Warning! This is a long feed, that's because it's got some meat in the sandwich. It serves up reasons why farmer, agriculture, agribusiness, and food industry groups are struggling. They're all struggling, even though the world's population is booming, demand soaring, and peace is more common that war. The reasons they are struggling is that the world needs less primary producers (the more productive they become). So, the main reason why their groups are struggling is because there is less of them to financially support their own advocates. This generates the driving need for change, and analysing the conundrum it creates also provide insights and poses solutions for the future.
Forced change does not come easy. Purposeful designed change is much rarer and much harder to achieve. Even when the need for change is obvious, it is almost impossible to change existing ways of doing things. Cries of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" more ring out often than not.
This paper is about future directions for agribusiness: the world's largest industry. The industry that feeds us all 24/7, and we all eat.
Agribusiness represents about one third of most economies, and is the largest industry in all but a few regions throughout the world. So too in Australia and its territories (despite its reputation for iron ore, coal, and gas), in most of its regions, agribusiness dominates.
This paper builds upon the recent diverse sources of public discussion in Australia about the nature of farmer representation, its strengths, weaknesses, and current relevance. It is relevant to the rest of the advanced economies, and the developing economies will see their future in it too (and perhaps some lessens to avoid befalling their advances to modernise).
It draws heavily a similar paper by Trebeck & Crombie (2013), and proceeds to present a holistic overview of the agribusiness sector in Australia, one that includes but is not limited to farming. It seeks to consider the advancement needs of all involved in the food, fibre, and bio-energy systems. It draws upon agribusiness industry and advocacy experience since the mid 1980s.
It is not possible to understate it, Agribusiness is the world’s largest industry; it employs half the world’s people, deploys half the world’s assets, and generates 40% of the world’s consumer goods.Agribusiness is the business of humans nourishing themselves.
Agribusiness is a global business. For any country to develop agribusiness industry enhancement policies without at least some regard to the global market circumstances is unwise at best and it is a recipe for disaster at worst. Failure to consider local impacts of food security, bio-security, and the uptake of generic science and technology breakthroughs demonstrates the challenges involved.
Nonetheless, just simple attention to the complexity of agribusiness within a nation is a large undertaking. Consequently, it is difficult for lay industry participants to grasp what lies beyond their liminality, so attention mostly gets focused on local paradigms and viewpoints, which can result in assessments of business conditions affecting them and their businesses being misdiagnosed. In effect, people tend to only consider factors they perceive they have responsibility for.
Notwithstanding grander competitive scenarios, and whilst the overall fortunes of Australian agribusiness will wax and wane in response to community perceptions and global competitiveness, it is inevitable that Australia will continue to rely upon agribusiness as a significant wealth-creating industry - in perpetuity.
Agribusiness is far too important for partisanship. Since global population trends will increasingly drive resource demand (including food), and therefore Australian economic circumstances, the impact of partisan politics on the industry’s profitability and productivity will diminish over time.
With very few exceptions, in modern day society, agribusiness is the most productive way to feed everyone, day in and day out. Whilst farmers grow all food, the increasing reality is that most food is not consumed near where it is grown, so the business of moving and trading food has become a fundamental necessity of everyday life (The descriptor ‘agribusiness’ includes farming but is not limited to farmers).
Since, the earliest of times, farming and agriculture has been at the very genesis of human society, so it is only to be expected that commonplace beliefs about our food system assume farmers are fundamentally important to food production for everyone, and therefore, to society overall. This is known in academic circles as giving rise to agrarianism. Agrarianism hinders and limits a broader understanding of how food systems work in contemporary societies. This is because the act of growing food is only a relatively small part of its transformation and delivery to consumers to eat.
1.1 THE VALUE OF AGRIBUSINESS TO AN ECONOMY
Until such time as all governments, of any particular partisanship, at any jurisdictional level (including multilateral, national, regional, & local), stop under-estimating the whole contribution of their agribusiness sectors to their economies, they will continue to under-perform in policy development terms. Therefore, economic performance and overall productivity potential will be diminished accordingly. Farming and agricultural industries are an important part of any nation's economy, culture, and environment. However, agricultural production, by comparison, remains only a small part of any nation's whole agribusiness economy - usually by a factor between 4 and 12. Generally, the more developed a nation, the larger the multiplier. That is certainly the case for Australia.
