Let’s celebrate the ordinary people of agriculture

I was led to this thought after reading a neat little blog the other day by Craig Winneker, Director of Communications for the European Renewable Ethanol Association (@CraigWinneker). In his blog Effective Messaging for Associations, Winneker notes “If you don’t have something to say, it doesn’t matter where you try to say it…” He goes on to say that you must “Speak for something”.

We as an agricultural industry have been poor at in trying to address the inevitable questions that arise around how our food is produced because too often we don’t tell our story well enough.  And our story is about people.

First and foremost people want to know that their food is safe – and indeed it is – safer than ever before. The overall level of pesticide use per unit of food produced has fallen by more than 90% since 1960 and according to the USDA pesticide toxicity continues towards zero.

People want to know that we as an industry have listened and that we understand their concerns – rule one of effective communication: always start with the audience in mind. It is not about what we think we must tell the public, but rather listening to what the public is saying and responding in a way that accords with society’s expectations of us as responsible, accountable citizens.

People also want to know that in producing food, the environment is not being damaged and that we will be able to farm not just today but tomorrow as well.

We know climate change is real, we know that the loss of biodiversity is real. We know that some agricultural systems are consuming soil and water resources faster than they can be replenished and this is in no way acceptable.

The depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer in the mid-west of the United States, on which about one fifth of all US cattle, corn, cotton and wheat production depends, is testament to the risks of over use.  According to Bloomberg about 30 percent of the aquifer’s water has been pumped out of the ground and an additional 39 percent is expected to be gone in the next 50 years. Replenishing it would take millennia.

We have to find solutions that reduce water use, improve soil health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions – and we can do this.  Contrary to the Malthusian prophecy, mankind has consistently shown an incredible ability to innovate its way to a brighter future.

People want to know that we have a vision for the future and that we are prepared to make genuine commitments in pursuit of that vision.  They want to be able to buy into that vision – to go beyond the current model of agriculture and food production, to a future world of digital technology, conservation agriculture, reduced use of pesticides, greater use of biological solutions and thriving rural communities.

But they also want to know that as a sector we are making real commitments and real investment, going above and beyond what we already do, to do more and provide more to support the innovation necessary for a more sustainable future.

We can do this as an industry. In many cases we already are. The private sector now invests more in agricultural R&D every year than any government in the world. Before leaving Asia, I had the privilege to visit some Filipino corn growers who because of the introduction of new technology, on just a few hectares of land are yielding the same as their US counterparts – and this is truly life changing for them, their families and the communities in which they live.

My brother, who has been farming for almost 40 years, now uses less pesticide than he has ever used, with better varieties managing resistance and his soil quality and organic matter is improving year on year with minimum tillage farming. His diesel bill is falling and with the extensive use of solar panels on the farm, he is actually feeding electricity back into the grid.  He uses a drone to monitor his paddocks for disease and pest outbreaks and to be more selective in irrigating pockets, not paddocks.

I said in a tweet the other day, “farmers are the best greenies I know” – technology has made this possible.

The problem in all of this is that while it is all true and is testament to innovation, ingenuity and a commitment to improving environmental outcomes across the board, we simply do not tell the story well enough.

We need to tell the story of the lives that are changed through technology, the productivity that comes in other sectors of the economy because we have a reliable supply of safe, nutritious food, the improvements being made in soil and water quality, putting back in not taking out.

We need to tell the story of the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people – good people, who have made it their life’s work to develop a better seed, or a new biological chemistry, or who every day go out and train smallholder farmers to use technology safely and transform their lives through improved productivity and profitability.

Let’s celebrate the ordinary people of agriculture. Let’s celebrate Sam and Saqib, Helen and Hanneke, Jinan and Jamie, Liang and Luke, as well as the thousands across the world whose stories we must tell to create the vision of our future that everyone can share and embrace.

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