Evidence matters: 15 years of farm policy

Richard Heath

Executive Director, Australian Farm Institute 

Discussion about Australian agriculture seems more emotionally charged right now than at any time in recent history. Whether it be response to drought, climate change action, the future of animal agriculture or a host of other issues, informed and rational debate is often replaced by hostile tribes yelling at each other with no interest in exploring a middle ground. 

The provision of evidence to inform rational debate about agricultural policy is why the Australian Farm Institute (AFI) exists. In this post-truth politics era, delivering evidence-based policy research to a receptive audience can be a challenge, yet the purpose of the AFI is in many ways more important now than at any point since the AFI’s inception. 

So, what is that purpose and how is it still relevant in today’s environment, 15 years after the establishment of the Institute? What has changed in this time, and what has stayed the same?

AFI origins

After starting operations at the beginning of 2004, the AFI was officially launched on 8 June of that year. The first edition of this newsletter – Farm Institute Insights – was published in July 2004. That first brief one-page newsletter provides a great synopsis of the Institute’s goals and aims. It opens with a short report about the launch function at which John Ralph, then AFI Chair, highlighted that “the Institute will be research-driven and will have a strong focus on providing objective, rigorous information to progress debates on strategic farm policy issues”. 

In that simple statement Mr Ralph clearly laid out the course the Institute had planned to achieve its vision of policies that maximise the opportunity for Australian farmers and the agricultural sector to operate in a profitable and sustainable manner, via the objective of conducting highly credible public policy research and promoting the outcomes to policy-makers and the wider community. 

The rest of the newsletter outlines the range of initial activities the Institute would undertake to achieve its objective. Critically, the process and structures set in place to determine what those activities would be were also described. 

The AFI is an independent, member-based organisation and the foundation member was the NSW Farmers’ Association. However, with laudable vision and foresight, the instigators of the Institute at NSW Farmers’ realised that to credibly achieve its objective, the AFI needed to be completely free of political (or indeed agri-political) influence. To this purpose a governance model was set up which included an independent board of directors, and a Research Advisory Committee (RAC) consisting of senior Australian agricultural academics. The RAC was designed to help to determine research priorities for the Institute and provide a peer review body for research outputs. Ongoing financial viability for the Institute would be dependent on two things: research priorities would need to resonate with potential project funders, and the purpose and outputs of the Institute would need to deliver a value proposition to attract membership.  

Consistent focus

The research projects carried out by the AFI in its first three years of operation are indicative of the range and themes of policy areas that continue to be a focus today. As an example, the following three projects from those early years highlight the breadth of issues that the Institute covered. In March 2005 the AFI undertook research on Australia’s farm-dependent economy: analysis of the role of agriculture in the Australian economy. This project noted that in 2003–04 the agricultural sector accounted for 3.2% of GDP in Australia, based on the farmgate value of farm produce, yet the economic contribution that agriculture makes to the national economy extends well beyond the farmgate value. In October 2006 a report on Enhancing the customer focus of Australian agriculture investigated two significant trends evident in global agricultural markets: the steadily increasing agricultural output of developing nations, and the rapid growth in sales of higher value produce, especially in wealthy markets. 

Although climate change is decried by some in the political sphere as a trendy topic for urban hipsters, the AFI produced work in June 2007 on The new challenge for Australian agriculture: how do you muster a paddock of carbon? This research noted that national and international policy responses to human-induced climate change presented Australian agriculture with both threats and opportunities. More than a decade ago, the AFI stated that “the future success of agriculture in Australia will depend very much on how adequately the sector positions itself in responding to this issue”.

Just as it is today, the research focus for the Institute then was on the economic environment that agricultural businesses worked within, the influence of changing social structures on consumer demand, and environmental challenges and opportunities for Australian agriculture. Essentially, a triple bottom line approach to work towards the vision of policies that maximise the opportunity for Australian farmers and the agricultural sector to operate in a profitable and sustainable manner. 

The details and specific topics of the AFI’s research projects obviously change over time to reflect new data, emerging issues and identified policy gaps; yet the AFI’s focus on economic, social and environmental outcomes has remained consistent over the past 15 years. Another factor that has changed considerably over that time has been the environment into which those outcomes have been communicated.

