During 2019, a number of surveys and reports identified trust between industry and the public as key to maintaining the farming sector’s social licence to farm. The most recent WA survey found a key issue is that farming practices causing harm and suffering to animals will come under increasing public scrutiny in coming years.

The WA Primary Industries Stakeholder Interviews Report was published in December 2019 by the Food Alliance WA DPIRD Trust in Primary Production Project. The project, conducted by agricultural consultants Agknowledge, set out to determine the WA public’s attitude towards the food, farming and fishing industries. It did so via a significant body of work including a consumer perceptions survey of 1,000 Perth households and stakeholder interviews. RSPCA WA took part in the stakeholder interviews.

The report, which can be found here, will help WA primary industry groups and individual producers to gain more awareness and understanding of the issues around trust and social licence to farm.

The researchers examined production ethics and integrity and found that a key strength is that the Australian community “generally assumes that the food on their plate is from animals that have been treated humanely and not harmed in the production process.”

However, the research uncovered issues including the support by some sections of the farming community for continuation of the live sheep trade during the Middle East summer months had damaged the credibility and ongoing support of the community.

The report said: “People see the footage of conditions on ships and then the see farming leaders saying it is all fine, so even for people with no interest in live export it has knocked public confidence in the livestock sector.”

Looking for the way forward, the report went on to say:

“There needs to be a higher level discussion with farmers and consumers to find solutions. We need to keep working together, sharing ideas, being transparent and not being afraid to say that things don’t have to keep working the same way.”

Key insights identified by the report’s authors include:

  • People want to know more about what farmers do, they want transparency about how farming is done and to be confident about their food choices
  • Stakeholders are keen to maintain a conversation with industry on areas of common concern
  • Industry needs to learn to listen to how it sounds outside its own echo chamber when it is defending industry practice that is challenged by community expectations
  • People do not want PR videos or campaigns, they just want real facts from real people.

Overall, the researchers concluded that the data demonstrates the value of listening to the community to understand their expectations as they are shifting rapidly and industry must listen and engage with stakeholders.

RSPCA WA informed the researchers that from our ongoing interactions with the WA community, we believe “the community loves farmers but hates animal cruelty.”

"Farmers enjoy widespread community support and respect but certain husbandry practices and production systems do not. Genuine transparency shows the warts and all, acknowledges limitations and the need to improve. This is what builds trust and this is what can bring the community along with the industry. Conversely, PR dressed up as transparency has the opposite effect, particularly if and when the PR portrayal is juxtaposed with the reality. Nothing damages trust more than when the public feels they have been taken for a ride.”

The next step is for the livestock sector to really listen to community concerns about animal welfare and animal management and look at where practices can be improved. It is only by showcasing genuine animal welfare improvements to the public that real trust can be established.

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