“The most recent example is of course the mulesing issue, with PETA and so on. I think people underestimated how they could marshal consumer outrage to create a backlash against industries,” Mr Wells said.
“The frustration for us all in these sorts of things is when you understand the industry and the science behind these things, there’s sound reasons for doing them.
“But there’s a disconnect, and as a scientist that’s one of the things I learnt â€“ I used to think there was a logical process of evaluation and acquisition of data and decision making and that was the right answer. But science is only one part of the equation.”
Mr Wells said increasingly consumers are “ruling the world”.
“They’re increasingly expressing their wishes through big retailers who are seeking to supply them with the goods they want,” Mr Wells said.
“So in terms of quality assurance, its gone well beyond safety and gone right back up stream to how food is produced.
“And it includes all these soft issues which are really quite challenging for us in agriculture, but at the end of the day consumers are still not prepared to pay any more for better upstream performance and this is the frustration for industry.”
He said if you were to poll consumers, most would say they are most concerned about issues like environment and welfare.
“But give them an opportunity to pay more for better upstream practice and they won’t do it.
“So the evolution has got to come with better communication and understanding to consumers about how our food is produced to reassure them that we produce food in a way that deals with a whole range of certain standards.
“It’s a trade-off. People are worried about grocery prices but you can’t keep putting costs and expectations on upstream producers like farmers and others and then expect to absorb the cost.”
But Mr Wells was cautious about labelling consumer expectations too high “because they rule”.
“I think some of them are unrealisticâ€¦because they become ideological or philosophical.
“Take for example GM canola oil â€“ we can show that there canola oil is no different from a GM plant, and the DNA in them has identical chemicals.
“But the ideological argument has been ‘I don’t want oil from a GM crop irrespective’.”
Mr Wells said the farm sector had always been product-focussed rather than service-focussed, but those sorts of ideological views had nothing to do with the product.
“It’s really about providing food service which encompasses all those other values and that’s really challenging for an industry that’s been supply-chain oriented.
“I think the challenge for us is to actually have responsible processes to try and understand consumer trends, even if they’re irrational, and put in place processes about reassurance and quality control, even if it goes back to things that aren’t making us any more dollars.
“It’s going to become a licence to operate rather if we do it in those ways rather than potentially an advantage in the market.”
SOURCE: Rural Press National News Service, Parliament House Bureau, Canberra.