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1080 - antibiotics for the land?

Polly Greeks, who lives off the grid in New Zealand, questions whether our quest to eradicate rats and possums is worth the "long-term poisoning" of Aotearoa 

OPINION: Apparently there’s a symbolic correlation between bladder infections and feeling pissed off. But as with the chicken and the egg, it’s hard to know what came first for me last Thursday morning. The sensation of peeing broken glass every 20 minutes was definitely making me edgy. Then again, so was the result of my three-year-old son’s investigation into the spreadability of lipstick. Half an hour after I’d scrubbed off the smears, he smirkingly encored his performance by presenting a fistful of his sister’s freshly-snipped curls. The sound of smashing eggs followed. It was probably unfair to be annoyed when he was innocently attempting to hatch them, but there I was; feeling pissed off and unwell.

I was hoping to banish the infection with natural remedies but progress was slow; the weekend was approaching and Google informed me urinary tract infections can lead to kidney infections if they worsen. Getting after-hours medical care in the Far North is kind-of like fishing. You will eventually hook a doctor, but sometimes extraordinary amounts of patience are required. For that reason, I got a prescription for antibiotics on Friday afternoon, just in case things got worse.

There are comprehensive lists available online detailing the DIY approach to bladder infections. Grimly determined, I guzzled probiotics, a homeopathic remedy, cranberry extracts, mandrake sugar, vitamin C, oregano oil and litres of horsetail tea. By the end of the weekend, the infection was gone which left me feeling pretty empowered.

I’ve got nothing against antibiotics. The time I had pneumonia, I felt the penicillin ride into my system like a cavalcade of shining knights waving banners of victory. But it’s a well-known fact antibiotics can leave one’s gut looking like a wasteland when they’re done and I’m rather fond of the populations of flora and fauna existing in mine. Like a different sort of culinary gardener, I’ve been cultivating what I hope is a richly diverse ecosystem in my stomach by eating sauerkraut, drinking keffir grain and kombucha concoctions, reducing sugar consumption, taking cider vinegar and organic foods. I didn’t want to wipe out my micro-biome if I could help it.

If antibiotics kill or inhibit growth of unwanted bacteria in the body, could 1080 poison be likened to an antibiotic for the land?

As I mused upon the environment within me, my mind turned to the native forest we live in and that old maxim, ‘as above, so below’. Recently I heard a rumour 1080 aerial drops are scheduled for our forests. If antibiotics kill or inhibit growth of unwanted bacteria in the body, could 1080 poison be likened to an antibiotic for the land? We know the pesticide kills what it’s meant to – that it eradicates the majority of possums and rats in a targeted area (for the short-term at least). But just as antibiotics wipe out the good as well as the bad, 1080 is proven to directly kill some of the native birds it’s supposedly protecting, as well as micro-organisms and insects in the soil. Studies have reportedly shown that because 1080 destroys many leaf-consuming insects and micro-organisms, leaf litter fails to properly decompose, negatively impacting the nutrient supply to forest soil as well as the diet of insect-eating birds. In the sudden absence of rats, wild cats and mustelids have been found to switch to alternative prey, namely birds. The warning label on 1080 also states the substance is toxic to many plants.

My family drinks water from a forest stream and uses wild pigs as a food source. Despite what then-Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, said in 2011 about 1080 being safe for the nation, I’m concerned. Especially given that a peer review of her findings by zoologist Dr Jo Pollard concluded ‘the use of aerial 1080 should be stopped until there is compelling evidence that it is not doing irreparable damage to our native fauna and ecosystems.’

While those in favour of 1080 swear it’s the only solution to the possums and rats destroying our forest flora and fauna, I’m not set at ease by Wikipedia’s claims the sodium fluoroacetate pesticide breaks down into harmless compounds in warm water. Haven’t we heard this before regarding Glyosophate - the herbicide now banned by most of Europe? Anyway, our forest streams are never warm - they give ice-cream headaches even at the height of summer. Further, Dr Pollard states ‘a reliable method for assessing 1080 contamination of water supplies has not been used historically. Such a method should be identified and applied extensively because of the risk to human health’.

Dr Wright acknowledges aerially-sprayed 1080-poisoned cereal baits also leave a layer of toxic dust out to at least a kilometre away from treated areas, which would make our organic vegetable garden pretty unappetising.

What if we began by taking $30 million from DOC’s colossal predator reduction budget to pay 600 trappers a living wage of $50,000 per annum, with profits from plucked possum fur on top?

A friend who used to hunt possums professionally says from what he’s seen, 1080 is just a short-term solution. Yes it’s true forests flower and bird life seems to boom following an aerial drop, but when the rats return, and they always do, they too explode in population. Possums have also been found to increase to numbers larger than before aerial 1080 drops occurred. Residents of Karamea talk of a ‘plague’ of rodents following the 1080 drop in their region. 

Just as when antibiotics fail, the infection kicks in again, usually with vengeance. Unless all pests are eradicated the first time, the use of 1080 will need to be on-going. But as with the creation of antibiotic-resistant ‘superbugs’, Dr Pollard finds ‘repeated aerial poisonings of rats are likely to become less effective’ and could lead to genetically resistant rodents. Is it really worth signing up to the long-term poisoning of Aotearoa?

Compound 1080, produced solely by an Alabama chemical company that bought the processing rights from Monsanto, is the most toxic pesticide registered by the World Health Organisation. I’ve been surprised to learn ‘clean, green New Zealand’ is the largest user of this pesticide in the world, purchasing 80 percent of supply or around five tons annually. By comparison, the US uses less than four tablespoons annually. Why is it deemed safe to apply here when so many other countries have rejected it? The RSPCA says 1080 ‘inflicts terrible, prolonged suffering on the animals that it poisons’. The Department of Conservation warns hunters to wait four months after a poison drop before consuming wild pork to avoid secondary poisoning. 

I don’t know what the solution is to improving the health of our forests. Nor do I know if the goal of a pest-free nation is truly realistic. What I do know is that choosing to treat my bladder infection without antibiotics required a multi-pronged approach and some patience. What if we began by taking $30 million from DOC’s colossal predator reduction budget to pay 600 trappers a living wage of $50,000 per annum, with profits from plucked possum fur on top? That’s more than a million hours invested annually on pest control. When our backyard forest was professionally trapped, a single hunter killed 700 possums in a fortnight. Ground-based bait stations have also proven more effective than 1080 in rat eradication. These won’t be the only answers but at least there are no hidden costs to the ecosystem with these forms of pest control.

Since I began my investigation into 1080, I’ve learnt there’s no aerial drop scheduled for our forest at present. However, locals tell me it’s happened in the past and could well occur again. As far as feelings of being pissed off go, 1080’s potential threat to the health of my family, our land and New Zealand’s natural heritage riles me way more profoundly than anything my three-year-old son could ever do.

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