The post-truth environment 

In 2016 the Oxford Dictionary chose post-truth as its word of the year. The US presidential election and the UK Brexit referendum, both held that year, elevated the art of post-truth politics to a transcendent plane. In doing so, global political culture transitioned to a model wedded to emotional appeals based on endless repetition of talking points with scant regard for factual rebuttals. Policy detail in this political climate has become secondary, almost an impediment to success. 

For policy research organisations this new environment poses an obvious challenge – one which must be met head-on, as policy and strategy which is not based on robust and rigorous evidence will inevitably fail. 

Contrasting policy responses to the issues covered in the aforementioned three projects highlight how evidenced-based policy is more likely to result in outcomes that deliver certainty and stability.

The research on Australia’s farm-dependent economy clearly detailed how the agricultural sector was responsible for significant economic impact well beyond the farm gate. While drought policy has been altogether problematic, acknowledgment of the farm-dependent economy in relation to drought response has until recently been completely lacking. Government policy responses are now trying to reduce the catastrophic impact that the current drought is having on regional economies and communities. Drought policy which acknowledged evidence of the farm-dependent economy would have anticipated this impact far earlier in the process.

Enhancing the customer focus of Australian agriculture demonstrated that a significant amount of the growth in Australian agriculture over the past couple of decades has been in increased value of goods produced. As a nation dependent on trade, Australian businesses and governments have generally well understood the benefits of better trade relationships and embraced evidence in the development of trade policy and strategy around the production of goods suited to consumer demand. Although there has been some opposition to the liberalisation of trade, the evidence of benefit to the sector has won out in policy development and as a result Australian agricultural trade has continued to grow and provide a relatively stable and predictable environment to realise opportunity.

Perhaps the ultimate example of a disregard for evidence leading to ongoing failure in policy response is evident in the work produced for How do you muster a paddock of carbon? In this report the AFI highlighted the global move towards mechanisms that would create opportunity in mitigating against climate change. While acknowledging the challenges that would be evident in introducing such mechanisms the benefits were clear. However, an almost complete absence of coordinated policy in this area has meant that Australian agriculture has missed out on the opportunities identified 12 years ago.

Unfortunately, emotive ‘post-truth’ discussion about farming is extending beyond the bubble of policy development and into the community more widely. This is creating a tension between the agricultural and non-agricultural community which is amplifying the likelihood of bad policy outcomes. Recent social and political discussion about drought response provides many examples of how distant John Ralph’s desire to see “informed debate to progress strategic policy issues” seems to be.  

Dust storms, drought and Dutch tractors

The current Australian drought has delivered a relentless procession of choking dust storms. For those that have never experienced one, dust storms are in many ways a physical representation of the emotional toll inflicted by drought: gritty, dark, foreboding and inescapable. On 17 October, ABC News Mornings presenter Joe O’Brien tweeted a short video he had received from a farmer near Warren in NSW. The video shows a dust storm advancing ominously over a cotton field. Accompanying the tweet was a simple but heartfelt comment from the farmer: “people don’t realise what it’s like out here”.

Joe’s tweet had a huge response. The video was viewed more than 100,000 times, with (at time of publication) 2300 likes, 1200 retweets and 350 replies. The tone of the response, however, was surprisingly negative. Most of the replies were hostile, aggressive and abusive – not just towards the farmer who contributed the video but to farmers in general. Consistent themes of ‘farmers are getting what you deserve’, ‘it’s your fault for clearing all the trees’, ‘stop growing cotton’, ‘you’re all climate deniers’ dominated the commentary. 

While this is only one tweet, it is however sadly representative of what many Australian farmers describe as a growing attack from a hopefully small but nevertheless vocal part of the population. Farmers have expressed immense frustration about a particular aspect of these interactions – namely, the lack of engagement from those doing the attacking. In today’s society no-one expects complete consensus of ideas. Frank conversations about difficult issues between people who are fully aware of the issue being discussed – i.e. informed debate – are entirely appropriate and should be encouraged. Social media ‘pile-ons’ which endlessly repeat false information and ignore factual rebuttal or defence are merely senseless attacks. 