Still within living memory, many of our older generations can recall the origins of earlier agrarian societies, from which contemporary farming and the agribusiness system arose. The pressing need is to consider new paradigms to reflect modern times. By way of analogy, seeds are important, but the harvested food eaten long after the seeds are sown is what matters to most people nowadays. The majority of the world's food is no longer grown close to where it is consumed, but that does not stop most people believing that it should. Consequently, societies still tend to think in those older, less productive ways.
Both Governments and private businesses tend to under-fund things to ensure future productivity, particularly in times of scarcity. If agriculture-reliant industry (i.e. agribusiness) also underestimates its value to society, then that will only compound the problems we seek to grow solutions for. This is somewhat problematic, as most agribusinesses also don’t consider they are, in fact, an agribusiness. For example, a bank financing a farmer or a food processor relates first to the banking industry, not the agribusiness industry they are actually provide services to and are ‘enabling’. This historical viewpoint is, in fact, an inhibitor to advancing the integration of the overall ‘agribusiness system’.
It is not agriculture or agribusiness; it is agriculture and agribusiness combined that matters to our economy, working as one effective wealth-creating system. The best way to bolster an economy is to get both working optimally together for mutual benefit.
2. FORMATION OF THE NATIONAL FARMERS FEDERATION
In Australia, The National Farmers Federation (NFF) commenced in 1979. Its genesis being driven by farmers desires for stronger national representation (Conners, 1996). Its evolution and record of accomplishment in its earlier years were formidable (Trebeck, 1990).
“They introduced computers after I left Uni. So, back in 1979 you gotta remember mobile phones didn’t exist and the Internet wasn’t even on the horizon”.
Anon Ag Graduate, 1981
The perceived performance of the NFF has waned in recent years, and its organisational leadership has attempted to re-structure several times across that time, but the members have yet to approve any re-structure. There is now a rising interest in how the organisation may survive, and some options for future directions canvassed (Trebeck & Crombie, Farmer Advocacy, 2013). Recent public comments indicate that the NFF is about to review its agricultural representation to ensure ongoing relevance (Finlay, 2014).
It is only in recent years that the NFF attempted to expand its membership base beyond its traditional farmer base to include agribusinesses. It made the necessary changes to its constitution to enable it. However, after several years its agribusiness membership has never exceeded a dozen or so companies.
The current business model most talked about in public circles is the adaption and adoption of the Farm Bureau model in the United States (Trebeck & Crombie, pp. 13-14). This may or may not involve change to farmers’ representative organisations but does assume the introduction of improved products and services for members. This is so that there are more perceived benefits for members to take advantage of beyond their main advocacy role.
In summary, Trebeck & Crombie (p5) reviewed the history of farm organisations in Australia by highlighting several themes:
- Farmers have long sought the added clout from a unified structure;
- Notwithstanding this, splits and splinter groups occurred from time to time (which explains a widely held view that ‘farmers are their own worst enemy’;
- Existing structures did not remain fixed but varied as circumstances changed;
- Hard times, for whatever reason, tended to be the catalyst for change; and
- The interests of farmers could usually be equated with the national interest.
3. MAIN DRIVERS AFFECTING FARM PROFITABILITY
Broadly, Australian agriculture is far more productive than it was three to four decades ago, and as a direct consequence there are far less farmers now producing more produce than ever. To achieve profits, farmers have needed to pursue improved productivity, and this trend has been amplified by:
- Volatile market and seasonal conditions (droughts, floods or fires);
- An export focus of the major industries with farmers largely being price takers in those markets;
- The importance of innovation and productivity improvement to offset the impact of the cost price squeeze on farm returns, hence farm numbers decline; and,
- This increased pressure for farm sizes to increase, hence farm numbers decline further.
Simply put, the more productivity gains are made, then the fewer farmers that are required to produce the same, or more, outputs. It is also inevitable that this decline in farmer numbers will continue for some time to come, and this places traditional farmer representation models, and thus their farmer organisations, under severe and ongoing stress.
