Never underestimate the value of the celebrity expert

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In a previous post I asked the question. Who decreed Michael Pollan an expert on how we should produce food? The answer to that question is the growing amount of people in the community who are concerned about modern farming practices and if Michael Pollan’s celebrity status is an indicator, that is a lot of people

Michael Pollan lists his profession as journalist and author

Quoting from his press kit

For the past twenty-five years, Michael Pollan has been writing books and articles about the places where nature and culture intersect: on our plates, in our farms and gardens, and in the built environment

As a testimonial to his celebrity status Michael  Pollan was named in the 2010 TIME 100, the magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people. In 2009 he was named by Newsweek as one of the top 10 “New Thought Leaders.”

There is no denying he is highly successful at what he does and that is because he has captured the hearts and minds of the growing number of people who share his values

I too share a lot of Michael Pollan’s values about how I would like to see food produced and so do a lot of farmers. What Michael seems to fail to understand is no matter what values he shares with farmers they (farmers) cannot continue to produce food unless they can run profitable businesses? Running a profitable farming business in the 21st century is a constant challenge. No other business sector has a volatility index higher than agriculture. It’s a constant battle of managing things outside their control , whether that be the challenges of mother nature or the volatility of input costs and output prices and chasing that every elusive dream of a level playing field where all the moons align to deliver a fair return

It is possible (and I am happy to be corrected) that Michael Pollan has as little knowledge about hands on commercial agriculture as Paris Hilton.

I believe this because if  Michael Pollan had a strong knowledge of commercial agriculture he would be aware of the gap between the idealism he promotes and the reality of what farmers can achieve in a climate where the price of food does not reflect its true value. If this is the case then like Paris Hilton he is famous for being famous.

What concerns me most about the Michael Pollan model of advocay is the tendency to demonise modern agricultural practices to get the point across rather recognising farmers do share similar values. I would love instead to see an ethos an advocacy model that recommends putting a true value price on food. Equally an advocy model that encourages farmers to  work side by side with the community to get the best outcomes for the community and the environment (people, animals and the landscape) that supports the production of food we eat and the clothes we wear.

In saying this I believe we should never underestimate the value of the “celebrity expert “ Agriculture has a great deal to learn from people like Michael Pollan.  We desperately need charismatic and passionate advocates who also have considerable expertise in the realities of commercial agriculture. I have written about this in the past using Rosemary Stanton as an example  

I recently threw out the following question for comment ‘Who would Australian agriculture put forward to have a podium discussion  with Michael Pollan on food production?” As expected a list of highly credible people where put forward.

Whilst expertise is the foundation –  could any of these people be confident they would capture the hearts and minds of the community as well as Michael Pollan does? If Tony Jones Q&A team had Michael Pollan on a panel would they even know where to look to find an expert on Australian agriculture to add balance to the discussion?   If my past experience is anything to go by the person who the Q&A team would identify would be Rosemary Stanton.If may even be Lyn White

The answer to this problem is relatively simple. Agriculture needs people with ‘celebrity status’. ‘Celebrity status ‘achieved because they have a recognised area of expertise plus the  knowledge and skills sets and the charisma to attract mainstream media and capture the hearts and minds of its key audiences.

I agree with Zoe Routh from Inner Compass

“The challenge for agriculture is to be leading the public conversation about sustainable, ethical and responsible farming practices in industrial and global contexts. Decisions in agriculture that affect the supply system are largely being driven by large retailers, corporate suppliers and consumers, not government regulation. This affects the style and approach of leadership interventions, needing a more business and community orientation. ”

Agriculture remains a political force due to its representation in rural and remote areas, as well as for its economic power. However, advocacy for the long-term viability of the sector is largely left to each industry’s respective agencies. Zoe Routh Inner Compass.

Colin Bettles recently wrote an opinion piece  about the collapse of agripolitics  (Dec 19, 2015,   He cites the growing pressure to manage on farm issues and economic viability as a key priority. Australian farmers seem reluctant to equate advocacy and agri-politics to economic success of their sector, unlike their American counterparts.

Effective advocacy that resonates with the community is is why I founded Art4Agriculture and its foundation programs the Young Farming Champions  and its aligned in schools program The Archibull Prize which share the following aims:

  • To promote understanding and appreciation of the agricultural sector in the community and with consumers.
  • To promote positive perceptions of 21st century agriculture in the broader community, in effect garnering social license for agricultural practises and activity.
  • Develop the thinking and confidence of young agricultural professionals and future influencers to share their stories and inspire others to share their vision and follow their career pathway .

Recent independent valuations have shown both of these programs are kicking big goals. In particular I am very excited the program is achieving the objective that is close to my heart and this is developing the capacity of young people in the agriculture sector to stand up and express an opinion based on personal expertise and perspective. The program equips and prepares the participants for that very experience: of standing up to be counted, even in difficult circumstances. This is viewed by the experts as a critical capacity and breakthrough ability for this stage of their early leadership development.

But these initiatives are just a starting point. The Young Farming Champions program works with 18-30 year olds and The Archibull Prize reaches schools students directly and the community indirectly through the media and exhibitions

Encouraging integrated advocacy with an economic focus will be key to many industries’ futures.  But who is investing in building these capabilities in agriculture’s 30 plus age groups who are already seen as industry leaders and whose life experiences can bring so much to the conversation?

I am confident that everyone in agriculture agrees it is pivotal agriculture be part of the conversation. But when Rosemary Stanton and Lyn White continue to be perceived by the wider community to be “experts” in  sustainable food production and animal welfare practices in the media  I think it’s pretty clear we need to get on the multi pronged advocacy train with our American farmer counterparts. The American model sees  the food and fibre system investing in people advocacy skills using people who represent the wide diversity of the system that includes for example young farmers, women, the Indigenous community, and large corporate companies- all of whom make up the modern agriculture sector

The question remains are we up for the challenge and if so who is going to lead the charge? I would like to think that it will be farmers.