Conspiracy Corner – 1080p(oison)

Talking with a friend the other day about my next book project, I started listing off a number of, if not unique to Aotearoa, local conspiracy theories and I managed to not talk about the whole raft of 1080 conspiracy theories, despite having talked about them on the radio recently. I can only assume that the fluoride in the water supply and the chemtrails being constantly sprayed overhead are having an effect. Whatever the case, last week’s Conspiracy Corner with yours truly (Thursday, 8:15am, 95bFM) was on the topic of poisonous blue pellets in the bush, and you can listen to it below.

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go panic a little about finishing my book.

Notes/Script

It’s back in the news, a chemical said to be deadly to human beings, in common use through Aotearoa, and the government and its associated agencies are threatening to introduce even more of it into the environment. No, it’s not Fluoride, it’s the deadly poison 1080.

1080, sodium fluoroacetate, is a toxin which does occur naturally in plants as part of their defence strategy to deter herbivorous animals from eating them that gets synthesised for wide scale use as a pesticide to kill some of the mammals that predate on our local wildlife. It gets dropped as pellets in the bush and has been a proven and effective way to control possum populations.

1080 has a number of features going for it: it’s water-soluble, so it doesn’t built up in the environment, there’s no record of it leading to human deaths in Aotearoa and our local birdlife isn’t particularly attracted to the poison (which means that for a poison we drop aerially, it really only affects the mammals we are trying to eradicate).

So, what’s the conspiracy theory here? Well, firstly, people will point the claim that New Zealand uses 80% of the word’s 1080 and that the American government won’t use it because they classify it as a danger to human beings.

With regards to 1080 use; yes, here in Aotearoa we use the majority of the sodium monofluoroacetate produced in the US and you might think that this means we have a cottage industry here that needs to be maintained. As such, you might think the conspiracy to use 1080 as an aerial pest control is in order to control our little corner of the market. However, given that we have to import the precursor ingredients from the US to manufacture 1080 and then we don’t export that 1080 but rather use it here, that seems like an odd act of conspiracy.

Conspiracy theorists about 1080 use also claim that DoC needs to continue 1080 drops in order for the Department to stay afloat. Now, it might well be true that part of DoC’s primary work is pest eradication, but they are also involved in conspiring to hide New Zealand’s Celtic past and the ammunition dump under North Head; I’m fairly sure the government would continue to fund them on the basis of these conspiracies without needing to maintain yet another cover story for their existence.

Seriously, though, whilst pest eradication is part-and-parcel of DoC’s remit, they do have other jobs; if they suddenly had to stop aerial drops of 1080 that wouldn’t mean the end of the Department of Conservation, although it might mean the end of our local birdlife.

Let me put it another way; if Federated Farmers and Forest and Bird agree, then either that’s evidence of a particularly gruesome conspiracy or the use of 1080 really is supported by the evidence.

It’s true that it’s a horrible poison; death by 1080 is a slow and painful affair, and despite its effectiveness in controlling pests, a fair few groups oppose its use in general and are outraged that the Department of Conservation is considering a massive increase in 1080 use due to record Beech Mast seed drop. Basically, there’s a whole lot more seeds than usual deep in the bush, which is an easy food supply for rats and possums, whose numbers are multiplying because of the easy feed ; when those seeds germinate and that food supply disappears, those introduced pests will turn to the next easiest food supply, our local birdlife. Thus, commendably for this government (given that they have reduced funding to MAF’s border security protocols), DoC has been given an injection of funding to do a massive aerial drop of 1080 in order to ensure those pest numbers are kept down.

Why do we use 1080? Well, despite the downsides, it’s an effective “bang-for-bucks” or “Kill ration per dollar spent” decision; we are obliged to look after our native species (either for biodiversity reasons or, if you don’t care about wildlife, as part of our obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi) and given the Department of Conservation’s meagre budget, this is the most cost effective way to do it.

Some people don’t like it because it kills dogs much more effectively than it kills, say, possums, and whilst this is certainly true, most of the time dogs who are affected by 1080 drops are either in areas of the bush they are not meant to be in (since dogs are also a threat to our local wildlife) or their owners have failed to take suitable precautions about a publicly notified 1080 drop. So, whilst it’s sad dogs are affected by 1080, by-and-large those deaths are preventable in the same way that we can’t easily prevent the destruction of our local birdlife without the use of a poison similar to 1080. Yes, there are cases where local birds eat the poison and die and, yes, some of our domesticated mammals end up dead as well, but aerial dropping of 1080 works. Indeed, the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and the Environment Protection Authority have declared that that 1080 is safe and the only practical tool that will work, given the circumstances.

Looking after the environment is one of those things we humans like to do, as long as it doesn’t cost us anything. The problem with 1080 is that it has costs, some of which are emotive. People don’t like to see domesticated dogs dying painful deaths. Some people don’t like to think of any animals dying painful deaths, or indeed like to think that it’s somehow right to selectively kill one species to save another. As such, there are reasons to be worried about 1080, but the use of 1080 isn’t built on a web of lies or conspiracy; it’s a horrible poison that just happens to be the most effective tool we have in our financially-constrained pest eradication toolbelt.

Oh, I’ve just been passed a note to say that the Pork Board approves this message.


About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.