Opinion: The State of Cancer in New Zealand 2020 report has good news for rural folk, despite the bad press around agrichemicals, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth writes.
In the release of the State of Cancer in New Zealand 2020 report from the Cancer Control Agency this month, the media concentrated on bad news and interpretations of inequities. The good news was not mentioned.
Good news doesn't sell newspapers: Journalism 101.
Psychologists have studied the phenomenon and call it a "negativity bias" – people are drawn to read bad news even though they say they prefer good news.
The modern era of "information" availability, clickbait and sharing has not changed the basic statement.
Wharton Business School professors have done the research and shown that the emotions of anger, anxiety and disgust increase sharing on social media. So do awe, excitement and humour. Contentment and sadness decrease likelihood of sharing.
This leaves good news in neutral territory and explains why it is so often overlooked.
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:
The good news (at least for those in the country) in the State of Cancer report is that the overall incidence of cancer is 25 per cent lower among those living in rural areas, compared with those living in the main urban areas.
Although it might not be a reason to leave the cities (nose-to-tail traffic every long weekend indicate there are enough reasons to cause outflows already) it certainly is reason enough to reconsider the validity of some arguments.
Agrichemicals, whether fertiliser nitrogen or Roundup, have been the butt of activist concern for years.
Working on the fear of a possible health threat, activists provoke anxiety and anger in society, without considering all the consequences of their actions.
Generating unnecessary anxiety in people is one consequence. Another is that without the tools of food production, which, when used as recommended, do not cause problems with human health, food would be very much more expensive.
There would be less of it available (exacerbating the cost problem). It would also be more restricted both geographically and seasonally.
Fertiliser nitrogen helps with yield by making the key limiting nutrient, usually nitrogen, more available.
Nitrogen is the building block of protein and fertiliser advice in New Zealand focuses on precise application (right place, right time, right amount, right form) to maximise uptake by the plant.
Some of the plant is eaten (by animals in the case of pasture or humans in the case of vegetables or fruit) and some stays in the soil where it contributes to soil organic matter.
This organic matter is in a constant state of flux, breaking down due to the action of micro-organisms and building up with the addition of plant material (and dung).
The more organic matter we have in the soil, the greater the chances of nitrogen in the form of nitrate leaking to ground water. But there is no link between cancer and nitrate in ground water. The Cancer Report did not mention water at all.
In the second week of February, the news was about nitrate in drinking water and "emerging research" linking it to colorectal cancer. Again.
Certainly a report on a possible link in Denmark was published in 2018, but it gained no traction because there was no dose-related response (more nitrogen in water didn't increase the chances of colorectal cancer) and no causative mechanism could be found.
Nitrate in the diet, whether from food (lots) or drinking water (very little) does not reach the colon – most of it is changed to nitrite in the mouth.
Roundup has also been the subject of a lot of bad press.
Media reports of the suffering individual against big pharma pull at the heartstrings, generating anger on behalf of the downtrodden and, of course, anxiety in case one is also struck.
The research says that over 97 per cent of people suffering from Non Hodgkins lymphoma (NHL) have had no exposure to glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup).
Nor has there been any increase in NHL since Roundup was invented.
Further, long-term studies involving over 55,000 people in the USA show that agricultural workers have no greater incidence of cancer than average. And research in New Zealand shows rural people have less incidence – 25 per cent less - than those living in the cities.
With this news it should be possible to refocus funding and effort on education for the real reasons causing cancer in New Zealand – smoking and obesity.
Increased education in household management, shopping for meal plans and basic cooking are foundational for a healthy future.
And perhaps some press releases about the waste of money in pursuing "beliefs" that are unfounded would assist the refocus.
The good news in the cancer report for rural people will also result in good news for urban people if we can scotch the bad press around agrichemicals.
Their use, always as prescribed by guidelines, assists with food accessibility – available at an affordable price.
Clickers also need to rethink what they click upon. The psychologists have suggested that we have trained them to write what we access.
If we access bad news first, what can we expect?
- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, is a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. firstname.lastname@example.org