Was former EPA chief scientist muzzled?

This article was first published in the August 18, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

After months of controversy, Jacqueline Rowarth’s tenure at the Environmental Protection Authority came to a sudden end.

Steady rain falls on the dairy farm outside Tirau, the “corrugated capital of the world”, where controversial soil scientist Jacqueline Rowarth is waiting for a plumber to arrive.

Later in the day she will also deal with a power cut that threatens the evening milking and climb into her four-wheel-drive to tow the truck of her partner, veterinarian Ian Scott, out of the mud, along with the heavily pregnant cow on the trailer hitched to it.

Rowarth is 62 and active, a vegetarian since she was 18. She takes these mini emergencies in her stride. In her various scientific and academic roles at AgResearch, Lincoln University, Massey University and as a professor of agribusiness at Waikato University, she has spent a lot of time on farms. But she didn’t expect to be spending this much time on the Waikato farm just yet.

In March, Rowarth stepped down as chief scientist of the Environmental Protection Authority, the Government agency formed in 2011 to regulate activities that affect our environment, after just 16 months in the job. She wasn’t fired, she resigned. But it was clear by late 2017 that Rowarth’s position was becoming increasingly untenable. Her outspoken views on the state of our rivers, the environmental impact of irrigation and use of the weed killer glyphosate had drawn widespread criticism from environmentalists and fellow scientists.

Documents obtained by Radio New Zealand would later reveal that her boss, EPA chief executive Allan Freeth, was also fielding approaches from senior Government figures – Environment Ministry chief executive Vicky Robertson, Environment Minister David Parker, Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage and the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman – all related to Rowarth’s views on these sensitive environmental issues. Some of them thought she was damaging the EPA’s credibility.

Rowarth is no shrinking violet. She likes a good argument and has done since her high-school days participating in English Speaking Union debates.

“I want to know what the facts are,” she says in the English accent that hasn’t faded since she emigrated from the United Kingdom with her family in 1976. “I always said to the students, ‘Challenge me. Is this what you really think?’ It’s very important to have robust debate.”

But no one had seen a senior science adviser in a Government position wade into such controversy before. The EPA had a slow-motion crisis on its hands.

“Allan was in a very difficult position, because there was all this negative stuff. I said on several occasions, ‘If this is going to be a problem, we should talk about it now’,” says Rowarth.

The tipping point came in November, when Rowarth was quoted in the Otago Daily Times after visiting an irrigation development during a field day at Matakanui Station in Central Otago.

“EPA chief scientist says irrigation good for environment,” blared the headline.

“I didn’t say it was good for the environment, I said it has environmental benefits,” Rowarth says.

Unfortunate timing

But the nuance of her argument was lost on the ODT and Rowarth’s timing was particularly bad. The new Labour-New Zealand First coalition Government was gearing up to cut funding of major irrigation schemes in Canterbury and Marlborough as part of its confidence and supply agreement with the Green Party. Big irrigation schemes were seen as being at odds with Labour’s plan to clean up waterways and slow the intensification of dairy farming.

Rowarth says she was simply pointing out that irrigation improved the sustainability of some dairy farms, allowing their owners to invest in greener farming practices and tackle pests such as rabbits and wilding pines.

“Do you accept 600ha of irrigation that you can’t see from the road so that the farmer has money to look after the weeds and pests, or are you going to say they can’t do it, in which case they might walk off the land? You’ve got choices,” she shrugs.

Rowarth has scientific credentials. She did her PhD in soil science at Massey University. She also understands the business side of agriculture, which saw her emerge as one of the country’s most prominent agribusiness commentators. But her views on irrigation bore the hallmarks of comments that had got her into trouble before: a bit of science mixed with economic analysis and a conclusion that appeared to align with the interests of farmers and the primary sector in general.

One minute she will pull up graphs on her laptop showing nitrogen leaching rates, the next she is quoting farm-debt statistics. It is an approach that didn’t sit well with her critics, who expected her to stick to a dispassionate summary of the science.

But the EPA knew exactly what it would be getting when Rowarth was shoulder-tapped for the job in 2016. She had been a columnist for the National Business Review for years and regularly discussed rural affairs on radio news shows. She knew Freeth from his days running rural supplies company PGG Wrightson.

“He made it part of his pitch and sold it to the board as having someone who could build up trust by explaining complex issues,” Rowarth says.

“I thought this could be a good way to spend the last five years of my working life, in something where I believed in the vision, doing well by the environment and the economy.”

