Opinion: When it comes to nitrate in drinking water, we should stop adopting a "start worrying – details to follow" approach and start listening to science, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth writes.
It is highly unlikely that nitrates in drinking water or the diet present an increased risk of cancer.
ESR has reviewed the research and assessed biology, chemistry and exposure. They concluded that there is no link.
The research was done by experienced researchers in one of New Zealand's Crown Research Institutes (CRI), and was, as is normal, checked before release.
Good news, you would think.
But instead of feeling relieved that they can get on with more important matters, there was an outcry from environmentalists and NGOs pointing out that Fonterra funded 60 per cent of the research costs.
The fact that Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, a government agency, funded the rest was, apparently, no reassurance.
In implying that the results were not to be trusted the naysayers have impugned researchers, a Crown Research Institute and a ministry.
They also implied that Fonterra was up to no good.
Dr Doug Edmeades, Soil Scientist, has been warning New Zealand of the dangers inherent in underfunding and "user pays" for years.
He is not alone in the warning, but the dangers in some cases are more in perception than in the results.
In this case, Fonterra (and MBIE) did not prescribe how the research was to be done. Nor did the funders indicate the outcome required.
Fonterra is a farmer-owned business and wants everybody to be as safe as possible wherever they are living, able to drink New Zealand-produced milk and reassured that nitrate in drinking water won't be causing cancer.
Well before the ESR research release, Professor Frank Frizelle, Professor of Colorectal Surgery, University of Otago, Canterbury, pointed out that there is highly unlikely to be a link between drinking water nitrate and colorectal cancer.
He and colleague Dr Jacqui Keenan are clear that nitrates don't reach the colon – so it is difficult to see a causal mechanism.
The World Health Organization 2017 report on drinking water and nitrate also found no evidence of cause and effect between nitrate in drinking water and any form of cancer.
Yet the environmentalists and NGOs continue to say that there is, creating unnecessary alarm, investment of dollars that could be more use actually fighting cancer, and more distraction for scientists chasing non-existent links.
The problem is that when we read a news story, we immediately take the highlighted finding as if it were true and worry that something we had considered relatively harmless, such as drinking water, could be adversely affecting our health or the health of people we love.
The logic behind this kind of reporting has been described by American cancer epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat as down to the injunction, "Start worrying - details to follow".
Its clickbait and "hits" justifies repeat behaviour. Science agencies such as the CRIs simply don't have the funding to counteract the tsunami of misinformation.
This is the overall problem for public research in New Zealand.
When the CRIs were formed in the early 1990s there was an emphasis on involving businesses and gaining business funding to ensure that the research had a usable outcome – route to user was important to achieve partial government funding, and partnerships were sought.
The strategy has worked.
In 2020 funding from the business sector constituted approximately 60 per cent of total research and development expenditure.
The other approximately 40 per cent was covered by higher education (24 per cent from the universities and other tertiary education providers) and government sectors (17 per cent contribution, including crown research institutes).
StatsNZ published the information in April this year.
Further, total internal R&D expenditure reached $4.5 billion in 2020, up 16 per cent from 2018 when the last survey was done.
Manufacturing had the largest expenditure ($649 million), with Information Technology and Communication at $555 million and the Primary Industries at $365 million.
(Health was fourth with $355 million and, reflecting what has already been reported globally, will probably increase in the next report…)
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:
But overall, the amount of money invested in New Zealand (1.23 per cent of GDP) in comparison with the OECD (2.38 per cent) is dismal.
Without business funding, New Zealand would either have to stop doing the research that underpins the country environmentally, economically and socially, or increase government support.
The latter would mean increased taxation, which doesn't usually go down well with society. It would also probably reduce discretionary payments to NGOs – an unintended consequence.
So what to do? Allow business funding or keep listening to activists?
So here is some reassurance and points to look for in any research.
Was it done by experienced scientists with expertise in the appropriate discipline, with autonomy in approach, and then peer-reviewed? If yes, why would there be a problem with the results?
The ESR research followed professional practice and the report did not find a link between nitrate in drinking water and colorectal cancer. We should all be pleased and raise a glass to the researchers that did the work, and to MBIE and Fonterra who funded it.
The question could be asked of the NGOs as to whether their research results could stand the same scrutiny.
"Start worrying – details to follow?"
Not about nitrate in drinking water– we have the details already.
- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, is a farmer-elected Director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions are her own. firstname.lastname@example.org