Coffee and Politics: Mental Health, March for Science, and Gender Pay Equality in Caregiving!

This is the first Coffee and Politics that has been broadcasted and includes a panel discussion about mental health, the March for Science, and the recent win for gender pay equality in Caregiving.

The spiel I gave on the March for Science is here (scroll down for text):


Here is the full video for those interested:


On Saturday, there were over 600 rallies around the globe to March for Science. The march was to raise awareness around the need for science to be readily available and communicated freely without misrepresentation or fear of retribution, but also to boost recognition of science as an essential part of a well-functioning democracy.

One of the most common reasons why markets and political systems often fail to provide optimal outcomes is misinformation in decision-making. What’s worse is that it seems misinformation is growing rapidly all around us. “Alternative facts” or dodgy health supplements anyone? We need science for a more well-informed, critically thinking public.

Science is not a religion. It culminates from the continual testing of hypotheses. It’s not perfect. It doesn’t provide all the answers. And views often change. But it’s far better than blind faith or simply randomly generated answers. It learns from the past, it has humility, and it aims to inform based on the best available knowledge at the time. With universities being scientific powerhouses that are the critics and consciences of society.

Unfortunately, research is gradually transitioning from being a public good to simply being another tool in the spin-doctor’s toolbox, policy is often based on cherry picked rather than complete and honest science, and universities are being turned into businesses as part of a get rich quick scheme.

Academics are also increasingly reliant on commercial funding which not only risks the integrity of their work but transfers science from being for public benefit to being for private benefit. 40% of scientists are also now in fear of publicly communicating results that are controversial in fear of losing funding, with many also gagged by employment contracts to protect the company image. The little government funding that is available is often targeted towards advancing political goals rather than scientifically driven ventures.

Enough dreariness for now, on to solutions! I would like to see a government that:

  1. Invests in both theoretical and applied scientific ventures. One that simply invests in science for the sake of developing knowledge. We don’t know what we don’t know. Penicilin, the microwave, the big bang, coca-cola and Viagra are just a few of the many important discoveries that were stumbled across accidentally in the pursuit of knowledge.
  2. Revokes the ability of employers to ban or punish scientists who speak openly and honestly about their findings.
  3. Directs universities to once again be a place of open debate, knowledge development, and being the critics and consciences of society. Universities should not be run solely for economic development or as just another business.
  4. Change copyright laws to ensure New Zealand research is freely available.
  5. Invest in a media portal to communicate scientific findings with the public.
  6. And finally, that they practice frank, open and independently peer reviewed evidence-based decision making.

Bugs make excellent water quality indicators!

We only spot sample nutrients and that doesn’t take into account multiple stressors/influences on aquatic bug communities. The best way to know if a community is degraded is to sample it directly – they are ones living in the polluted water after-all.


Published in the Gisborne Herald by Michael Nielson:

“Freshwater ecology doctoral researcher Adam Canning said measuring nutrient levels only would not tell the full story of how healthy a waterway was. Instead they should measure the presence and health of freshwater bugs.”


From my Evidence in Chief:

” Within rivers and streams there is Periphyton, Detritus, Terrestrial Plant and Animal matter, Aquatic Invertebrates, and Fish. Periphyton (the coating of slightly furry green or brown algae on rocks) and detritus (both in-stream and terrestrial derived plant matter, e.g., leaves) form the basis of the stream food web. Some periphyton is required as food for many aquatic invertebrates; however, too much algal growth can dramatically change the ecology and habitat conditions of a river. Aquatic invertebrates consume the periphyton and plant matter either directly (along with other organic sources) or by predating the smaller grazing invertebrates. Native and sport fish eat these invertebrates and some terrestrial inputs. All of the biological components of a river food web require the correct habitat, water quantity and water quality in order to maintain healthy populations and functioning ecosystems. A change in a single constituent can alter the entire community composition as a result of trophic cascades and resource competition.

Macroinvertebrates are important contributors to a river food web’s functioning and stability (important aspects that comprise ecosystem health). However, not all macroinvertebrates are equal contributors, contrast those presented in figure 10. Some invertebrates are more energetically rewarding with lower foraging costs for fish. Maintaining the diversity of these energetically rewarding invertebrates is important for the stability of fish diet. Large grazers are also important for down-cutting periphyton. Rivers with good water quality are dominated 14 by mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies, whereas rivers with poor water quality are dominated by worms, snails and midges and do not support the same abundance, biomass or diversity of fish that the former communities do. Fish that feed on poor invertebrate communities become stressed, susceptible to disease and develop poor condition as a result of undesirable dietary changes (Dean & Richardson, 1999; Franklin, 2013).”

A more elaborate explanation found within my Evidence in Chief.

Natural flow variation needed for rivers

Published in the Gisbourne herald by Michael Nielson:

“…natural “flow variability” … is… essential to the life-supporting capacity and ecosystems in freshwater, yet it was increasingly disrupted by human activity, largely via water abstraction, barriers, deforestation and climate change.

Certain species live between the rocks, yet during low flow sediment can build up in these areas and they need larger-than-normal flows to flush it out.

Any measures that would steady the flows of rivers, especially those with slow flow, could prevent sediment build up from flushing away and affect the ecosystems.

“Flushes and floods are essential for maintaining habitat in rivers, especially slow flowing rivers,” said Mr Canning.

Many native fish species, including eels and five whitebait species, rely on river flows for migration and reproduction. The flow needs to be continuous and connect with the sea for them to complete their lifecycles.

High flow increases dissolved oxygen in the river and decreases rock slime (periphyton) build-up.”