Freeth declined to discuss Rowarth’s tenure as chief scientist with the Listener. But a welcome letter he sent to her outlined the brief for the newly created role of chief scientist. “In many ways, the role is yours to create in your own way. The mandate is very wide and your ability to contribute has few limits,” he wrote.

Science was “at the heart of what we do”, but the EPA was charged with balancing its views and decisions against the “economic development and progress of New Zealand”.

“There is no reason why you should not comment on air or water,” he added, even though it was beyond the responsibility of the EPA. Rowarth would have to drop her critical analysis of companies such as Fonterra and AgResearch “without losing your voice and currency in the media”.

The wide remit appeared to suit a confident communicator who had enjoyed academic freedom for much of her career.

“It was to look at the science, evaluate the risk, consider the impact on the economy and what the public thinks they want,” she says.

Against the tide

But even before she started in the role, Rowarth was embroiled in controversy, again over comments that made news.

In October 2016, while still an academic at Waikato University, she addressed a Pukekohe gathering of farmers and landowners organised by the Primary Land Users Group. The topic of discussion was the health of the Waikato River.

The Waikato Regional Council’s Proposed Plan Change 1 had just been approved and aimed to reduce contaminants flowing into the Waikato and Waipa rivers. Landowners were nervous about the effect rule changes would have on their businesses.

But the key takeaway from Rowarth’s talk, as reported by the Hamilton News, seemed at odds with the plan for urgent action.

“Waikato one of cleanest rivers in the world: Professor”, ran the headline.

A 20-year scientific snapshot of the state of the river, prepared by Waikato Regional Council water scientist Bill Vant in 2013, had flagged areas of major concern, including “serious declining trends” in water clarity and nitrogen levels. The increasing levels of nitrogen detected at points along the Waikato and other waterways were mainly a result of run-off and nitrogen-leaching from dairy farms. Vant was particularly worried about the downstream effects – algae build-up, loss of aquatic life and the potential for toxic algal blooms.

The science appeared to prove Rowarth wrong and, indeed, a month later, the president of the New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society, Marc Schallenberg, issued a lengthy critique claiming exactly that.

He later appeared on RNZ’s Nine to Noon show, telling host Kathryn Ryan: “Someone who has shown this poor level of scholarship and poor level of communication of the science to the public and the media, I would say, personally, that seems to be inconsistent with having a position of chief scientist in the EPA.”

An online petition, launched by Dunedin environmental contractor Matt Thomson, got 356 signatures and called for the EPA to ditch Rowarth before she even started in the role.

“[Hers] was a corrupt appointment, and [she] needs to go,” wrote Thomson.

As Rowarth sees it, a newspaper headline had again reduced her arguments to what could be written off as pro-farming spin. “No one ever called me to ask what I’d actually said.”

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development had, in 2004, considered the Waikato one of the cleanest rivers in the world of 100 or so it compares.

“But we don’t know exactly what it was measuring and it hasn’t measured all the rivers in the world. So I said, ‘Let’s have a look at the data.’”

The most recent OECD data, published in 2011, showed the Waikato had slipped significantly in river comparisons, later reinforced by Vant’s findings. But compared with other major rivers around the world, such as the Seine, the Thames, or Ireland’s Barrow, Rowarth had a point: for a waterway passing through a major dairy region, it wasn’t in terrible shape.

And that is the core of Rowarth’s arguments on freshwater – relative to the rest of the world, we are doing okay considering agriculture is such an integral part of the economy.

“The Waikato continues to be spectacular,” she maintains.

“Indicators from the regional council are that water quality is improving – and given all that farmers have been doing in response to concerns, it would be pretty depressing if it wasn’t improving. But there are still problems with sediment in the Waipa, which joins the Waikato, and there are E coli spikes downstream of towns and cities and after heavy rain. We need more research, and better technologies, particularly to do with human effluent, and that means more funding into science.”

Dr William Rolleston has known Rowarth for years and admits to being surprised when she turned up as chief scientist at the EPA.

Rolleston trained in medicine and co-founded biotechnology firm South Pacific Sera. He also farms the iconic Blue Cliffs Station near Timaru, a large sheep and beef farm that has been in the family for generations.

Last year, he concluded a three-year term as president of Federated Farmers, during which he sought to inject evidence into some of the contentious environmental debates engulfing the farming sector. On that front, he considered Rowarth an ally.

“I felt we’d potentially lost a strong advocate because she wouldn’t necessarily be able to speak up as a chief scientist of a regulator,” he says of her appointment.

“You can’t really have an opinion as a regulator. You are there to make decisions, just like any public servant. It may have been unrealistic to have that view.”

He contrasts her position with that of Gluckman, who had the authority and resources to commission his own reports but also deftly navigated the politics of the role he held for nine years, under three prime ministers.

“His comments were more brave as he retired, on things such as genetic modification, than they were as the chief science adviser,” Rolleston says. “That was probably appropriate.”

He says the tone of discussion on freshwater science “hasn’t covered anyone in glory”. Part of the problem is the complexity and often incomplete nature of the science and disagreement over what measures matter the most. So, does Rowarth get the science right?

“She’s probably right and she’s probably wrong, depending on the context. The same goes for Mike Joy.”

An increasingly acrimonious relationship with Joy, a freshwater scientist and former Massey University colleague of Rowarth, helped bring her issues at the EPA to a head. In April 2017, Rowarth appeared on farming radio show The Country with fellow soil scientist Doug Edmeades to discuss with host Jamie Mackay whether Joy, a vocal critic of the dairy sector’s impact on freshwater quality, was an “extremist”. Despite the provocative set-up, it was a fairly innocuous interview, during which Rowarth said Joy was “burning his bra” over the freshwater issue. It didn’t help Rowarth’s position that Edmeades, who was more critical of Joy, is a prominent climate sceptic. Rowarth is quick to point out that she doesn’t share his views on climate change.

“He’s a good soil scientist and one of the few who will stand up against the snake-oil stuff.”

The interview sparked complaints to the New Zealand Association of Scientists from some of its members, which led to the association issuing a reminder to members to adhere to the Royal Society’s professional guidelines for discussing science-related issues.

Rowarth, upset at the implication she had been unprofessional, resigned from the organisation. But as freshwater quality became a major election issue, the tension only grew. In October, Freeth wrote to Jan Thomas, vice-chancellor of Massey University, complaining that Joy’s criticisms of Rowarth in media appearances and Facebook posts had become “increasingly personal” and “close to libellous”.

It led to Joy having to attend a formal disciplinary meeting. That resulted in no further action, and Joy subsequently left Massey to join Victoria University. But the incident meant more fallout for Rowarth and the EPA. The letter of complaint was published online with commentary suggesting Freeth’s intervention was heavy-handed.

Mucking in

Rowarth’s critics say she is conflicted in talking about freshwater quality because of her agribusiness interests. She laughs at that. She owns 5% of the Waikato farm, which consists of 56ha of dairy, 50ha of deer and some farm forestry. Scott manages the livestock, and at the moment, that means delivering calves at all hours of the day.

“I’m responsible for soil science, building up the organic matter, reducing leaching, keeping up the productivity of the cows,” she says. “The farm is about three times the district average for production of milk solids but half the average for nitrogen loss.”

However, the view from Rowarth’s dining room is dominated by lush flat fields dotted not with cows but with grazing stags. Velvet from their antlers is removed, processed and shipped to Korea. Rowarth isn’t totally convinced that the velvet delivers therapeutic benefits, but there is a booming market for it.

She is particularly proud of the large, plastic-covered shelter close to the herringbone milking shed, built for the dairy cows at a cost of $750,000. It was crowded with cows munching away on dry feed the day the Listener visited. It gives them respite from the rain and sun, and the deep woodchip pad they stand on also absorbs waste that would otherwise end up on the fields.

Rowarth never had children. Most of her energy these days, physical and emotional, goes into the farm. Between the shelter, the fencing of waterways, planting of 20,000 native trees and science-based pasture management, the farm is her idea of what sustainable farming could look like.

But is it profitable? “When the dairy boom was going on at $8.40 [per kilogram of milk solids], they were saying Ian was mad to have the deer on the land, it should all be dairy,” she says.

“Then the crash came and the price of velvet was high. This is a diverse farm, but it takes a really good brain to keep it all going.”

At the EPA, Rowarth saw her role as building up the agency’s scientific capability, which was under strain as it took on responsibility for assessing resource applications in New Zealand’s extensive exclusive economic zone.

But the Waikato River comments continued to haunt her through 2017. The political tide had also turned. Rowarth says that her wide remit for commentary began to narrow as the EPA became more sensitive to criticism of its chief scientist.

