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Program finds high levels of trust in growers

The Australian community overwhelmingly trusts grain growers to produce crops in a sustainable and responsible way, according to a recent survey.
Photo: Rebecca Jennings

Key points

  • Eighty-six per cent of the community members surveyed considered they had moderate to extreme levels of trust in Australian grain growers
  • Environmental responsibility, responsiveness to the community and the products of rural industries are the major drivers of community trust
  • Areas of uncertainty have been identified for community trust including better ways to use chemicals to control weeds and the use of genetically modified plants

The interconnectedness of rural industries provides a clear opportunity for the rural industries to collaborate further to improve community trust

Trust is the bedrock of all relationships, whether they are business or personal ones, and a recent study has shown the Australian community overwhelmingly trusts grain growers but that there are areas of uncertainty about some farming practices.

As growers’ freedom to operate and innovate in their production systems relies on community trust, understanding the rapidly changing community expectations around how Australian rural industries operate is vital. Enabling Australia’s rural industries to understand these evolving expectations is important to ensure ongoing freedom to operate and innovate.

Collaboration is key to addressing industry-wide issues such as community trust. It is for this reason that Australian rural industries have come together through the Community Trust in Rural Industries (CTiRI) program to develop a roadmap to proactive, transparent, long-term engagement with the community by investigating the drivers of community trust. The CTiRI program aims to provide insights and tools about how Australians feel about rural industries so as to grow, maintain and rebuild trust in the future.

The research outcomes from the CTiRI program will inform industry initiatives such as the Australian Grains Sustainability Framework. This is a joint initiative of Australia’s grains industry organisations to strengthen the industry’s sustainability and assist in ensuring we continue to meet the changing expectations and needs of our consumers, the community, investors and governments for the decade to 2030.

The CTiRI program involves 10 rural research and development corporations, including GRDC, the National Farmers’ Federation and the NSW Department of Primary Industries.

The first year’s survey from the program has found that not only does the Australian community have very high levels of trust in grain growers, it also highly values products and nutrition provided by farmers, fishers and foresters and values them as Australia’s environmental stewards. However, areas of uncertainty were determined amongst the Australian community and these provide opportunity for the rural industries to continue to strengthen their relationship with the community.

Baseline findings

Detailed research, undertaken by CSIRO spin-out research agency VoconiQ, has established baseline findings of community trust for the rural industries using a sample of more than 6000 Australians.

This research sample is representative of the Australian community with a breakdown of age, gender and education, with each state proportionally represented and with a mix of urban and regional community members. The sample will be surveyed each year of the three-year project term to provide insights on cross-sector issues and best-practice approaches.

From the first year of the survey, trust in rural industries was found to be generally strong, with 87 per cent of community members surveyed indicating some level of trust (from moderate to very high levels) in rural industries as a whole. However, levels of trust were found to vary across industry groups (see Figure 1). Grain growers had very high levels of trust, as 86 per cent of the community members surveyed considered they had moderate to extreme levels of trust in Australian grain growers.

According to Dr Kieren Moffat, chief executive officer and co-founder of VoconiQ, trust is the vehicle to acceptance and enables an organisation or industry to be given the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong, it provides a licence for innovation and a general freedom to operate.

The initial survey also found 86 per cent of Australians strongly believe that environmental management is a shared responsibility across all Australian rural industries. This presents opportunities for the rural industries to collaborate but also to issues a warning that, if one industry behaves badly, all can be implicated.

Figure 1: Trust in and acceptance of Australian rural industries is strong, with Australians seeing farmers, fishers and foresters as stewards of the land and the sea.

Figure 1

Source: VoconiQ

Drivers of trust

Seven strong drivers of trust were identified for the grains industry through the survey (see Figure 2).

Three major drivers of trust were identified for all rural industries: environmental responsibility, responsiveness and Australia’s rural industries’ produce. These three drivers illustrate the connectivity between the rural industries and present clear opportunities for the industries to collaboratively strengthen community trust.

“The community needs to have confidence and trust that industries are using the environment in a sustainable, responsible way with minimal impact or damage,” says Dr Moffat.