Their comment on high flows increasing dissolved oxygen isn’t quite right. Rivers naturally experience a certain level of diurnal dissolved oxygen fluctuation as algae becomes a net producer of oxygen during the day and net user of oxygen at night. However, when algae growth becomes prolific the lower layers begin to rot and the bacterial decomposition uses high volumes of oxygen; at night time this oxygen can cause dissolved oxygen to plummet to stressful or even fatal levels. During the day time, excessive oxygen fixation may supersaturate water resulting in fish and invertebrates developing air embolisms which may be stressful for aquatic life. Regular floods scour algae/periphyton/slime from rocks and prevent it from building up to stressful levels.

A reply to: “Malcolm Lumsden: Who is the greater polluter, cows or people?”

Recently the New Zealand Herald published an article by Malcolm Lumsden that subjectively compares pollution by people with dairy cows.

The original article can be found at:

Here I provide a rebuttal to his alternative facts:

Whilst his claim that over the women in question’s lifetime that she will produce the same amount of pee and poo as one cow is probably correct, he does not make a fair comparison; when one cow dies there is another taking its place – over the women’s life time there will be 11 cows worth of poo and pee not one (assuming a one-one comparison).

He claims that the Waikato River is the “fourth cleanest in world.” Can he please provide evidence for this? I am unaware of a study that compares the water quality of all rivers in the world and it’s unclear by what parameters he is making his judgement. In terms of nitrates, dissolved oxygen fluctuation, sediment and MCI (measure of aquatic bug health), there are numerous rivers throughout New Zealand that exceed the Waikato River in water quality.

He’s right that Daisy the cow will spread her poos and pees on the land where it gets filtered. However, the amount of filtering that happens is small. Cow pee has a higher concentration than human pee and gets dumped on a very small patch of land. The grass and soil microbes can only assimilate a small portion of it; the rest travels through the soil into our waterways where it fuels algae growth. As for most towns in NZ, the wastewater treatment process is a lot more involved than simply removing the solids and pipe discharges are being replaced rapidly with land based discharges. By way of example, the nutrient loads in rivers in the Manawatū confirm the correlations with land use and reveal that the majority of nutrients in lowland rivers come from diffuse sources rather than point sources (out of pipe).  The Manawatū River at the gorge carries 2280 tonnes of nitrogen, of which only 1.2 per cent (29 tonnes) is from point sources, and 54 tonnes of phosphorus, of which 13 per cent (7 tonnes) is from point source origin; the rest is from diffuse sources, which is almost completely from agriculture (Ballantine & Davies-Colley, 2009; Roygard, Mcarthur & Clarke, 2012).

I concur that urban stormwater has many nasties in it. A move towards biodegradable chemicals and using wetlands to filter stormwater runoff is needed. However, stormwater runoff has far less impact on the biological communities in rivers than nitrogen and phosphorus (key components of fertilizer).

He claims that science says we need twice as much land for organic farming. That simply isn’t true, trials comparing conventional versus organic farming at Massey University have shown that both forms of farming can produce similar outputs – except one does not rely on fertilizer and has higher value. Moreover, if we want to feed the world then dairy farming is an extremely inefficient way of doing so. Plant based milks use a small fraction of the land, with far less inputs and outputs than dairying, and do not rely on fossil fuel fertilizers and palm kernel from the deforested Orangutan dwelling rainforests of Indonesia.

He may view the likes of Dr Mike Joy as an extremist; he’s welcome to call him what he likes but Mike uses peer-reviewed science to back his claims. If Malcolm wishes to seriously contend Mike’s arguments then he should also use scientific evidence to back up his claims. The only way we will move forward with this contentious issue is if we get our heads out of the sand, hands out of our own back pockets, put our prejudices aside, and take an objective, evidence-based approach. It is concerning that decision makers, such as Brett Hudson MP and Louise Upston MP, effectively endorse the subjective, misinformation presented in this article on their Facebook profiles – it reeks of Trump-like support for “alternative facts.”

It is not true that we all want “meat, milk, and other animal products removed from our diets.” What we want is for humans to consume a diet that fits within Earth’s capacity to produce. There is no doubt that large reductions of dairy and beef will be needed. I’m not saying we all need to become vegan, but we do need to conduct serious analysis into what a healthy and sustainable diet looks like and make the tough decisions to get there.

Malcolm had a grizzle about the potential Waikato plan change which he claims “will dictate land use, stock numbers, fertiliser use, what type of crops may be grown and where, plus much more.” Firstly, the plan is only in submission phase. Secondly, the public of New Zealand are heavily subsidising the costs of dairy farming by allowing environmental and social degradation to occur free of charge. We don’t charge them for their water use; we don’t charge them for the sediment they are sending into our rivers; and we don’t charge them for killing our fish and rendering waterways unswimmable. Why should we give one industry a free ride, actually a heavily subsidised ride, when others, including other farming industries, are expected to survive without such subsidy? Thirdly, well-functioning economics relies on both parties in a transaction to have the ability to assess a transaction and say no if they wish. When was the last time anyone heard a fish or tree or bug agree to a transaction or say no? Ecological communities are reliant on mutualism for long term survival. Our one-way, take from the environment, deal is not mutualistic and is a risky business. The least a farmer, actually all humans really, can do is strive to live with as little environmental externality as possible.

To finish off, we can all point the finger as much as we like, but as long as we continue to buy products that have high environmental impacts then we are essentially supporting their continued production. We are all responsible for the mess we are in and we should all make the effort to read evidence-based evaluations of products and vote more wisely with our wallets.

Adam Canning

Ballantine, D., and R. J. Davies-Colley. 2009. Water Quality State and Trends in the Horizons Region NIWA, Hamilton.

Roygard, J., K. Mcarthur, and M. Clarke. 2012. Environment Court Expert statement technical evidence – Oneplan appeal. Horizons Regional Council.