In other nations across the globe, people involved in the most fundamental industry of all, food production, are respected as the primary plank of a functioning society.
Yet here in Australia, broadacre farmers cop a bum steer in terms of community perception.
They are variously described as whinging farmers being propped up by hard working city folk or mercenaries ruthlessly jeopardising the health of a nation in search of additional profits through the administration of veritable witches’ brews of toxic chemicals.
As those living in rural communities know, nothing could be further from the truth, but these ill-informed ideas have a damaging effect on the Australian agriculture industry across a range of issues.
But why does the Australian urban public seem to have so little time for farmers?
You look at the US, a similar culture to our own, and the nation celebrates the importance of those who produce its food. Here, however, the disconnect between country and city means the majority of urban dwellers have no idea of the work and financial risk required to put food on the national table. Kaniva, Victoria, farmer Wal Meyer has an interesting theory on how farmers have lost the public relations battle. He believes that the very phenomenon that theoretically should have improved relations between mainstream farmers and the metro public has worked against it. The resurgence in interest in where food comes from, driven in part by Australia’s seemingly insatiable appetite for reality cooking shows, should have seen the public thanking the Australian farming community some of the safest food in the world.
Partially, we did see increased appreciation of the role of the farmer, but only a certain segment. The public latched onto key phrases such as ‘organic’ and ‘rare-breed’ raising small scale, niche market growers to the level of minor celebrities.
Well done to these guys and they are certainly making a go of their enterprises and producing some fantastic food in the process. But as Mr Meyer lamented, this success often comes at the expense of other farmers. “People keep talking about organic this and that, and saying how bad for you conventionally farmed food is, when the facts are, that all Australian food products pass through a rigorous screening process before it is declared safe to eat.”
Another issue for those interested in environmental issues is whether organic farming is more sustainable than systems using herbicides. Certainly, it is a nice warm and fuzzy feeling to know no chemicals have been used, but the situation is not so cut and dried. Organic grain production systems rely heavily on tillage, which in turn creates problems with erosion and salinity.
As the crop protection lobby argues (of course with its own interests to the fore) it is likely that judicious use of herbicides and synthetic fertilisers may be better for the planet as a whole. But perception is all, and at present conventional farmers and livestock producers are often pigeon holed as ‘factory farmers’ without a proper analysis of their methodology.
Farmers cop a similar bad rap when it comes to the processed foods that land on consumers’ tables. There is no doubt artificial preservatives and colourings are best to be avoided, as any parent of a child who has partaken in too much red cordial will attest, but nutritional issues with food on the supermarket shelves owe more to the manufacturing process than to the raw food the food processing sector is provided with.
Advocacy groups are out there arguing agriculture’s case, you see the Grains Legume Nutrition Council promoting healthy grain products and agriculture as a whole must continue to invest in these initiatives that bridge the gap between producer and consumer. Only then will we see a similar level of respect afforded to our primary producers as in other nations.