4. ARE FARM ORGANISATIONS STILL NEEDED?
Yes, of course farm organisations are needed. Representative models are unlikely to become extinct any time soon, but the need for them to adapt to contemporary circumstances necessitates that they evolve and meet new challenges will never abate.
Ultimately, the rationale of any organisation is to undertake activities and to advocate policies that its members cannot do individually, or where the clout from weight of numbers is crucial to success in advancing the interests of the individual member.
Also, over time advocacy has evolved from direct and sometimes militant confrontation towards more collaborative models that seek solutions that also meet the needs of the community. So the question is, can farmer groups adopt even more collaborative behaviours and strike up alliances with other groups who can achieve those ends on their behalf?
The most recent example where farmer organisations were ‘behind the times’ was revealed in the sensationalist style, in a social media campaign conducted by animal rights activist groups during the Indonesian Beef Slaughter dispute. That crisis resulted in the Commonwealth Government of the day responding to popular pressure and banning the entire live export trade temporarily. The results of those events still have some way to go before they fully play out. However, the point is that many farmers and their farmer groups were, and continue to be, very slow to react indeed. Even now, the older members of farmers groups still wonder ‘what happened’, and they continue to wonder how to devise strategies to overcome the challenges posed in the new social media world.
An example to demonstrate this point: One farmer organisation, acknowledging criticisms of being slow to adopt social media skills in order to mount a belated social media campaign of their own, responded by running social media courses for their members, but they did not adopt the strategy themselves. The point of this example is stark, whilst the essential need for that particular farmer organisation remains valid; the need for it to adapt to its members needs itself can be of more importance to its members at times. Simply put, farmers are best at promoting and protecting themselves, but it is reasonable that they expect their representative organisations to promote and protect their industry-wide interests at all times – that’s the main reason why they join.
This industry-wide role is further exacerbated by an increasing number of industry and government reports pointing to ‘industry’ to take action (i.e. rather than government). In other words, they call upon industry to implement things recommended in reports and inquiries to advance the industry. However, it is common for the industry group to say that is a good idea, but argue it is a role for someone else to implement – not them.
Many farmer groups are ensconced in day-to-day, historically well-established roles and activities, and they eschew most of these proposed new generic ‘industry-wide’ roles, usually on the grounds that ‘….we are not funded for them’. These roles include such things as developing and promoting animal welfare standards, promoting the industry as a desirable employer, and developing an overall brand or image for agriculture.
These are all “industry attractiveness’ issues that go to agriculture’s social licence and affect the way in which the community perceives farmers. They all remain largely un-addressed to date. With such shortcomings in mounting industry-wide advancement efforts combined with declining farmer numbers, the result only hastens the decline of their direct political influence and credibility. Meanwhile, the need for a unified, clearly articulated view on agricultural policy issues increases – so a downward spiral of effectiveness results.
So, what type of organisation or combination of organisations, can rise to the challenge of continuing to support farmers and farming?
At this point, one could look at the existing priorities of any representative group and aim just to implement each priority in order. However, until the core issue of ongoing long-term funding is addressed, pursuing any priorities will simply be a function of how much money is in the bank. Therefore, the first priority is to arrest the root cause of falling membership numbers and the resultant funding decline.
If the NFF has existed since 1979, and the decline in farmer numbers has been a long-standing problem, then most reasonable people would have little confidence in any strategy being deployed by the NFF now to turn that around. It would be, in effect, swimming against the current.
5. ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES
There have been many contributors in the search to find new business models that will place farmer representative groups on a sounder footing, with Trebeck & Crombie (2013) and the Austraian Farm Institute being the foremost of them. However, without exception, many have identified the core issue of declining farmer numbers, but few have addressed that core issue with workable solutions. To date, most proposed solutions are limited to some variation of the following options:
- “Try harder!” without changing the status quo;
- Offer member services (i.e. the Farm Bureau model);
- Put the price up (of membership fees);
- Adopt a direct membership model under a single brand: and
- Redefine and expand the membership base.