It was evident from the research that the community highly values the sector’s outputs – the products – for the nutrition they provide in the Australian diet and the raw materials for Australian manufactured goods.

Additional drivers for the grain industry included regulation, knowledge of industry practices, the importance of regional communities and the role of rural industries in Australia (see Figure 2).

The baseline trust profile information will be used to benchmark the status of the community’s trust in each rural industry and to assess the change in trust brought about through proactive and transparent engagement by the industries.

Figure 2: The seven strongest drivers of community trust in the Australian grains industry.

Figure 2

Source: VaconiQ

Areas of uncertainty

Although community trust in the grains industry was found to be high, there were key areas of uncertainty amongst the Australian community. These centred around whether the grain industry could find better ways to use chemicals to control weeds and the use of genetically modified plants.

These areas of uncertainty clearly related to two key drivers of trust; environmental responsibility and sector responsiveness to community concerns. These uncertainties will be further explored in years two and three of the CTiRI program.

Application of findings

The initial findings from this research show that the way to building and maintaining community trust is to be genuinely responsive to community concerns.

It has been proposed that by developing an aligned approach to proactive, transparent, long-term engagement with the community, rural industries can further enhance community trust.

“The key is to demonstrate responsiveness through action. Telling the community you are doing the right thing is not enough. Proactive, transparent, long-term engagement on emerging issues and concerns is required to ensure the community hears and believes industry claims,” Dr Moffat says.

“There are huge opportunities for industries who demonstrate responsiveness through action,” he says.

The research project will not only establish a channel to directly engage the community on trust issues, but it will also provide a detailed understanding of the efficacy of different intervention strategies. It will provide insights and recommendations to grains industry organisations, in particular representative groups, on how community trust can be strengthened. Based on the first year’s findings, this will include becoming more proactive in areas where the community has the greatest uncertainty.

The rural industries are interconnected by their shared stewardship of Australia’s natural resources and they need to collectively maintain and build community trust to support their freedom to operate and innovate. This was clearly evident in the community research, which showed that one industry acting irresponsibly negatively affects the community’s opinion of all rural industries.

“The rural industries need to keep an eye on the present but with a view to the future, and demonstrate that they are the best stewards of Australia’s resources by maintaining and building community trust,” Dr Moffat says.

The research outcomes from the CTiRI program will inform industry initiatives, such as the Australian Grains Sustainability Framework. The framework was developed by GrainGrowers, together with Grain Producers Australia, Grain Trade Australia, Australian Export Grains Innovation Centre and GRDC, to ensure the grains industry continues to meet the changing expectations and needs of grain consumers, the community and government.

Trust in the time of a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented global health crisis, and its effects have been felt by local rural industries. Few would have thought we would experience rationing of staples like bread, pasta and toilet paper, however brief. With the aggressive lockdowns required came widespread job insecurity for urban residents and fear of recession. So, how have these profound changes affected community attitudes towards farming, animal welfare and the environment?

The Community Trust in Rural Industries program survey (initially done in late 2019) was repeated once lockdown commenced in Australia in April 2020. Using a sample size of 2300, with a representative demographic split mirroring the initial survey, the results showed the trust for rural industries increased across the board. Additionally, it showed:

  • the community were more likely to agree that rural industries are prepared to change their practices in response to community concerns (52 per cent agreed during in 2020 compared with 44 per cent in 2019);
  • the community were more likely to agree that rural industries listen to and respect community opinions (57 per cent agreed in 2020 compared with 50 per cent in 2019);
  • 91 per cent of community agreed during the COVID-19 pandemic that producing food for Australia is an essential service;
  • 88 per cent of community agreed that they were confident that Australia can maintain its supply of food during the COVID-19 pandemic; and
  • 79 per cent agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic made them more aware of the importance of food security for Australia.

COVID-19 has highlighted for many people the importance of food safety, security and importance of Australian rural industries.

More information: Maxie Hanft, 0429 550 864, maxie.hanft@grdc.com.au; the Community Trust in Rural Industries Program.

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