by Tony Orman
Around Marlborough there’s some disturbing signs of an ailing environment. Only a few years ago, I would frequently notice kingfishers sitting on fences and power lines. Today I see none. In the garden, the native orange-backed lady birds that prey on aphids are now rarely seen. While frequenting river and stream banks while trout fishing I no longer hear or see frogs. As a teenager in the 1950s, frogs croaked by every stream or marshy hollow and catching tadpoles was a major pursuit for youngsters. I recall evening starling flights of years ago. The spectacular whirling starling flights of yesteryear have gone, replaced by just a few individual birds. In trout rivers during the twilight,I recall dozens of juvenile eels in the shallows. Today they have gone. Evening mayfly hatches on the river are almost non-existent. There’s a world-wide decline in bee numbers including New Zealand. Last summer fishing the upper Wairau River, when in other years there was the chirping of bush robins and the song of cicadas, there was silence. In the high country when hunting, a kill of a deer or pig was the prelude to dozens of buzzing blow-flies. Now there are just one or two. Nearer home, moths in dozens no longer cluster around street lights or lighted house windows. There’s a big, big decline in insects banging into and being squashed on car windscreens in country areas. Are these apparent declines in numbers of wild creatures symptomatic of an ailing and declining ecosystem? Is poisoning the land a greater threat to the environment than global warming was the question recently posed by the UK’s “Guardian” noted columnist George Monbiot. Monibot, a 54 year old British writer and author well known for his “environmental and political activism” (Wikipedia) does not dismiss global warming. Indeed Monibot ranks it as vitally important but in 3rd place after commercial fishing and the impact of agrichemicals on the insect life of the planet. “It is simply that I have come to realise that two other issues have such huge and immediate impact that they push this even great predicament into third place. One is industrial fishing — now causing systemic collapse. The other is the erasure of non-human life from the land. The scale and speed of environmental collapse is beyond imagination,” added Monibot. Just a week ago, a report said a new scientific study has found “dramatic” and “alarming” declines in insect populations in areas in Germany, which university researchers say could have far-reaching consequences for the world’s crop production and natural ecosystems.
What of New Zealand? Are we dowsing an environment with a unprecedented mixture of chemicals? Household effluent contains bleaches and detergents that did not exist forty years ago. Are we dumping upon the environment via urban waste-water systems and widespread spraying of the country-side with agri-chemicals and insecticides and pesticides, a “cocktail of chemicals” of unprecedented volume and variety? An indictment of the ignorant short-sighted lack of respect for the environment is that many urban areas still discharge sewage into waterways, either regularly or in high rainfall times. Wairarapa conservationist Bill Benfield and author of two startling books “The Third Wave” and “At War with Nature”, says understandably farming practices have sought greater efficiencies and production.
“Greater use has been made of agrichemicals, including insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. Among the insecticides is the DDT substitute diazinon which is aerially sprayed on the land for grass grub. Although banned in the EU, its use is un-restricted in New Zealand.” Diazinon is “lethal to aquatic life.” In May 2012 dead mallard ducks were found on a Landcorp farm at Cape Foulwind, West Coast, after 1500 hectares were sprayed with diazinon. An autopsy found the ducks to be poisoned by the organophosphate. Then there is 1080. “Ecosystem poisons, such as the metabolic poison 1080 are aerially dropped on wilderness public lands” says Bill Benfield. What’s the scientific verdict? Unfortunately the integrity of science has been undermined by a system of commissioned, paid science – in short money motivation he says. Some scientists have spoken out. “The fury that descends on any scientist who steps out of line will ensure that their career and reputation will be in tatters. Few do,” says Bill Benfield. George Monbiot in his recent column, described how in the distorted funding of science there is no end of money for finding out how to kill insects, but almost none for finding out the consequences.
In New Zealand, says Bill Benfield, eco-piety is expressed by riding a bicycle or driving hybrid cars, perhaps shopping at organic farmers markets yet the same people may campaign for even more chemical poisoning of “pests” and the fast disappearing invertebrates and bird life of the wilderness. If Monbiot is correct, the cocktail of chemicals may also be in the long run, to the detriment of human survival.
Tony Orman Orman is a Marlborough based free lance writer and advocate for conservation, i.e. “the wise use of resources.”