In the face of the relentless decline of farmer populations, over time only option 5, which expands the redefines the nature of membership, will be sustainable. However, even the NFF’s recent attempts to allow agribusinesses to join as members are, to date, unsuccessful. Notwithstanding the lack of success of this option so far, the most likely sustainable solution is to focus on expanding the membership base, and thus the financial base.
This is where the ‘friends of farmers’ can really help out: all those involved in the wider community that have a connection with them, or are in some way reliant upon them: those friends are agribusinesses.
Decades ago, a city-based car dealer joined the Royal Agricultural Society of Western Australia, WA’s oldest agricultural organisation. He eventually became its President. When asked by a rural journalist one day how a car dealer came to be the RAS President, He explained: “I noticed that when farmers had a good year, I sold a lot more cars”.
If it is fundamentally important to position the community in favour of farmers’ interests, then the easiest place to start is with those in the wider community that already have a favourable view of them. Better still, if their livelihoods depend on farmers in some way. Again, this means the wider agribusiness sector is the obvious answer.
Rather than base an organisation upon a declining population (of farmers), it is far better to define a community of interest in the wider population in such a way that it means all the people and the institutions in which they are involved. Further, the re-defining the community of interest until it is founded upon a population that is actually expanding is the key long term viability. That is what agribusiness is, a large, complex system involving food, fibre, and biofuels. It extends from ‘gate to plate’, includes forestry and fishing, and includes value-added manufactures, their retail outlets, restaurants, and a raft of activities engaged our society’s entire ‘food culture’.
Food bloggers are of little current interest to the NFF, but to an all-of-agribusiness representative organisation, they are valuable members of its agribusiness community which in turn contribute to the overall image and viability of the industry (including farmers).
So, instead of defining some larger organisations as just ‘agribusinesses’ in the manner NFF once did to attract new members, it is better to define an entire population engaged with agribusiness, directly or indirectly and bring all of them all into the fold as prospective members. In this way, it is even possible to envisage public servants involved in Departments of Agriculture becoming individual ‘professional’ members of an all-of-agribusiness representative organisation (i.e. an example of a large group of prospective allies for farmers and agribusinesses alike).
This is precisely what the Agribusiness Council of Australia Ltd (Ag+Council) business model enables.
In terms of creating new perspectives: the NFF itself is an agribusiness because it is in the business of representing farmers, they are not farmers themselves. It is about agribusiness in a holistic sense. Therefore, all existing organisations should continue to exist as valuable members contributing to their overall agricultural sector, albeit in modified forms necessary to survive. Thus, rather than the Ag+Council replacing the NFF, a view commonly held by some critics, the Ag+Council seeks to develop an alliance and work in fully collaborative ways with all agribusiness professionals, whether they are individuals or organisations, public or private sector (i.e. including the NFF, AFGC, etc.).
This means that instead of NFF being limited to 150,000 farmers, it has the future prospect of engaging directly or indirectly with a wider population of up to 3 million via an alliance with the Ag+Council (a multiplier up to 20 times depending on how you define the scope of ‘agribusiness’ in the Australia community. Using new social media technology, this concept can be extended still further).
Exactly how this can be achieved is up to the Ag+Council in collaboration with NFF and similar peak bodies. Surprisingly, the problems besetting the NFF are strikingly similar to those besetting other parts of the agribusiness value-chain. In fact, there are many things in common shared throughout wider agribusiness sector – indeed, there are as many problems to share as ‘pain thru the chain’ as there are opportunities to share and ‘gain thru the chain’.
Thus, the argument is internally consistent – it’s all about ensuring that the whole system knits together, and functions to its fullest potential to weave future success. Ultimately, all in the system will benefit as its overall health strengthens through a collaborative unity of purpose. Moreover, notwithstanding a better sense of unity, properly structured each organisation can still operate autonomously as and where the need arises, yet remain allies when at other times, or work concurrently in mixed modes too.
6. IS INDUSTRY REPRESENTATION EFFECTIVE ANY MORE?
Even if an industry’s policy agenda is appropriate, there still needs to be acceptance that its industry representative organisation will be effective at all times (although this is not always the case as the earlier live export ban example illustrates). Even so, it is likely that an industry’s policy agenda is mirrored within governments and political parties. When that is the case, it is difficult to see the need for the industry group at all.
