Many farmers in Australia and other developed economies have become acutely aware of how interest groups such as the animal rights movement are succeeding in disrupting the conventional advocacy model for agriculture. These groups have moved from the margins into a position of real influence, where they are having a disproportionate impact on public policy and regulation of livestock industries and on the decisions of powerful value chain firms.
Whatever your views on the merits of interest group philosophy and actions, the success of their strategy, business model and execution is self-evident. They have simply innovated faster than rural industries.
Rather than clinging to conventional approaches of ‘knocking on doors’ in Parliaments, they have climbed up to use social media tools for engaging members, the broader community, media and politicians in real time. They are also working on a national and international scale and not operating with a state-based mind-set. In this way, organised groups with modest resources can disrupt multi-billion dollar agricultural industries.
By comparison, most rural industry organisations and farmers are playing catch-up. Agricultural industries can and are developing new strategies and structures. Yet as always, they are only as influential as farmer participation allows.
One common attribute of any new model of rural industry advocacy that emerges is that individual farmers will be more engaged than in the past. The signs of rapid change are already evident with a growing number of farmers taking to social media to tell their story.
Four drivers will accelerate farmer participation in online advocacy.
Firstly, there is a commercial imperative for farmers to be more engaged. For example, the immediate and annualised costs of changes to the live cattle export trade from Australia are very significant. It is a ‘bottom line’ issue.
Farmers in industries that have experienced the impact of competing interest groups on their markets and production practices are already at the forefront of change.
Secondly, the ease of participation is improving as access to high speed broadband is rolled out in the regions. In Australia, the NBN will enable transformation of not only rural business, but the business of advocacy.
Thirdly, the visibility of industry and individual farmer practices is now potentially global and instant. More than ever, industries need to have evidence of their credentials as responsible producers of food and fibre and the capacity to both tell their story and to respond rapidly to misinformation. It needs to happen on a large scale in real time.
Fourthly, the above drivers point to the need for a coordinated approach. The opportunity here is for a revitalised and expanded role for intermediaries that are connected with farmers. These might include industry organisations, value chain firms, regional development or natural resource management bodies and so on.
Overall, the implication is that past practices of leaving advocacy to a few representatives with diminishing resources is not sustainable. The innovators are already online. Farmers who are critics of current organisations and advocacy will need to choose to become part of the solution and engage online.
More than ever, there is no room for sitting on fences when it comes to rural advocacy.