“I got more and more restricted, which implies that I wasn’t able to be independent, because I had to stop talking about things like water quality,” she says.

She decided over the Christmas break that it was time to go. When Freeth announced her resignation in February, he flagged Rowarth’s return to the education sector.

“The students will undoubtedly benefit from her input,” he wrote.

But opportunities she was exploring for a return to lecturing and research soon dried up as the media picked over her controversial tenure.

“It was just horrible, hearing stuff on the radio. Not being able to say anything – it’s not what I do.”

The most damaging blow was the revelation that Gluckman had approached the EPA in December with concerns about Rowarth.

“I was devastated. I emailed Sir Peter and asked if I could explain. No response,” she says.

“It was all rather bruising.”

She maintains neither her appointment to, nor departure from the EPA featured political interference. But that became a contentious issue as documents obtained by journalists under the Official Information Act revealed the correspondence about her. Freeth had to front up twice to Parliament’s  environment select committee to clarify which ministers and officials had met or emailed him about Rowarth. He repeatedly denied that he had come under pressure to remove her.

More than five months on from Rowarth’s departure, the chief scientist role at the EPA remains unfilled.

“We are now following our usual recruitment processes for a new chief scientist, in the same way we would for any senior role,” Freeth said in a statement.

His effort to elevate the role of science and build trust in his agency’s decision-making backfired. But Labour ministers have expressed a desire to raise the profile of scientific advice within Government agencies.

“There is a ready army of chief scientists who are in Government departments,” Labour’s spokeswoman on science and innovation, Megan Woods, said before last year’s election, at a panel discussion in Wellington organised by the Public Service Association.

“There’s nobody, beyond a few pointy heads like ourselves, that knows who they are, what they do, what departments they are appointed to.”

Gluckman’s role as the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser was held “too closely in the executive”, she added, preferring a change in the office to mirror the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, who reports to Parliament rather than the Prime Minister.

Now Minister for Research, Science and Innovation, Woods says she is happy with the independence of the chief science adviser role, held since July 1 by Juliet Gerrard, professor of biochemistry at the University of Auckland.

She points to Gluckman’s hard-hitting report on meth contamination in state houses. But that report was released just weeks before his retirement and after a change in Government.

“The chief science adviser and departmental science advisers are among the best scientists in New Zealand and I’m confident they’re committed to providing quality, independent advice to help inform better policy outcomes,” Woods says.

“At the moment, there’s no funding to create something akin to a Parliamentary Commissioner. From discussions with Professor Gerrard, I know she is also eager to have more direct engagement with the public.”

Rowarth, for her part, isn’t yet ready to commit entirely to the quiet life of the farm. She writes a column for the New Zealand Herald and can be found at agricultural conferences and farmers’ meetings, Powerpoint slides at the ready, primed as ever to debate the science.

“Periodically I feel, God, I’m never going to say anything again,” she says.

“But it doesn’t last very long because I find something that people have got wrong yet again.”

Rowarth’s view

On the Impossible Burger
“It is too silly for words, in my view. So we need the sugar that we can’t grow and the genetically engineered stuff that we can’t do, then peas or soya beans from other countries because we can’t grow them. Then what are we doing?”

On palm kernel imports
“Palm oil is found in around 50% of products in the supermarket; it’s an $85 billion market. The retail value of what NZ farmers have paid for their two million tonnes in the past year is around 0.46% of that. I don’t think Fonterra has got the power to stop palm kernel use.”

On climate change
“I’m a climate-change denier because I shared a stage with Doug [Edmeades]? I wrote the first short course on climate change at Massey.

It is very difficult to believe we could be releasing quite so much fossil fuel and not have had an impact.”

On genetic modification
“What we should be doing with any of these techniques is look at what impacts they might have rather than worrying about how we get there.

On the other hand, if we get the marketing right and say we are free range, pasture fed, low antibiotics, high human and animal welfare, GM free, maybe that’s where we should be.”

On methane
“Reducing methane from cows is very difficult in New Zealand’s pasture-based system. The Dutch have made some advances in a feed additive, but it requires daily feeding to cows individually, which is not generally how New Zealand farms are set up.”

On emissions
“Carbon dioxide is the big problem and a people issue. We are building with concrete, driving big cars and moving goods by  truck. And shifting to a plant-based diet wouldn’t make nearly as much difference as giving up overseas trips or going car-free.”

This article was first published in the August 18, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.