A key question always remains however, does government drive an industry’s policy or does industry policy drive government policy? Thus:
- From an industry’s perspective, there is no doubt that an industry representative body must make and hold a Government to account for advancing its interests; whereas;
- From the community’s perspective, there is a need for governments to police industry and ensure any excesses of industry remain within the spirit and the intent of the law.
Since both are valid viewpoints, the reality is that change will be constant as the issues ebb and flow in response to different interest groups exerting their power.
Thus, there is a need to understand the whole system. However, without doubt, it remains an industry representative group's clear role of representing its members’ interests first and foremost. Not to do so is a folly.
Irrespective of how well or poorly industry’s interests are advanced and promulgated by government, it will always be nigh on impossible to work out whether that responsibility lies at the feet of the industry group, or the government, or some combination of both.
The only way that blurring of responsibility can be assessed with more clarity, is if all industry groups do not reply upon any government funding at all: they would rise and fall on their merits. Similar, governments would be more disposed to devising policies to support healthy industry sectors, because ultimately it affects the revenue base of government through higher tax revenues caused by improved economic activity.
Whatever the nexus between industry and government, only the overall status of the well-being of the industry at any particular time can be used as a performance measure (and even that can be interpreted in many different ways).
7. PREPAREDNESS TO PAY FOR COLLECTIVE INDUSTRY ADVANCEMENT
Regardless of whether an industry group or groups are contributing successfully to advancing their member’s interests, are their members prepared to pay discretionary income to support their industry group’s efforts?
Furthermore, regardless of the health of an industry at any given time, the individual health of its members can and does vary. Even in prosperous times, some members cannot afford to pay the costs of membership.
This is known as the “free rider” problem, where members perceive that their industry group’s overall effectiveness is unlikely to be altered much by whether they are a member or not. So, under traditional membership models, achieving membership payments from members requires industry groups to constantly let members know what is being done on their behalf, and that usually involves identifying tangible benefits to their businesses over and above any sector-wide benefits that might accrue from overall advocacy efforts.
In more recent times, particularly applying to the younger generations, this “free rider” problem is further exacerbated by free memberships on offer from any number of online social media web sites. As a consequence, new ways for lobbying government have arisen (as per the live export ban discussed earlier). Because these sites and their advanced networking capabilities are provided free, and are seen to be effective, there is an increasing expectation that traditional industry representative groups are too expensive. Worse, they are seen to be ineffective as well because they are ‘behind the times’.
Regardless of readily available ‘free membership services’ on-line, for the remaining membership base of traditional industry organisations, current industry groups lose their members over time and do not regain them as they go ‘off the books’. Whereas online social media web sites, and new types of Internet-based member organisations, can and do maintain connections to them far more continuously.
Obviously, any gradual loss of membership reduces an industry group’s potency over time.
This is one reason the Ag+Council business model provides a number of membership options, including free membership types. This enables members to remain engaged and contributing to their industry groups, and allows them to re-commence paying member fees as and when they are able.
So, whether membership is free or not, there is a rising expectation that member benefits will now include:
- The value of the industry representation service;
- Increased networking benefits from attending member-only events or conferences;
- Price discounts from an industry buying service (for products and services); and,
- Be provided free of charge the implied expectation that the industry organisation can raise revenue in other ways to make the services free to its members.
It is now a fact that farm organisation membership has been declining over an extended period, and will continue into the foreseeable future.
Of course, this problem is not confined to agriculture; it has affected all representative organisations including political parties.
8. A FARMER'S ORGANISATION OR AN AGRICULTURAL ORGANISATION?
Trebeck & Crombie (p11) point out differences in the NFF’s membership as being between a farmer organisation [e.g. the various State Farmer Organisations (SFO)] and an agricultural organisation [e.g. the various commodities groups; grain growers, beef, etc.]. For generic organisations, this roughly equates to individual members voting themselves, (as in an election) or a member voting on the basis of shares held in a corporation (i.e. as in a company’s AGM). The point is that they are from the same population of farmers, and the difference is only cutting the same cake in different ways.
