide regime, as well as its approach to protection of biodiversity. She argues that not all the necessary information is considered in pesticide approvals, from effects of the chemicals used to possible alternatives.

A contributing issue is the general lack of knowledge about insect numbers.

“People say ‘Why do we have to do anything differently? We don’t see a problem’—that’s because there hasn’t been any coordinated counting or monitoring of invertebrates in New Zealand.

“No one counted before they started using pesticides, or after, so all we have are anecdotal stories about bugs not hitting windscreens anymore, or that we used to see lots of butterflies and now we don’t see as many of them.”

Catherine also notes that the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act governing pesticide regulation is often at odds with Treaty of Waitangi principles.

“Generally, the legislation is not compliant with Treaty principles, because these principles require a partnership approach to decision-making, as well as the active protection of Article Two assets.”

Article Two of the Treaty guarantees Māori rangatiratanga (sovereignty) over their resources and taonga. “Arguably, the insects themselves—and even their ecosystems—could be seen as assets, and something that Māori want to protect.”

She says Māori groups are often not consulted or feel their views are not given sufficient weight in pesticide application decisions. “Too often, Māori concerns appear to be discarded in favour of commercial imperatives to make money.”

Catherine says she welcomes the recent news that the Environmental Protection Agency has invited public submissions on some pesticides for potential reassessment of their approvals, and that it has started to incorporate mātauranga Māori into its decision-making. She also notes there has been an increase in overseas studies into pesticide use.

However, she’s concerned it’s a case of too little, too late. “We’re too slow to move from the status quo, even when a problem becomes apparent—people seem to be too scared to do something different.”

When she’s not teaching or researching, Catherine is busy with other biodiversity initiatives, including her involvement in various government-organised National Science Challenges and a bioethics panel that recently reported on the ethics of predator-free campaigns.

She says a holistic, multidisciplinary approach that considers ecosystems rather than individual variables is vital to address biodiversity loss.

“There is a push in a lot of places in the world to recognise the systemic, interlinked nature of ecosystems. We often focus on specific species—for instance, protecting Maui’s dolphins— but you have to protect the whole system they live within.

“If we’re not looking at the overall impact on ecosystems we’re going quickly to run outside the planetary boundaries.”