Beef and consumer trust: don’t just tell your story, live it


James Nason, BEEF Central (Australia) 

March 8, 2019


IAN McConnell brings a unique perspective to the question of what the beef industry can do to maintain consumer trust as anti-meat headlines and campaigns work to erode it.


His ties to the beef industry are strong – his family has owned and run the historic Mt Brisbane property near Esk for more a century, Ian studied animal science at UQ Gatton and then meat science at Colorado State University, and worked as a DPI livestock extension officer for almost a decade, during which time he was named both Australian Rural Youth Ambassador and Cattle Council of Australia’s Beef Industry Rising Champion.


In 2012 Ian joined the World Wildlife Fund For Nature Australia to lead the environmental organisation’s engagement with the Australian beef industry, before being promoted to WWF’s global beef industry lead in 2014.


It is no secret that there are mixed views about the WWF in Australia’s cattle industry. Some groups are adamant the industry must engage with groups such as the WWF to ensure it understands and is staying ahead of changing consumer expectations. Others, particularly in Queensland where the WWF’s past active role in lobbying for stringent vegetation management controls on landholders has never been forgotten, strenuously oppose any suggestion of industry engagement with groups such as the WWF, warning they will lead only to prescriptive rules controlled by such groups imposed on landholders in the future.


Few people bring the same depth of understanding to both sides of the beef industry “social licence” debate than Ian, through both his extensive beef industry background and experience, and his work with the environmental NGO globally.


At an intensive agriculture conference organised by the Toowoomba Surat Basin Enterprise and Food Leaders Australia at Dalby yesterday, Ian shared his views on the challenges the beef industry is facing and his thoughts on what it needs to do to maintain consumer trust in future.


Social license as an idea was originally borne out of the fracking industries in the United States, he explained.


When it began, the fracking industry enjoyed high levels of approval because it employed many people in rural America and brought many communities out of poverty.


However, over time, the challenges it posed to watersheds in the landscape eroded its levels of public trust. As it crossed the trust boundary the industry still had regulatory approval to operate, but was no longer what the community idolised or identified with.


Over time, as the industry lost its social acceptance, communities have withdrawn from allowing it. The same trend has occurred here, with a number of local councils and states in Australia banning the industry from operating.


So how does this apply to beef?


In a message that may come as a surprise to beef producers, given the tone of anti-meat headlines and commentary on social media, is that in Ian’s view the industry still enjoys strong levels of approval.


“Any belief from you as an industry that falls below that line is pure pessimism,” he said


“All up, I will challenge you, it is purely you listening to your own Facebook feed


“You’re being told that everybody is against you, because someone was against you, and when an activist says something two groups listen – his Facebook friends, and the person he is attacking. And the person he is attacking amplifies his message within his peers.


“It is why we tend to over exaggerate the impact.”


Farming is still one of the most trusted professions in the world, second only to careers that save lives, such as paramedics and emergency services.


“Farmers are still intrinsic to who we are, especially in Australia.”


“It is becoming a little bit more removed in different parts of the world, in Europe you’re seeing meat consumption decline because of this difference (The difference between Australia’s social identification with farming and that not being the case in Europe).”


However, nor was there any room for complacency.


The rise of social licence as a concept had emerged for genuine reasons of resource scarcity and declining biodiversity.


The world was going to have to provide more with less, and would need to ‘sustainably intensify’, to feed growing city-based populations.


“We are going to have to produce enough food in the next 30 years to match all of the food humanity has ever eaten, since first man walked, in that time,” he said.


“It is a really big challenge. How we do that, in light of a number of resource scarcities, but also the fact the very natural systems on which we rely to provide primary production, are also declining.


About half of all millennials, who now represent a large and growing proportion of consumers, are aspirational consumers – in that they care about where their food comes from. 46 percent of consumers in China are also considered aspirational consumers.


As consumers move to asking more questions about how their food is produced, some countries are looking to seize upon that opportunity. Ireland for example has said that 100 percent of its exports will be certified sustainable by 2020.


“They have told the world we are going to be your market place for sustainable food.


“The question I have for you is, is their  food any more sustainable than Australia’s?”


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