Almost 3000 Australians revealed their perceptions of Australia’s beef industry to the University of Queensland (UQ) last year.
In the main, the results are positive. According to lead researcher Dr Bradd Witt, Australians have more trust in the industry than other resource-based industries or the financial sector. (NT Country Hour).
Yet the research highlights a gap that Dr Witt explains is a major opportunity – the chance to connect with a large group of Australians who feel unsure about the beef industry’s environmental performance, and to build this connection through shared values. A shared understanding with extremists isn’t likely, but one with unsure sceptics is a possibility.
It’s a gap I have not yet seen Australian agriculture fill, and I think this is because we don’t have a ubiquitous answer to the most vital question that frames a shared values story: ‘Why do we do what we do?’.
Values-based storytelling is about the ‘why’.
In the case of the extreme animal rights activists currently targeting Australia’s livestock and meat production industries, there appears to be one clear, concise answer: ‘we believe that all living things are equal’.
It is a simple premise – taken to the extreme by only a small group – yet it has mobilised thousands, garnered mass media attention, and sparked wide-spread curiosity from people who sit on the fence.
These activists know why they do what they do. Better still, for many their answer meets three important criteria for a shared values story:
- It’s concise
- It’s shared
- It’s relatable
Because while the actions of extreme activists are not relatable, the values behind them are.
By comparison, if you ask Australia’s agriculture sector the same question – ‘why?’ – you’ll receive a multitude of answers.
This was particularly apparent during the National Agriculture Day’s #GrowforGood campaign in 2018, which saw thousands of producers, businesses and industry bodies celebrate why they are proudly part of Australia’s agriculture sector. The campaign was fantastic, but it showed that there are many complex and diverse answers, that the answers are rarely consistent across industries and that they aren’t yet universally relatable.
There is a positive conversation to be had with those who are unsure about the agriculture sector’s environmental performance. A look at the various industries within our sector shows fantastic progress in sustainable development and environmental action, in their individual contexts.
However, the target audience for our shared values story is ‘the unsure’, and most people who belong to ‘the unsure’ don’t want to analyse a myriad of industries to find the connections. They want to hear a story that is concise, shared and relatable.
National Farmers Federation President Fiona Simpson was spot-on during the Northern Territory Cattleman’s Association conference in Darwin last month when she declared, “there is a tendency in our [sector] to deal only with what is in our own backyard and to keep our heads down when we’re not in the firing line.
“So cattle producers tend to look the other way when pork producers are under fire about sow stalls, and wool growers are pleased mulesing is not in the headlines when we’re talking about cotton producers and the Murray Darling Basin.”
Before we ask an ‘unsure’ group of people to connect with our shared values story, it may first be necessary for Australia’s agricultural industries to connect with each other. Otherwise, how can we answer the ‘why?’
So why do Australian farmers do what they do?
I wouldn’t presume to answer the question myself. I know my farming family and the generations before us place importance on the honour found in providing food; a life-source that people need as desperately as they do air or water. Perhaps this story of interdependence could be the shared values story that unites and bonds farmers, farming advocates and those with concerns. Perhaps it’s not.
Either way, our answer to ‘why’ and the shared values story that we communicate must be concise, shared and relatable. Otherwise, the opportunity revealed in Dr Witt’s research is missed. Instead, it will be just another story.