ORDINARY Western Australians will be surveyed on their views on farmers and farming before the end of the year as a precursor to a more proactive push back against anti-agriculture activism.
A quantitative community perceptions survey will aim to establish formal baseline data on what the general urban-based WA community thinks about those involved in primary industries - it is also likely to canvass views on commercial fishing - and current industry practices.
It will seek to establish how much the non-farming and fishing community actually knows about primary industries, how accurate its perceptions of them are and identify where misconceptions came from.
Information garnered by the survey will be used to better and earlier target future factual, educational and possibly personalised responses explaining to the general community the reasons why farmers do what they do.
It is hoped the survey data will better position WA's primary industries to more effectively counter emotive, shock image, often industry-damaging misinformation tactics and threats employed by activists, particularly on social media platforms.
Although a proposed one-off as part of a Trust In Primary Production pilot project, the survey could establish a benchmark data set against which effectiveness of pro-primary industry activities, designed to connect with urban consumers and build community trust, could be gauged.
Comparing results of similar surveys conducted at regular intervals into the future could establish how successful primary industries are in countering activism, building trust and protecting markets, a proponent of the survey said last week at the Grower Group Alliance (GGA) Annual Forum in Fremantle.
Future surveys and results comparisons could also monitor the level of influence on consumer perceptions and purchasing decisions vegan and other activists actually have with campaigns in relation to primary industries' impact on climate, chemical usage, genetic engineering, animal welfare, sustainability and other issues.
Food Alliance WA is driving the Trust In Primary Production pilot project.
The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) is a Food Alliance WA member, as are WAFarmers, Grains Industry Association of WA (GIWA) and the West Australian Fishing Industry Council.
The GGA, WinesWA, VegetablesWA and the Kimberley Pilbara Cattlemen's Association are also involved.
Trust In Primary Production will dovetail in with a number of national community trust-building or exploring initiatives like the National Farmers' Federation (NFF) Telling Our Story, launched last month in conjunction with Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) and business leaders to try to overcome the rural-urban disconnect between farmers and consumers.
Agrifutures Australia is also managing a scoping study for building and maintaining community trust in primary industries on behalf of research and development corporations, including Australian Egg Corporation, Australian Pork Ltd, Cotton Research and Development Corporation, Dairy Australia, Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, Forest and Wood Products Australia, Grains Research and Development Corporation and MLA.
The CSIRO this month launched its Voconoq offshoot to "scale up" its community insights service to specifically help the agriculture and mining sectors build community trust, having identified social licence as one of the greatest risks to business they face.
National body GrainGrowers has also launched its Behind Australian Grain project to assess economic, social and environmental challenges to the grains industry and, in conjunction with KPMG, develop a sustainability framework for the industry into the future addressing these issues.
Locally, there have been projects to personalise agriculture as a way of connecting with consumers, including the Visible Farmer Project which launched the first of 15 web documentaries showcasing WA women farmers yesterday.
GIWA chief executive officer Larissa Taylor told the forum the Trust In Primary Production survey results would be available in December and be widely shared.
She told the forum "seed funding for a little pilot project" had grown out of ongoing discussions with DPIRD, going back to 2015 and previous director general Rob Delane, about the "culture" of agriculture.
"What the survey is hoping to measure is how the community perceives agriculture," Ms Taylor said.
She said key figures in agriculture "need to practise the trust conversation".
Earlier Ms Taylor said agriculture needed to have an "open and honest" conversation in explaining to the community what it does and why it does it.
As an example, she said, farmers asked about chemical usage should explain the "whole story".
"We have a weed burden which requires herbicide use as a direct result of decisions taken 30 years ago on the type of farming we do," Ms Taylor said.
"With the introduction of no-till we don't rip up our paddocks and watch our top soils blow away anymore, instead we put down a thin line and put our seed and fertiliser into that, but it has created a weed burden.
"The good news is, we don't spray the whole crop, we have the technology now to just spot spray the weeds.
"People will accept a reasonable explanation."
Later DPIRD stakeholder engagement director Karen Carrierio said Food Alliance WA was a cross-sector working group comprising WA agrifood industry associations and industry representatives.
"DPIRD is supporting Food Alliance WA to undertake pilot market research to explore consumer sentiment and key drivers of opinion on the topic of trust in food and social license to operate across the broad WA agriculture and fishing sectors," Ms Carrierio said.
"Part of this work includes information gathering across different sectors and stakeholders and a survey of key influencers in the field of creating trust and social licence in primary production.
"This work is important in supporting WA's reputation as a reliable producer of premium and safe food, products and services.
"The first part of this work is expected to be complete by the end of the year," she said.
A number of speakers told Friday's session of the GGA forum that individual primary industries operating in isolation and producing and protecting their own data could not hope to combat widespread influence on public perceptions of well-organised and resourced activism which relied on graphic images and sensationalist claims to command attention and get its message across.
Some of the activism expected to come to WA had international connections and tactics that have been developed and refined with considerable success in Europe, Canada and other primary producer nations, members of farm improvement groups from across WA's agricultural area were told.
The general impression, outside of primary industry, of a farmer being "an old guy on a tractor" needed rectifying, they were told.
Predominantly, WA farmers are tertiary-educated managers aged under 50 running multi-faceted businesses with annual turnover in the millions of dollars, supplying quality-driven and at times complex domestic and export markets.
KPMG head of markets and agrifood tech sector Ben van Delden, Australian Farm Institute executive director Richard Heath and South Australian farmer, 2019 AgriFutures South Australian Rural Women's Award winner, Churchill Fellow and AgCommunicators managing director Deanna Lush all said it was vital primary industries established their own trusted stories with consumers before activists tried to tell consumers a different story.
Mr Heath and Ms Lush said overseas experience and studies in Canada and elsewhere had clearly established that attempting to refute graphic images and sensationalist claims with bland scientific data was ineffectual.
Studies had shown the general public was "not up to speed" on the science behind modern agriculture and particularly so on complex issues like genetic engineering, so was not equipped to accept scientific explanation.
But the public could easily understand and align with intended assumptions conveyed by shocking images and slogans on Facebook, they said.
Mr Heath pointed out studies had confirmed "extreme opponents of genetically modified foods knew the least about the science, but were convinced they knew the most".
This has broader implications for primary industries attempting to combat activism, he said, and was a reason industries needed to work together on "inoculation theory" - getting in first with easily understood explanations of why they operate in the way they do to build a bridge of trust with the community.
"It's incredibly important that we get all this right and become a trusted partner," Mr Heath said.
Both he and Ms Lush pointed out activism had potential to severely hamper primary industry's aim of expanding the value of its contribution to the national economy to $100 billion by 2030.
Only a small proportion of the general public aligned with activists' views, while the rest were generally supportive of primary producers and usually ambivalent to industry practises unless confronted by horrifying images or descriptions, they said.
Their message was instead of targeting a tiny group of activists, as primary industries had in the past, they needed to concentrate on keeping the bulk of the public supporting them.
As part of a discussion panel with Ms Taylor, Ms Lush and WAFarmers chief executive officer Trevor Whittington, MLA community engagement manager Jax Baptista said farmers often felt as though "they are under attack" from the community for producing its food.
But this was because a tiny group of activists were successful in creating an out-of-proportion impression their views were widely held and supported, she said.
"The fact is, farmers are not under attack from the general community," Ms Baptista said.
Statistics showed 78 per cent of the population ate meat, the number of people identifying as vegetarian had not changed in four years and vegans comprised just 0.9pc of the population and their number might grow to 1.02pc, she said.
"We need to be more proud of what we do," Ms Baptista told the forum.