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Social license: the new cornerstone for agriculture

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Linda Eatherton presenting at the Grains Research Update GIWA Breakfast in Perth

“We are in the decade of turmoil. Suddenly, everything we have done for decades is under question, under fire and under scrutiny.”

This is how Linda Eatherton from Ketchum, a Chicago-based global communications consultancy, described the dramatic shift in how people think about food production at the recent Grains Research Update in Perth.

“Consumers want to know more about how food is produced, putting farmers in the spotlight. It’s a whole new world,” Ms Eatherton explained.

Central to this societal shift is the rise of the “Food eVangelist”. Initially seen as a small group with disproportionate influence, this group has grown in recent years. Now, rather than being considered elite influencers, they are simply described as honest, everyday people, connected by the rise of social media, who have lost faith in what they are being told about big agriculture and technology.

“They have a lot of questions about how food is being produced, but nobody is answering those questions in real honest ways. So, the assumption is that you’re trying to hide something,” she said.

Ms Eatherton believes that the growth in consumer expectations is just the tip of the iceberg.

“Children are paying attention and are the next generation of food eVangelists. They are empowered and telling parents what to buy and what they will accept as food. This is the consumer of the future. The new norm,” she said.

When industry comes under fire, they usually choose to fight head on or turn the other cheek. According to Ms Eatherton, in the age of social media, neither approach is likely to work, and instead could backfire.

“In the past we could run a campaign, but today the approach requires engagement, conversation and relationship building. It isn’t based on fact or science, it’s emotion. We need to embrace how people think and feel.”

Where are producers in this conversation? Ms Eatherton said consumers really wanted to hear from farmers, but it rarely happens.

“Every producer has a role in helping consumers understand what they do. Every producer is a stakeholder in the food industry. The public expects you to communicate with them.

“They see themselves as stakeholders in your business, and expect to sit at the table with you and make important decisions.”

This tumultuous decade is seeing industry being asked to be more transparent, but that doesn’t just mean more science. And it’s not simply a matter of pointing out values that producers and consumers share, such as the importance of family and food quality. It requires listening followed by action.

“What transparency means is behaviours that show consumers that you are paying attention to them. Its behaviour that will help you earn social license.

“Tell them what you do and don’t do, and how you want to improve in the future. Consumers want to hear that you are constantly working to improve who you are and what you do. That you are always looking for new and better ways. They wanted to hear producers saying ‘we get it. We hear you’”.

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