Reframing farmers’ role in land management

Katie McRobert

Watching Lego Masters for the first time this week, I was captivated by the contestants’ efforts to construct a story within a modelled apartment. Armed with nothing more than a bucket of blocks, they strove to create vignettes which evoked entire narratives. Those who succeeded did so by activating the audience’s neural frames – those little plastic bricks were not rooms on a space station, they triggered visual references to what we think a space station might look like.

“All of our knowledge makes use of frames, and every word is defined through the frames it neurally activates.” (1)

We all process thought through (usually) unconscious frames or schemas, but these contextual systems can be a major hindrance to policy change. When communicators unintentionally activate negative reference frames, the audience will not effectively hear the desired message, no matter how evidentially strong the argument.

Of the many “us versus them” frames often triggered in agriculture, one of the most divisive is “farming versus the environment”. In mainstream media and policy debate, the environment is discussed as something quite separate from us as people and separate from farming as an industry – yet we are inseparably and intrinsically part of the environment, as is the production of food and natural fibre.

As managers of almost half of the country’s landmass (2), Australian agricultural producers are, by definition, environmental stewards, yet the concept of stewardship triggers more frames which can impede policy progression. One detrimental frame activated when many people hear the phrase ‘farming the land’ is an image of historical ecosystem degradation. When this happens, farmers are demonised or excluded from environmental policy, a trend which has been exaggerated in recent election coverage.

Defending a position of responsible environmental management does not necessarily help, as negating a frame just activates that frame and shuts down communication options. (For example, President Trump’s repeated denial of collusion with Russia strengthens the neural connection of Trump to Russia.)

“The politics of food is central to our existence on the planet.” (1)

It’s ironic that while Australian agricultural production is inexorably dependent on the ecological services derived from a healthy agro-ecosystem sustainably connected to its landscape (3), the concept of farmers as primary land managers or carers is so difficult to establish in public discourse.

It is also a serious concern, as policy is urgently needed to recognise this stewardship role and incentivise practice change in order to manage and mitigate the impacts of a changing climate on agricultural production. With Australian farmers providing 93% of our domestic food supply, it has been argued that the combined pressures of climate change and global population growth pose a real and present threat to food security – yet the mere mention of ‘food security’ triggers a framed defensive response from most listeners, again shutting down discourse.

“Facts must make sense in terms of their system of frames, or they will be ignored.” (1)

Climate change impacts are a threat which looms equally over food producers and food consumers. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform Services report released in early May calls for urgent, transformative change, through which the natural environment can be restored and used sustainably for humanity’s needs. To address this need via policy and cultural shifts, people inside the agriculture industry must rethink the way issues are communicated and those outside must critically assess the frames they use to process information.

Like the Lego Masters, farmers must have the right blocks in the kit to start with and put them together in a way that activates the right frames for the audience. And like the audience at home, consumers and policy-makers should be willing to challenge their frames of reference to see the bigger picture.

1. Lakoff, G. (2010). Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment. Environmental Communication, 4(1), 70–81.

2.NFF. (2018). 2030 Industry Roadmap. National Farmers’ Federation.

3.Grafton, R. Q., Mullen, J., & Williams, J. (2015). Australia’s Agricultural Future: Returns, Resources and Risks (p. 144).

Image:  Riversdale Estate