South African consumers no longer know the farmers behind the products because industrialised food manufacturing has become the norm. The relationship between the two needs to be mended and consumers must be educated about the vital role that farmers play in quality control, feeding the nation and conservation, writes Roelof Bezuidenhout.
The New York Times recently reported how agribusinesses are encouraging customers to reconnect with their agrarian past. For example, a Californian flour company runs a Find the Farmer website and puts special labels on its packages to inform buyers about farmers and to show them how to contact the farmers who produced the wheat that went into flour. Traceability aspect aside, the idea is to mend relationships between consumers and farmers, which were broken by industrialised food manufacturing. The website also points out that if food producers know they’re being watched, they’ll be more careful. At the same time, the person who bites into a scone will realise there’s a real person behind the product.
We desperately need this kind of strategy in South Africa, where farmers are already faceless and losing control of their produce, as big supermarkets chase profit and turn to misleading labels to score green points. Interference by emotional armchair conservationists is also driving a wedge between producers and cash-strapped shoppers.
Ludolph Swanevelder, former national chairperson of the National Confederation of Hunters’ Associations of South Africa, has suggested a shift in thinking from green to blue to prevent a black future for species and habitat. “The ‘blue’ approach recognises that conservation is about preserving a habitat that can sustain animals as well as mankind. Sustainable utilisation has become a big challenge, but wrong policies could result in conservation being reduced to seeing wild animals only in zoos or in glossy magazines,” he said.
“Sadly, the emotional “green” lobby is still getting support from the public. For them, the Big Five is more important than the bush and species with pet value have more value than others. Their actions might improve situations in isolated cases, but often lead to more damage elsewhere,” he said.
South Africa’s farmers, who collectively do more for conservation and maintaining ecological systems than anyone else, will have to mobilise themselves, promote their profession for what it is, and regain the standing they deserve in the public eye. Even 15 years after the first free elections, many NGOs and government officials still don’t consider it politically correct (and therefore economically unwise) to be associated with the commercial farming sector. Instead of getting support, farmers are blamed for everything that goes wrong, from rural unemployment to food inflation.
Although some individuals in suburbs understand farming reasonably well, the urbanised population doesn’t worry about the wellbeing of farmers. Pressure groups, of course, are interested in what farmers do, but for their own reasons. Generally, consumers prefer rock concerts to agricultural shows, and eat takeaways rather than wholesome meals. So, farming doesn’t get the kind of media coverage it needs.
But soon, even junk food could become unaffordable. In England a group of concerned citizens and a farmer is planning a conference aimed at taking control of the world’s food security messages. According to spokesperson Mike Keeble, they want other countries to join their efforts because no population can deal with its own food security. The Yorkshire Agricultural Society will provide the facilities for the event while the Royal Agricultural Society will set up a website for international networking and discussions.
“As the population climbs to nine billion over the next 30 years, we’ll all be sharing the same world larder,” Keeble points out. “Unless we work together now, conflict, starvation and poverty will get worse. We can’t rely on politicians and governments to save the situation as they work on short-term agendas.” Keeble is known as a rural communicator. Apart from being a farmer and columnist, he does radio and TV programmes on rural matters. He’s convinced consumers have drifted away from farmers only because they have been getting the wrong messages. “As in your country, Britain has seen a huge drop in the number of farmers,” he says. “We’ve become predominantly a suburbanised industrial country with large-scale agribusinesses, apart from the red meat sector, which is still pastoral. Milk is now produced on a grand scale with 300-cow herds being the norm. The big processors and supermarkets have gained the upperhand, mostly because producers don’t cooperate.”
Unless we educate consumers about the need for fair prices and the huge role commercial agriculture plays in rural stability, food security and the conservation of natural capital, the rest of the marketing chain, including agents and retailers, will continue to dictate events. |fw