There are arguments for and against this approach – which is the reason why debate on alternate models continues. This occurs right across a much larger community of interest too as multiple stakeholders express their views. In the end, it is all about being united and expressing power and influence through strength in numbers, not dividing into smaller parts and dissipating resources and clarity of messages to the wider community.
The key to managing this complexity is how the power of special interest groups within the membership is managed. It is crucial that no one member has the power to dominate another member. Thus, when applied to a larger and more complex sector, this principle must be extended to ensure that no one grouping of members has the power to dominate another grouping of members. Simple mathematic voting formulae can achieve this.
When this balance is achieved, the larger population can be more comfortable about being involved in a larger group, and many more people and organisations can combine to lend their weight of numbers, and their combined financial power to more comprehensively drive the advancement of the its interests within the wider community. Properly balanced, it also ensures that smaller groups are not precluded from accessing wider industry representative efforts.
Further, if agribusiness is the world’s largest industry, then it should be able to afford to do much more without the ‘interference’ of government. Similarly, if Australian agribusiness were more united they could flex their combined muscle to a far greater extent – to all levels of decision making – public and private.
“At the heart of the current problems facing all farm organisations is funding. With membership numbers in decline….it is hardly surprising that budgets are stressed.”
(Trebeck & Crombie, p12).
Until the decline in the member base is arrested through re-defining the population of a wider community-of-interest empathetic to farming, overall industry advocacy will continue to decline, and the resources needed to turn that around will be insufficient. End of story.
Other business models are available to achieve new ways of operating for the entire Ag-sector, to the greater benefit of farmers. These business models include those that do not require the loss of any existing farmer organisation, only changing their method of collaborating and operating in certain areas.
The model proposed by the Agribusiness Council of Australia, is an alliance, a consortium of networked industry groups, corporations, and individuals with direct or indirect interests in the industry’s advancement.
10. THE HISTORY OF AGRIBUSINESS GROUPS
The earliest attempts to create an agribusiness industry group commenced not long after the creation of the NFF in 1979. In the mid 1980s, arising out of the tertiary agricultural education system, a group of Academics and students created the Agribusiness Association of Australia and New Zealand (AAANZ). It commenced with a range of conferences and gained some initial support and patronage from various agribusiness corporations at the time (most notably Mr Doug Shears, then owner of the Uncle Toby’s group).
Given its early academic origins, and despite good intentions, it was hardly surprising that the AAANZ pursued the academic path of conferences with submitted papers, and an peer reviewed-type academic journal. This emphasis on academia adversely affected the extent to which agribusiness corporation’s supported it over time. A perceived lack of focus on the commercial needs of agribusiness restricted its success. Over time, it has evolved into the current day Agribusiness Association of Australia (AAA), and its activities have contracted to small scale networking events.
Over the last few years, the AAA have reaffirmed its intentions to continue on its current course of networking events, and as a non-partisan organisation, have no intention of becoming an industry lobby group, or involve itself in any industry standard setting activities normally offered by such profession-based groups.
Additionally, some nine years ago, a group of prominent agribusiness executives with support of their companies attempted to create an organisation thought to be called the Agribusiness Council of Australia (but a different grouping to the current day organisation of the same name). The group was financially supported by a number of major agribusinesses and a CEO recruited. The group disbanded due to an internal dispute which resulted in the corporates withdrawing their funding and support.
In 2009-10, following the potential demise of the only tertiary agricultural college in Western Australia, its former staff and students implemented a range of strategies to overcome the perceived imminent collapse of Australia’s agricultural innovation system. It instigated a meeting of agribusiness CEO’s in the Senate Hearing Room of Parliament House in Canberra to discuss options. Invitees included the NFF, the Australian Food & Grocery Council, many prominent agribusiness firms, and some politicians. The resultant meeting resolved a number of things, including to seek a Senate Inquiry into agricultural and agribusiness education and training, and to create an Agribusiness Council of Australia. As a result:
- A steering committee was formed and commenced its work to create the Agribusiness Council of Australia; and
- A Senate Inquiry was held and concluded in 2012 (Commonwealth of Australia, 2012). Its all-party unanimous recommendations included:
4.29 The committee recommends that the government facilitates the development of a national peak industry representative body for the agricultural production and agribusiness sectors.
