Evidence and emotion: a new way forward for agriculture

Katie McRobert

In today’s information-heavy society, the agriculture sector is dealing with a juxtaposition of facts and feelings that could have serious consequences for its social licence to operate.

Many of today's agricultural policy issues are inherently emotive. Animal welfare in the live export industry and the environmental impacts of land clearing or chemical use are examples of issues that elicit impassioned responses based on core beliefs – and also attract regulation which could be adverse or terminal for the industries involved. Ideally such regulation with the potential to seriously reshape farming practice would be based on evidence rather than belief, but this is not the political landscape producers must navigate today.

In addition, research shows consumers do trust farmers [1] but mistrust some farming practices – and definitely mistrust the large corporations in the food and fibre supply chain [2].

The imbalance between consumer perceptions and the reality of modern farming practice and the need to create best-practice evidence-based agricultural policy for Australian farmers were the focus of the Institute’s annual Australian Agriculture Roundtable.

The Roundtable was held in Canberra this year to coincide with the National Farmers’ Federation Congress and a week-long series of ag and rural events. On 16 October, more than 160 delegates attended the ‘Evidence meets Emotion’ Roundtable at the National Gallery of Australia. The day’s sessions on animal welfare, environmental policy, community trust and agricultural statistics were followed by an evening forum on the right to farm.

While no ‘silver bullets’ were proffered, some clear points for further development emerged. An overarching theme from all sessions was the establishment of trust in an era of ‘truth decay’.

The Rand Corporation is conducting an ongoing project investigating the diminishing role of facts in public life. Rand notes four defining trends of the ‘truth decay’ phenomenon [3] which characterise modern discourse: increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; the increasing relative volume and resulting influence of opinion and personal experience over fact, and a declining trust in formerly respected sources of facts.

Some of the key drivers of truth decay, such as cognitive biases, the rise of social media and other changes to the information environment, were covered by speakers at the Roundtable.

Keynote speaker Bernie Hobbs opened the event with a presentation on ‘When facts aren't enough: communicating science in an emotional landscape’. Ms Hobbs noted that entrenched bias is hard to sway, and that data or evidence alone will not “rearrange people’s thinking overnight”. Evidence needs to be communicated in a way that resonates with the recipient [4].

“The plural of anecdote isn’t data - and it doesn’t need to be,” she said. “Our brains are hardwired for story, and the more emotional the more it sticks.”

This point was reinforced by several speakers, including Professor Rachel Ankeny (University of Adelaide), Ross Hampton (CEO Australian Forest Products Association) and Deanna Lush, winner of the 2018 John Ralph Essay competition.

Ms Lush noted in both her presentation and essay that shared values have been found by the US Centre for Food Integrity to be three to five times more important in building trust than demonstrated technical ability or science [5].

“Traditionally, Australian agriculture’s approach to building trust has been embedded in science and data; that is, ‘give people more data and they will come to our side of the argument’,” she said.

“But if they don’t, we give them more research, more data and the cycle repeats. (But) what consumers really want to know is: can I still count on you to do what is right?”

Professor Ankeny pointed out that trust is both powerful and dangerous: that is, if there was no risk involved in an activity, trust would not be required [6]. Mr Hampton discussed managing the cognitive dissonance between what people think is acceptable (e.g. not cutting down trees) and what is important (eg utilising a renewable resource) by finding shared values – in this case, sustainability [7].

A strong message from the speakers was that industry credibility comes from transparency and authenticity. However, this credibility must be evidence-based – and the session on agricultural statistics underlined the point that at present Australian agriculture is short on the data needed to back up ‘feelings’ about farm practice and outcomes.

In the feedback survey, one delegate welcomed the focus on evidence-based strategies for addressing trust:

“Naturally, I am concerned about engaging emotive activists who admittedly are well-meaning most of the time but are often destructive and disruptive. It is great to see the amount of work currently happening to understand and address this in Australian agriculture as we cannot sit on our hands or rely on outdated tactics.”

There is a clear need for consumers and producers to engage in authentic, factual conversations without bias or agenda to identify common ground.

If the agriculture industry does not address this dissonance it risks losing its social licence to operate freely, which jeopardises the viability of Australia’s vibrant rural communities - and ultimately our food security.


  1. http://www.coxinall.com.au/the-power-of-our-trust-in-farmers/
  2. https://www.agweb.com/article/do-consumers-trust-farmers-naa-greg-henderson/
  3. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB10002.html
  4. http://farminstitute.org.au/LiteratureRetrieve.aspx?ID=163923
  5. http://farminstitute.org.au/news-and-events/FPJ_Summer2018_JRC_Winner2.pdf
  6. http://farminstitute.org.au/LiteratureRetrieve.aspx?ID=163928
  7. http://farminstitute.org.au/LiteratureRetrieve.aspx?ID=163935