The evolution of agricultural advocacy

The evolution of agricultural advocacy

More than ever, farmers need strong, effective advocates. However, organic growth in the advocacy ecosystem across disparate regions and sectors has led to duplication of structures and replication of intent. Australian agricultural advocacy is riddled with issues – and rich in resources. To adapt effectively, agricultural advocates must take personal responsibility for change and embrace the concept of systems thinking: to grow lizard feet.

In 2021, the National Farmers’ Federation commissioned the Australian Farm Institute to map a strategic path for Australian agricultural industry representation, to assess whether the operation of agricultural advocacy is ‘fit for purpose’ in a policy and social landscape very different to that of past decades.

This project addressed the core question of whether stakeholders in the ecosystem understand the purpose of Australian agricultural advocacy. The answer, largely, is ‘not particularly well’. Australian agriculture holds an immense store of social and human capital, yet these capital stocks are not being used to their full potential to advocate.

The environment in which advocacy operates today has changed significantly, and will continue to change. Agricultural advocacy must not only adapt to these changes to remain relevant and effective, but endeavour to thrive rather than just survive.

The fundamental point consistently reinforced throughout this research was that meaningful growth must come from the ground up, not the top down. This research can assist organisations to assess their own positions, but change must be driven by the people who are part of the greater advocacy ecosystem. This project does not seek to impose new organisational systems, but instead proposes a systemic, consistent approach to building capacity across agricultural advocacy for critical review, change management and a more efficacious, sustainable use of resources.

Australian agricultural advocates and their direct stakeholders hold a very limited view of what advocacy is and could be: i.e., that lobbying is the key objective or activity of advocacy. This is not a universal perspective across the wider Australian sociopolitical ecosystem. Agriculture needs to better understand the ways in which different industry or social organisations prioritise some of the multiple aspects of advocacy, and the variations in perceptions of what advocacy as a term actually means.

A global trend toward declining membership is a present danger to legacy organisations, yet there is much more at stake than the organisations themselves. Indeed, a reduction in the number of organisations in the Australian agricultural advocacy landscape would be welcomed by many stakeholders. Rather, the central concern is the fundamental capacity for advocates to recommend publicly, argue on behalf of, or intercede for Australia’s farming industry.

Australian agricultural advocacy is not as effective as it could be. Intended targets of advocacy messages are confused by the cacophony of noise and contradictory claims to “represent industry”. Inflexible structures are replicated across the ecosystem. And resources – particularly human, social and intellectual – are not used well or recharged effectively.

If left unaddressed, these issues could decline into the classic ‘boiling frog’ scenario in which threats are recognised far too late. In contrast to the mythical frog, agricultural advocates should respond like the hardy Green Anole, an evolutionary marvel which reacted to a threat by dramatically modifying first its behaviour, then its actual physical structure at an astonishing rate.

To adapt effectively, agricultural advocates will need to embrace the concept of systems thinking, e.g., recognising responsibility, sometimes via well-intentioned contributions to the issue, and challenging mental models to identify points of intervention and change.

Agricultural advocacy must grow lizard feet.

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