While social media trolls attacked the dust storm victim, Loxton farmer John Gladigau was putting together an open letter detailing his thoughts on what he believes most farmers want and expect from the non-ag community during drought. John’s letter is well worth reading in full, however there is one section of the letter that particularly resonates in relation to the hostility that some farmers are feeling directed towards them. It also indirectly speaks to why the purpose of the AFI remains so important in the current environment.  

“Some of you don’t like what we do – and that’s okay… We have no problems with different viewpoints and perspectives – but all we ask is that before you judge, that you seek to engage with us to learn why we do what we do. And I hope that when you do, that we also listen to you, and seek to understand your stories.”

John has eloquently captured the essence of the benefit of informed debate: confidence that a shared understanding of an issue will lead to outcomes that may not be liked by all but will be accepted because of the evidence presented. Unfortunately, shared understandings about agricultural issues are becoming harder to find, not just in Australia but around the world. 

One of the most disruptive examples of a breakdown in shared understanding between policy-makers, the community and agriculture is playing out in The Netherlands. During October a series of protests by Dutch farmers resulted in the centre of The Hague and several other Dutch cities being swamped with thousands of tractors. 

While protests like these have been reasonably common in other parts of Europe, they are very uncommon in The Netherlands which prides itself on stable government. These protests were ostensibly in reaction to new regulations aimed at reducing nitrogen pollution. A small environmental group had claimed that Dutch regulations were not resulting in adherence to European parliamentary regulations around nitrate runoff. The Supreme Court of the Netherlands agreed with the environmental group and the government reacted by introducing tough new regulations. Farmers claimed the new regulations would have resulted in a severe impact to agriculture and made farming in many sectors unviable. 

While nitrogen regulation was the trigger that got Dutch farmers in their tractors and out on the streets, the protests were the culmination of a much longer-term frustration. These farmers strongly felt underappreciated in terms of the contribution they make to the Dutch economy and that they were being unfairly targeted as primary drivers of climate change. They claimed the policy being imposed was not based on available evidence (of reduced agricultural emissions through new technology use) and felt completely disengaged from the policy development process. 

Policy relating to nitrogen pollution and agriculture in The Netherlands is now in turmoil, with some provinces reversing the new regulations and the community split over supporting the farmers or believing that the new regulations are justified. In all the reporting and political commentary on the protests it is very difficult to find any objective, dispassionate information about the nitrate regulations. As with so many contentious agricultural issues today the discussion has been reduced to “farmers are not being valued” on one side and “farmers are destroying the planet” on the other. 

It seems that John Gladigau’s desire to see engagement before judgement (from both sides) is far from a reality anywhere in the agricultural world. 

Engaging with evidence

Evidence is the currency of the AFI. The requirement to produce defensible robust research goes beyond vision and objective statements and is embedded in the structure and procedures of the organisation. However, the communication and extension of this evidential research has changed – and will continue to change.

While the research needs and social context of the AFI will continue to responsively evolve, two things must remain consistent to ensure the Institute’s ongoing contribution to better agricultural policy. The first is an unwavering focus on providing research which underpins the ability for Australian farmers and the agricultural sector to operate in a profitable and sustainable manner – that triple bottom line focus. The second is the continued support of Institute members, from individual subscribers and supporters through to corporate partners and research funders.

The AFI’s purpose is no less relevant today than it was in 2004. Frustrated farmers everywhere are tearing their hair out at the misinformation put forward in agricultural policy discussions. There is a real threat that this misinformation will lead to policy which adversely impacts Australian farmers’ ability to operate profitably and sustainably. 

The AFI will continue to produce the evidence required to counter this misinformation and will also continue to evolve the way that research is presented so that it has currency in the post-truth political landscape

We do need your help to succeed in this aim. As a small not-for-profit organisation, the Institute relies entirely on membership contributions and project funding for financial viability. If the need for evidence-based research for agricultural policy development resonates with you, please consider becoming a member of the AFI. 

And regardless of your affiliation with the AFI or other agricultural organisations which advocate for better policy for the sector, it is up to each of us to continue to promote evidence-based discourse on the issues that matter – not to respond in anger or resort to blame, but to seek the common ground in an informed debate to produce policy which supports the sustainable, profitable production of food and fibre in an ever-changing world.

Image:  Kees Torn