4.30 The committee recommends that the government commits to regular consultation with the new peak body established in recommendation 9 regarding policy changes that impact upon agriculture and agribusiness.
4.31 The committee recommends that the new industry peak body develops and presents to government a national strategy for addressing the skills shortage, industry productivity, and food security.
The Ag+Council held a low profile public launch at Parliament House in Canberra on 20 March 2013, and have been setting about its establishment since. It has a three year plan to establish itself and operate entirely online as the premier network and industry group for agribusiness in Australia.
Interestingly, no existing peak industry body has sought to discover what the Ag+Council’s business model is evolving to become, despite numerous invitations by the Ag+Council for them to do so.
Trebeck & Crombie (p 12), themselves from an NFF background interpret this new development as follows: “The agricultural voice is further fragmented by the existence of several agribusiness organisations – an Agribusiness Council of Australia, an Agribusiness Association of Australia, and the Australian Food and Grocery Council’s Agribusiness Forum. None has to date made a meaningful contribution to policy development or advocacy”. The words appear to convey the point of view that only a farmer group is capable of representing the interests of agribusiness.
These perceptions are commonplace throughout the industry, and they present a challenge for the Ag+Council, and the wider agribusiness sector, to overcome if more collaborative approaches to industry advancement are to come into existence.
There is no international or multi-lateral private sector equivalent of the Ag+Council. So, aside from any undocumented collaborations between multi-national agribusiness firms, the international scene currently consists of:
- Overall Business Leaders: The World Economic Forum, an initiative of the United Nations, which also spawned the multilateral G20 group, and the recently created B20 business grouping associated with that. However, the G20/B20 groupings do not have specific agribusiness representation. If agribusiness interests are represented at all, it is more by coincidence, and not by design.
- At the consumers end, the long established Consumer Goods Forum representing most of the world’s major food retailers; and,
- At the producer end, the World Farmer Organisation (in 2010, this became the replacement group of the former International Association of Agricultural Producers).
11. TIME FOR FAR-REACHING STRUCTURAL CHANGE?
Is it time for far-reaching structural change? Yes, but any change will best be achieved by updating the traditional world view of farming and agricultural industry away from its agrarian tendentiousness, and moving it towards contemporary industry interdependencies (a viewpoint that sees all parts of the food system as being important to the performance of the overall system).
Australia’s farmers have long recognised the need for reform (NFF, 2001). In fact, there have been a number of attempts over the years to re-structure the NFF. Each time NFF’s own membership blocked the change, and that is the likely outcomes for the foreseeable future. The causal reasons opposing structural reforms is invariably resistance to changing the status quo position of the larger, well-funded groups protecting their interests. These blocking methods usually involve a member or members threatening to withdraw their voting support and or funding unless any proposed change were to their liking.
Trebeck & Crombie (p13) confirm this analysis and refer to it as “…the elephant in the room…”.This blocking behaviour by a dominant member or cliques of members within a group, is a common feature of representative organisations (i.e. powerful interests use their numbers and or funding power to express their viewpoints to the exclusion of the interests of others). Whilst this is not partisan politics, it is characteristic of all political techniques and behaviours. Indeed, it tends to drive the industry organisation towards greater reliance upon partisan politics.
Recent commentary emanating from the NFF indicates that another attempt at re-structure is imminent (Finlay, 2014). However, is it highly unlikely that any re-structure will substantially change the basis upon which the viability of the NFF depends, i.e. the number of farmers in Australia is the limiting factor, not their intentions.
The Ag+Council proposes to build upon the foundation of a large and increasing population, representing up to 3 million Australians employed directly or indirectly in the agribusiness sector. It can then work in collaboratively with other peak industry bodies active in the agribusiness sector. In this way, famers can best lever their interests through collaboration with a larger groups with like-minded interests as they choose, and without losing their cherished autonomy. It is all about working in interdependent ways, rather than solely dependent, or remaining solely independent and without the resources needed to achieve their highest aims.
12. NEW ADVOCACY HORIZONS
The role of industry advocacy groups is well understood throughout the community, and has changed little over time. There will always be needs for representative groups. However, society has changed more than ever in recent times, and it would be unrealistic to presume that the rate of change will not continue.
