RATHER than label environmentally, sustainability and ethically conscious consumers as "latte drinking lefties", Western Australian primary producers need to engage with them to secure a long-term future for their industry.
That was the view WA Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan put to 80 farming and fishing industry leaders attending a Food Alliance WA and Department of Primary Industry and Regional Development (DPIRD) Trust in Primary Production workshop yesterday.
"We're producing foods for people, we need to understand it's not all about us and explaining what we want, it's actually (about) the modern-day narcissist on the internet who is very focussed on wanting to know and us understanding what it is they want," Ms MacTiernan told the workshop.
"This has to be a two-way conversation," she said.
"Any successful business entrepreneur will tell you, you've got to work out what the customer wants or doesn't yet know they want, but will want eventually.
"Consumer concerns about how their food is produced are much more prevalent now because people have access to information, people see themselves as being able to have an influence by exercising consumer choice.
"The research (conducted on behalf of Food Alliance and DPIRD on how urban people see farmers and farming, with the results released at the workshop) is showing there is a high degree of support in our community for farmers.
"Let's not start off with the premise there is a deep antagonism.
"But let's not create an antagonism by calling all of them latte drinking lefties - after all, latte drinkers drive the dairy industry.
"It is really important we understand there is a bank of goodwill and we need to build on it and we can't abuse it."
Ms MacTiernan told farmers, farming organisation delegates and industry representatives she and DPIRD director general Ralph Addis had presented a draft primary industries plan to cabinet the day before and one of its five key pillars was "the building of trust".
"We recognise the absolute importance in developing that relationship with our consumers, we have been talking about that for some time and I think it is fantastic to see industry leaders taking this up," she said.
Ms MacTiernan said primary industry needed to be aware of public opinions and to call out perceptions that did not apply to WA.
She praised Meat and Livestock Australia for planning for Australia's red meat industry to become "carbon neutral" by 2020 and announcing that initiative.
"It's very ambitious but a wonderful recognition that one of the existential threats to the livestock industry is people turning to veganism because all of the reports they are hearing are that this is a mass greenhouse gas generating industry," Ms MacTiernan said.
"If, by adopting good practices, we can actually turn that around, that's the way to deal with those people.
"Not by calling them vegan mushheads, but by saying it's not true, the figures their view is based on are coming out of northern Europe where livestock is intensively grainfed and aren't the figures for our industry," she said.
Ms MacTiernan said primary industries also needed to do some preplanning for foreseeable potential crises.
"Often when there is a crisis the biggest problem is there is an under-reaction which doesn't satisfy anyone and then there's a massive over reaction," she said.
Ms MacTiernan used the 2011 Four Corners expose of practices involving Australian cattle in some Indonesian abattoirs as an example.
Then Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig's initial response was "low key" and an "under-reaction", she said, but when community outrage continued, the follow up response of a sudden cattle export ban was an "over-reaction".
"It's really important to understand that when these crises emerge - and they will emerge from time to time - what is critical is that you need in the early stages to have some modest, doable, change that is agreed to by the industry," Ms MacTiernan said.
"Otherwise you will face almost inevitably a massive over-reaction.
"In the live sheep export case, for example, we (State government) went out and said we needed a summer ban, we weren't arguing for a cessation of the industry.
"I'll argue that if industry had hopped on (a summer ban) and said 'yes', there would have been a sense that something real had been done and perhaps the issue wouldn't have become so complex.
"But that took industry around six months to get to that point and in the meantime there's been a lot of argy bargy."
Apart from talking to and listening to consumers of the products they produce, Ms MacTiernan said primary producers also needed to be aware what happens in one segment of the industry could tarnish perceptions of the whole industry, particularly with export customers.
Food Alliance participant and Grain Industry Association of WA chief executive officer Larissa Taylor said the rise of the "food evangelist" and activism driven by shifting global social trends has seen the food and primary production industries come under increasing pressure to meet changing community expectations.
The research and a survey of city consumer views had been commissioned by Food Alliance and DPIRD to provide some "baseline data" for primary producers to build on, Ms Taylor said.