Redressing Consumer Opinion on Agriculture

Jim Williams, Head of Market Research at farming data firm Map of Ag spoke at the Oxford Farming Conference on the need to deal with negative media stories. An edited version of his discourse: ‘Are we going to let interest groups dictate the agenda, or will we allow farm data to relay the facts?’ is reproduced here for CHAP readers

I think there is a real sense in which the agricultural industry is allowing others to tell its story and failing to defend itself from their accusations.

The BBC’s Meat: A Threat to Our Planet, broadcast in November, was followed this month by Channel 4’s Apocalypse Cow, in which George Monbiot argued that a significant part of the UK’s uplands and hills should be re-forested, and that trees and biodiversity should replace 90 per cent of beef and sheep output.

In no other industry, would the story be allowed to be sensationalised in such a blatant fashion. Can you imagine Cars: A Threat to Our Planet or Cataclysm Car Crash? No, the automotive industry is well organised, not only to defend itself, but also to set out a vision for improving its climate impacts, and that is because it has CEOs, who get out of bed in the morning concerned about their shareholder value.

In this sense, farmers are an easy target for the media. In the UK alone, there are 100,000 farming families on the hills and uplands, who are essentially shareholders in UK agriculture, but their inherent diversity and independence means they lack a single vision of how make their farms and their industry sustainable.

So how might agriculture not only defend itself against its critics but actually improve its public image?

The three-point plan

Management consultant Peter Drucker, one of the 20th Century’s most influential thinkers on management, famously said: ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.’

Agriculture, along with every other sphere of human activity, needs to be accountable for its contribution to climate warming gases. It needs to have its own account for methane emissions, for Nitrous Oxide, as well as for all other impacts on soil, waste management, water quality and biodiversity.

The question is how we achieve such singularity of purpose?

First, we need to aggregate and combine big data at farm level. There is plenty of data out there, from animal biometrics to field sensors. It is primarily a matter of locating and aggregating what already exists.

Second, the industry has to be prepared to share openly farm data with the scientific community: they need more granular data in order to drive farm management strategies.

Three, our modelling and estimates of emissions need to be replicable according to the best scientific principles.

Why isn’t it happening?

Much of the big data on agriculture, as it exists today, is held by interests in every part of the food supply chain for a variety of reasons, such as deriving competitive advantage, managing quality assurance and ensuring food safety, to name but a few.

All of these are legitimate in commercial terms but they are not necessarily conducive to building the combined data we need for the common good.

Moreover, farms are not always happy to make their data available, again for a variety of reasons. These include a lack of understanding of the benefits of data-sharing, the difficulty of connecting farm data, and the perceived time it might take to compile the data. Perhaps more significant are a lack of clarity about who owns the data and the real block of farmer mistrust.

How might we change it?

Map of Ag is building connectivity to make it possible to autonomously ingest farm data from a growing range of data sources, so that the farmer, at all times, has ownership and control of farm data and transparency over how the data will be used. Our work also aims to reduce the burden of compliance and increase the standardisation and organisation of data so that data science can deliver. We aim to provide more granular and farm level insights to help drive farm management decisions, supported by the farm’s existing network of relationships and advisors

Who needs to be involved?

If we are to promote connectivity of farm data, we need buy-in from the agricultural industry, including:

  • The agricultural supply industry (the manufacturers and suppliers of farm inputs and services)
  • The farmer (the primary producers)
  • The farmer’s customers (the processors)
  • The farmer’s customers’ customer (the multiple retailers)

Essentially, our industry needs to learn to share data in a fully permissioned way for a greater good, where agriculture can clearly demonstrate the improvements it is making in relation to its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and thereby compete at an industry level with the claims being made by other industries.

Why do we need to do this?

The process of improving agriculture starts with the proper organisation of existing sources of data at farm level. Although these are currently held in silos of self-interest, they could be permissioned for a higher purpose and a common good.

Agriculture should be stepping up to the plate and taking responsibility for its GHG emissions, organising itself to measure its own impacts and driving year-on-year reductions, and we can only do this if we can provide clear, unrefutable evidence: that means data.

We need detailed scientific evidence to win the battle for consumer hearts and minds against organised and influential interest groups.

If we can do all this, then we can begin to write our own narrative in order to build consumer trust in farming, protecting the shareholder value in our industry.

Data will provide the evidence we need to win hearts and minds.

Map of Ag is a global pioneer in agricultural analysis and modelling technology for the agriculture and food chain industries from offices in the UK, Argentina and New Zealand. Providing access to intelligently sourced data and information from farms, its mission is to enable businesses within the agriculture industry and food chain to maximise the impact of planning and decision-making.

If you have any questions about CHAP’s Data Diagnostics capabilities or would like to reach out to the CHAP team to discuss other project opportunities, please email us at enquiries@chap-solutions.co.uk

Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP.