Australian farm groups could take on a US initiative to build public trust in farming to address consumer concerns about modern agriculture and food production.
The Centre for Food Integrity (CFI), a not-for-profit group in Missouri in the Midwest of the United States, has found great success in its work to increase consumer understanding of farming, according to Farm Online.
The initiative, which also addresses developments for the environment, productivity and food safety, is now being closely examined by Australian experts.
Next month CFI chief executive officer Charlie Arnot will be back in Australia to further address initial conversations with farmers in two separate visits in 2011.
Comments welcomed in 2011
Arnot made 13 presentations to around 600 people, saying farmers and food companies need to focus on strategies to promote public trust and establish their own strict self-regulated standards.
The messages were welcomed by industry and farmer groups, according to NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) livestock officer at Moree, Greg Mills.
"The CFI model has certainly had a lot of success,” he said.
“It’s now a case of trying to determine if and how it might work in Australia.”
Established by soybean producers in 2007 and funded by farmers, farm and food organisations and private companies, the CFI is committed to undertaking research to create messages to increase consumer trust.
According to Natioanal Farmers Federation (NFF) executive officer, Matt Linegar, "agriculture’s social licences to operate" are under increasing pressure, particularly as the divide between urban and rural Australians increases.
This divide leads to a huge lack of understanding about farming and agriculture for city dwellers, who have almost permanent availability of any fruit or vegetable, despite weather conditions, which has lead many to question the storage and transport of the produce.
In September, independent Senators Bob Katter and Nick Xenephon introduced a bill calling for the price paid to farmers at the gate to be displayed alongside the retail price in supermarkets, in a bid to provide transparency and ensure farmers are not being ripped off by the major supermarkets.
But even those within the industry said the plan would not work.
The leading trade association for the fresh produce and floral industries, PMA Australia-New Zealand (PMA A-NZ), rejected the calls from Katter and Xenophon, with chief executive Michael Worthington saying it would be almost impossible to implement.
“It takes no account of the fact that the major supermarkets buy some of their produce from wholesalers, so who would then be responsible for determining what the wholesaler has paid the grower?” he said.
“More often than not, produce is consolidated, graded, packed or processed by an intermediary who is sourcing from multiple growers – again, it would be nigh-on-impossible for there to be a clear chain of transactions to determine what was paid to the grower.
Incidents including the milk price wars that inspired an investigation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and a Senate Inquiry have highlighted the control the major supermarkets have over suppliers, with many predicting dairy farmers will leave the industry in droves because they can’t make a profit, and the nation’s biggest dairy supplier expecting to record a loss as a result of the $1 per litre milk.
Now the industry wants more information on Australia’s agricultural industry provided to everyone.
"We’re examining the CFI’s activities as part of our greater aim of keeping agriculture’s true value recognised by governments and the public," Linegar said.
"I’m sure the issue of building consumer trust will emerge as an important theme in the NFF’s blueprint for agriculture in the coming year."
Organisations including Horticulture Australia Limited, the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation, the Animal Welfare Science Centre and the Australian Egg Corporation discussed the CFI with Arnot’s in November, and sought his opinion on consumer behaviour in Australia.
One of the worst incidents to impact consumer opinion of the industry in the last decade was the Indonesian live export revelations shown on the ABC’s Four Corners program, which led to public outrage and Prime Minister Julia Gillard suspending live exports to the region in mid-2011.
It was also revealed authorities warned Indonesian abattoirs of the impending presence of cameras in its facilities, which industry body Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) has defended, saying it was part of due process to pass on such information.
Live export has resumed to Indonesia and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) confirmed in November that since the ban was lifted, 128 312 cattle have been exported to Indonesia.
Honesty the best policy
"Farmers often feel like the victims – which they may or may not be – but the fact is consumers aren’t willing to put your farm’s profit concerns ahead of their current principles," Arnot said on the issue during a presentation in Sydney.
"We have to help consumers understand their principles are actually the same as today’s farmers.
"Animal welfare, environmental stewardship, food safety and a passion for doing the food production job well are all basic principals of farming."
The worst thing farmers could do, Arnot believes, is to stay quiet on modern farming activities, and therefore increase the gap in understanding for urbanised Australians.
Mills agrees with the calls from Arnot, saying farmers need to give consumers all the information they can, to prove practises are ethical and safe.
"The aim is to openly establish the credibility or a voluntary code of practice that allows you to operate a farming enterprise or industry without expensive government legislation and the constant tracking and monitoring which law makers might demand," he said.
"If the consumer trust you, sees what they like and believes you’re doing a good job, the industry builds great credibility with the public, but if you flout that trust the public will demand governments step in to crack down and regulate everybody."
Are you a country critter or a city dweller? Do you understand farming practises and would you like to know more?