The notion of a ‘social licence to operate’ has been reported more and more in the popular mass media, and so too its application to farming and farming practices. Indeed, society may have changed more that the farming community – but that is a matter for some speculation beyond the scope of this paper. What we can say is that there is a rising view throughout society that farming must do more than advocate its cause to governments; and there is an additional need to market its cause to the business community and the wider consuming public.
To better convey new advocacy challenges facing farmer representative groups, a slight change in language is needed. Agvocacy, as it is called in farming circles, needs to advocate not only to government, but to other key “decision-makers” throughout the community (generally referred to as stakeholders). This adds additional strains and stresses on the declining financial base of farming groups because it takes resources to fund that kind of activity to the extent necessary to make a lasting difference.
A Senate Inquiry (Commonwealth of Australia, 2012) found that farming did have a significant image problem in Australia. Further, Australia farmers are not alone in this. The World Rural Forum reports the issue as a global one (UN International Year of Farming Families, 2014).
“…Family Farming requires genuine public support which is non-existent today in most countries.”
Clearly, an alternate way to view solving this problem of the ‘low industry attractiveness of farming’ is to engage with business and communities too, via its empathetic partners in agribusiness. In other words, use new allegiances to assist in the promotion of agribusiness and farming causes.
In their treatise, Trebeck & Crombie conclude, “We think it is time to acknowledge that the 1979 NFF structural and funding model is broken and needs to be replaced. The major issues now confronting agriculture are national (if not international) in scope and need a nationally-based organisation to deal with them”.
The Ag+Council is a national, direct membership model without state or industry affiliates. It operates entirely in the ‘cloud’ and is accessible around the clock by its members anywhere they can get access to the Internet.
The Ag+Council business model genuinely holds out significant prospects for a purposeful re-structure of the Australian agribusiness sector. Through new collaborative arrangements, it presents greater prospects for revitalizing the industry representative needs of Australian farmers.
14. ACCESS TO THE AGRIBUSINESS COUNCIL MODEL
For a range of reasons, the Ag+Council only wishes to partially articulate its business model. This is not designed to frustrate the need of other representative groups, their proposed allies, in understanding what the Ag+Council propose (although it does have that consequence). Rather, the reason is to protect the interests of their members in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. If successfully implemented, the Ag+Council business model itself has potential to become a source of competitive advantage when operating in global markets.
Access to the Ag+Council business model is by membership, and thence by actively participating in the building of new collaborative alliances: new Australian agribusiness alliances that will help ensure Australia can take its place as an influential leader within the world’s largest industry - as the best way to advance its members’ interests.
15. FURTHER INFORMATION
16. BIBLIOGRAPHY & WORKS CITED
- Australian Workforce Productivity Agency. (2013). Food & Beverage Workforce Study.Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
- Commonwealth of Australia. (2012). Higher education and skills training to support agriculture and agribusiness in Australia. Senate, Senate Standing Committees on Education, Employment, and Workplace Relations. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
- Conners, T. (1996, November). To Speak with One Voice: the Quest by Australia Farmers for Fedral Unity. PhD Thesis. Canberra, ACT, Australia: NFF Publication.
- Finlay, B. (2014, February 14). https://twitter.com/FinlayBrent. Retrieved February 14, 2014, from Twitter: https://twitter.com/FinlayBrent
- National Farmers' Federation. (2001). Review of the Agricultural Representation in Australia – Australian Farmers’ Proposal. Canberra: NFF.
- Trebeck, D. (1990). Farmer Organisations. In Agriculture in the Australian Economy (3rd ed.). Sydney, NSW, Australia: Sydney University Press.
- Trebeck, D., & Crombie, D. (2013). The Future of Agricultural Advocacy in Australia.Australian Farm Institute's Agriculture Roundtable Conference, (pp. 1-15). Sydney.
- UN International Year of Farming Families. (2014). World Rural Forum. Abu Dhabi Statement on Family Farming (p. 8). Abu Dhabi: UN IYFF.
- Wikipedia. (n.d.). Agrarianism. Retrieved February 19, 2014, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agrarianism