The need to build and strengthen the NZ economy focuses our attention on the role of the primary sector and the country’s supreme ability to produce stuff to export/sell. However, it would seem that our line of attack to win the hearts and minds of international consumers rests on our ability “to tell our story”. If you had attended the Primary Industries Summit in November last year you would have had to have been on a day-long coffee break not to hear that particular mantra repeated multiple times. The issue is that this is not new. As long as I have been working in food systems we have been talking about the need to tell our story. And, to be fair, we have had a pretty good crack at it. Resources have been regularly churned out by government agencies to support and facilitate how we sell NZ. We have had high-profile brand ambassadors, our food and drink have been seen and appreciated in high-places. Yet our story still needs to be told.
Recent negotiations at the European Court have questioned our track record on sustainability, on animal welfare, on food miles (despite glossy stories that say we are doing ok). So, it would seem we need to tell our story better.
Farmers in that audience at the Summit expressed concern that ‘townies’ don’t get them – it would seem that they need to tell their story better.
Food literacy and telling our story
What, however, if the issue is not about the story but about the way it is told. I have previously written about the low levels of food literacy in New Zealand. If we couple low levels of food knowledge, increasing distance from farmers, and stories that are more gloss than fact it becomes evident why “we have to keep telling our story”. As a child it seemed that if you weren’t a farmer you had a relative that was, or knew someone who knew a farmer, the NZ of today comprises a population where nearly a third wasn’t born here. That connection that we assume underpins our knowledge and respect of primary production is waning.
The question I have – do we need to tell our story better (again) or do we need to equip consumers with the knowledge and skills so that they can become critical users of food information? In other words, do we need to increase food literacy? And, therein we find a bit of a speedbump. We want consumers to know the story that we want to tell them, we want them to value and trust primary production but we don’t want to tell them everything. We don’t want to talk about what happens to bobby calves, nor what happens when stock leave the yards on the way to slaughter. We don’t want to talk about slaughter. We don’t want to talk about helicopters used to fight frost on precious ‘sustainable’ crops, nor do we want to talk about fisheries by-catch. We want consumer loyalty while being selective about what we talk about. An analogy could be the surgeon that doesn’t tell you what will happen when you are anaesthetised but who will describe the journey to theatre and what recovery will be like, and who wants you to ‘trust them’.
Trust is earned
Trust does not happen through a glossy brochure nor a beautifully photographed video. Trust comes through consistency between what we say and what we do, between a genuine and complete level of transparency and a willingness to acknowledge and answer the hard questions. Apparent hypocrisy – claiming one thing, such as sustainability, and not being completely sustainable, undermines all claims that we make.
There are many challenges that our primary producers face and these are compounded by climate change, covid, shut borders, lack of workers and, for those in the red meat sector, changing consumer preferences and expectations. While one approach has been to push back against plant based protein alternatives and try to discredit the product perhaps it would be more effective to take a leaf from the plant based communities book and to be authentically transparent. After all, an authentic primary product should have nothing to hide.
Before my inbox fills with irate farmers telling me that people aren’t really interested in how their food is produced I would like to point out the obvious flaw in the argument – don’t argue that we need to tell our story better unless you are willing to tell the whole story. If we start to tell our
story right, here at home, we may find that we don’t have to keep telling our story and we may just build a bit of knowledge and resiliency around food systems along the way.