Farming today and the core dialetic

January 4, 2013 by
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Hopefully this juxtaposition is enough to engage brains jaded by a combination of festive excess and the return to work….

Here is an insight of which I was reminded while speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, to an audience including none other than our own President, HRH The Princess Royal:

As the domain of competing interests and conflicting opinions, politics is inherently vulnerable to factionalism. For leaders, winning the argument for your interests or values is strongly tied up with managing the factions on your own side of the debate. This is not only a tactical device, it can also be an important driver of progressive change.

At the Oxford conference I was asked to speak on a panel responding to a paper entitled ‘Realising the opportunity: farming’s value to society’. It’s an interesting read, if slightly abstract and idealistic for some of the, literally, down to earth delegates.

Given my lack of expertise on farming, my focus was how to build on the report and its recommendations to make them a compelling new narrative. I suggested that the farming community has three broad message options (not very different from those facing any interest group that thinks it is undervalued or misunderstood): ‘coming crisis’, ‘urgent choice’ or ‘great opportunity’.

The first is the most easily translated into headlines and with growing concern about food security, it has its merits. However, as just about everyone seems to be crying crisis right now, as one of farming’s biggest negatives is a perception of gloominess, and as there is in certain areas a crisis of recruitment, the arguments against donning Cassandra’s robes are stronger.

The big choice narrative could be something like cheap and plentiful food versus sustainable farming and biodiversity. But as well as being negative, it is far from clear this choice is actually necessary or that the public would be willing to accept such a trade-off.

Which is why I argued for a great opportunity message; something along these lines:

‘For two hundred years the peacetime assumption about farming has been that its economic and social significance is declining. But in post-crash Britain, farming can be an exemplar for future industry. On the one hand, farming is a hotbed of scientific and organisational innovation making possible a step change in quantitative and qualitative productivity. One the other hand, farming is the ultimate social business, one in which making profit is bound up with ideas of responsibility, stewardship and wider public value. British farming can be a pioneer for high productivity, socially responsible 21st century business.’

Apart from it not exactly tripping off the tongue, there is a bigger problem. If farming is to make such an assertion, it must live up to it. In other words, the credibility of this narrative depends primarily not on the credulousness of the media and public, but on the willingness of the farming community to hold itself to account and make its own practices live up to its positive message.

Interestingly, it was this final tough message which resonated most strongly with the audience. I even seemed to get a nod from HRH (although this might merely have been an acknowledgment that I was the only speaker to stick to his time slot).

A jaded public and its media interpolators tend to receive most self-serving messages sceptically. To be credible, it is important for the messenger to be seen to be willing to challenge themselves and their allies. But in the factional world of organisation politics there are always those willing to use the issuing of such a challenge as an opportunity for complaint and revolt. A willingness to risk and face down such a backlash sends a message about a leader’s confidence and authority. And this process by which leaders look within and reform is not only a prerequisite for external success, it is often what legitimises reform, driving innovation and improvement.

This internal external leadership challenge is basic. It is relevant to everyone from political parties to professional associations and industrial groups. Yet so often the reaction to its articulation is one of excitement, almost revelation.

Perhaps we don’t see it because it is so ubiquitous: the core dialectic that determines the pace of progress in political contexts.

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One Comment on Farming today and the core dialetic

  1. Robert Burns on Sat, 5th Jan 2013 11:07 am
  2. Matthew,

    an interesting collection of points, but there are a few missing pieces.

    No discussion, or acknowledgement of, how the supermarket chains hold farmers hostage to price capping as regulatory burdens increase.

    Might have been a good idea to send a transcript to the CEO’s of ASDA, Sainsbury and Tesco since they control the most important variables in the farming environment. These are:

    (a) Access to mass markets
    (b) Price
    (c) Product quality expectations

    The grocery trade is saturated and large chain store outlets rule the trade.

    There is a myth that consumers make ‘informed choices’ and that the supermarkets match their offerings to these demands- “giving the customer what they demand”.

    Baloney: customers buy what supermarket marketing campaigns indoctrinate them to expect, or their limited means allow them to acquire (hence the prevalence of ‘Basics’ type offerings and ‘Premium’ brands) – autonomous and properly informed consumer choice just doesn’t happen on any significant scale (if at all).

    So, if “farming is the ultimate social business, one in which making profit is bound up with ideas of responsibility, stewardship and wider public value” is to ever to be more than an ambiguous soundbite/catchphrase we need to settle on a single meaning for it.

    Some scary thoughts for consideration:

    (1) I read somewhere that about 1/3 of all the food sold in this country is wasted.

    (2) Obesity is a growing medical, social and political concern. This means that a significant part of what we actually do eat is surplus to what is required for healthy nutrition.

    So, by how much do we all (as a society) overeat? 25, 35, 50%? MORE?

    Now I don’t know how much the grocery trade turns over each year but let’s suppose it’s £100 Billion a year.

    Even if (1) and (2) above were only partially true then it is reasonable to suppose that (let’s pick a number) anything up to £50 Billion a year gets spent on what we

    (a) don’t need
    (b) makes us less healthy and
    (c) waste

    The on costs of this are the disposal expenses (environmental and financial) and healthcare costs.

    Maybe the meaning of this phrase is that the food production and retail industries need to be drastically down-sized in parallel with regulatory controls on food advertising (like the ban on tobacco advertising) and a massive public education program on the costs of food over consumption.

    And to close:

    What do we do with all the people who would lose their livelihood if such steps were taken?

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