A lot of disagreement, a lot of passion
Subscribing to social media feed for agribusiness news takes a certain sort of stamina. Feeds bounce between cute videos of piglets to full-on battles between different farming philosophies and different consumer perspectives. What becomes very clear, very quickly, is that there is a lot of disagreement and, a lot of passion.
If we consider that the core purpose of social media is to communicate, then it is an ideal platform for the sharing of ideologies, building followings and converting nay-sayers to our “better” way of thinking. It seems, however, that fewer and fewer people use social media as a forum for robust discussion. Increasingly there is evidence of the effect of the echo chamber: reinforcement and validation of existing world views. That is, we go online to see and hear what we want to see and hear.
The scope of available information
And, therein lies a problem. How can people be educated and informed when they limit the scope of available information by only subscribing to what they like or what makes them feel good? This is true, of course, not just for agricultural practices but also for every other facet of human existence that seems to be publicly dissected in one forum or other.
And, what happens in the food ecosystem?
Of interest to us is how this plays out within the food ecosystem. That is, what is the impact of echo-chambers on our ability to judge one food production method over another? A case in point is that the organics lobby groups have a strong social media presence and lobby hard against the large agrichemical companies but, similarly, the large agrichemical companies lobby even harder against the organics movement. What we lose amongst the online noise is the knowledge of the actions of the individual grower/farmer and instead we develop a generalist opinion of a particular group, tribe or sector.
A little bit of insight
And, here’s our insight – there are good organic dairy farmers and there are bad organic dairy farm owners, there are good conventional market gardeners and there are bad conventional market gardeners. What’s more, our interpretation of what is good and what is bad is determined by our knowledge level and our social values. For example, if you are vegetarian because of concerns about animal welfare issues then no form of animal slaughter is likely to be “good” enough to change your perspective. Conversely, if you are a meat eater but don’t like the idea of eating meat from animals that have not been stunned prior to slaughter then finding an abattoir that meets that ethical requirement is central to your consumption of meat products. In both cases, the issue is around animal management but what is not acceptable for one (meat consumption) may be acceptable for another (selective consumption) – food debates are rarely black and white.
It’s about the grower
Looking at it from another angle; because a market gardener may be labelled as an organic producer, does not automatically mean they are a good producer – they may waste water, treat staff poorly, they may deplete the soil (and other practices that impact on sustainability). In contrast, a conventional gardener may use pesticides judiciously, be a fastidious guardian of water resources, provide training and optimal working conditions for staff and work to maintain soil health. The principles of why people chose organics may be closer aligned, in this example, to the conventional gardener.
What are we getting at?
There needs to be careful thought given to our reliance on labelling production methods. Yes, third party certifiers will tell us if a production area is deemed ‘organic’ or a production method ‘fair trade’ but those assessments are based upon a predetermined set of criteria that may or may not actually reflect the values that drive our purchasing behaviour to begin with. The answer? The idealistic but simple “know your grower” – if you have a relationship with the grower, supplier or retailer then you are more able to judge how production measure up against your own values.