Sunset agriculture

Trust in a vision for agriculture

By Anna Campbell

Many years ago in the 1990s when the debate about genetic modification (GM) was raging, I was a keen PhD student based at Crop & Food Research (now Plant & Food Research) at Lincoln.

My PhD was in plant biotechnology – nicely outside of the GM zone as I was using technologies to fast track traditional breeding, but wasn’t bringing in genes from other species. At the time though, I was working alongside people who were fully immersed in the GM war.

This column is not about the GM debate, but was triggered by a discussion I had with a colleague about how to make change happen or how to get people to buy into an idea you have.

Back in the 1990s in response to the GM debate, I attended a seminar which I have never forgotten. The seminar was given by a social science researcher from the United Kingdom who was studying the effect of the position of a person when they are in a role in trying to change people’s minds.

She put up a slide which was split in half vertically with a horizontal axis along the bottom showing the degree of trust the public had with various professions.

On the right side was the word ‘TRUST’ and on the left side ‘DISTRUST’. She had then graphed professions along the axis of trust.

The nursing profession was graphed furthest to the right being the most trusted profession, doctors were also on the right, so too were teachers.

On the left ‘distrusted’ side, and you will have to forgive me here because I can’t remember the most extreme left profession, were lawyers and wait for it…. my mind froze stunned at this point… scientists!

I never did get to the bottom of why scientists were on the left and not trusted, that was not what the seminar was about…

The next few slides showed the take-home message of the presenter and that was that if you are not trusted and you are asking people to trust you and change their mind on something, then because of your position they are even less likely to believe your message and will distrust you even more.

Therefore, a scientist reassuring the general public that GM food is fine to eat, is the worst kind of public relations-communications strategy you could imagine.

The scientist, with their facts and figures, will add fuel to the fire and make people more entrenched in their original anti-GM positions. What made me remember this seminar from the 1990s?

It was in response to thinking about how we create change in the agricultural industry. As you know, I am absolutely convinced and hugely passionate about the fact that we desperately need to move New Zealand agri-products up the value chain – closer to the consumer and out of the commodity markets.

I have written about this before and I know that I, like many others in agriculture are deeply frustrated that we have not invested more as a country to do this.

Quite simply, if products are further up the value chain, they are more resistant to commodity price fluctuations… in other words, they stay well priced, even when bubbles pop, allowing us to be somewhat buffered from commodity crashes as we are experiencing now. So what are we missing?

Is it belief that this is the right strategy? Is it belief that we can do it? Do we have enough capital to execute such a strategy? Do we have the right people in the right places to execute such a strategy?

I don’t know the answers to all these but what I do know is that when I speak to food producers – and I am talking farmers here – trust in industry leaders is slowly eroding.

When times are tough, it is not all about hunkering down and laying low.

As a country of food producers we need to share a vision, a strategy, and openly communicate that, before all the trust is gone.

Industry leaders need to come to the fore now and share with us their strategy for taking us out of the commodity game.

If trust and confidence continue to erode, then it will be too late and the industry leaders will be stuck alongside the GM scientists and lawyers, their words falling on deaf ears.