Anders Crofoot finds that a gullible media damages farming when it is uncritical of fads and pseudo-science, due especially to their influence over regulators

Anders Crofoot finds that a gullible media damages farming when it is uncritical of fads and pseudo-science, due especially to their influence over regulators

By Anders Crofoot*

Imagine if the mainstream media presented as fact, that cancer could be beaten by eating broccoli and tomato sauce?

The medical community would round on this as quackery and the Press Council would be flooded with complaints.

Of course, this is a silly analogy for when it comes to matters medical or even criminal, the media is on-guard.

That guard seemingly slips when it comes to matters agricultural, where opinions, statements and belief systems face little critical challenge.

As a farming leader, I have often been called for comment when the story seemingly has already been written; all to provide it with “balance.”

At other times, marketing hype is taken as gospel by the media and even some politicians creating problems for farmers. This was rammed home to me by a senior Opposition MP.

After rounding on Federated Farmers over the “One Plan,” he was apparently asked by a member of the rural media where he had sourced his information from and the answer I was told was the Dominion Post.

Yet it was two different media pieces within farming that made me think hard about this.

The first was a Country Calendar story on a dairy farmer who had gone from conventional farming to a more holistic system. When his farm consultant used a refractometer alarm bells rang for me.

A refractometer is used in the wine industry to measure the amount of sugar in grapes to determine the ideal harvest time. The problem is that unless you are planning to ferment grass, there is no evidence the amount of sugar in grass means anything useful. Grass sugar levels vary dramatically with temperature and even the time of day and make up only a very small part of its nutritional value.

If you eat a balanced meal, does a teaspoon of sugar add anything unless you are Mary Poppins? During Country Calendar it showed the sample’s preparation with the voiceover saying how the sample showed good consistency. This preparation consisted of taking some grass, rolling it into a ball and then squeezing it through a garlic press. Logically, the consistency had more to do with the moisture content of the grass and its preparation, than its nutritional value.

Country Calendar however gave the impression there was something objective and scientific going on.

Now I fully respect the farmer’s right to farm how that person sees fit, but what he is doing is more akin to belief than measurable fact.

So why does this cause problems for farmers? At first glance it seems scientific; we have a tool with a long name and measurements being recorded. To a lay person, it is reasonable to think this approach is great and to demand to know why more farmers aren’t doing the same.

This is the problem because there was no evidence it worked.

If you produce fewer goods at a lower cost then it may be profitable on a pure percentage basis.

Yet if your overall profit declines it may not be such a good outcome; especially if you are early into your career and paying off the mortgage.

Farming is complex and is influenced by terrain, soil, rainfall, stocking mix and economics. One system does not suit all, but in putting it on a pedestal, the expectation spreads and can create unrealistic policy assumptions.

Another 2012 example of what I mean came from the kiwifruit industry’s struggle with the PSA disease. A RadioNZ interview I heard had someone promoting their product with the claim Italy had overcome PSA thanks to it.

The problem is that Zespri has evaluated over 500 special products and none have produced a repeatable, reliable positive effect. While many ‘solutions’ taint the fruit, all the layperson hears in the marketing hype is a solution; they cannot understand why the industry isn’t adopting it to help itself out.

The software industry, in which I used to work, has a wonderful expression, “eating your own dogfood”. Do those who plug these products use them? Perhaps that doesn’t matter because the media, politicians and regulators hear these claims and has them asking why farmers aren’t using miracle solutions.

Everyone, except those who pay for them, forget that what counts are repeatable and concrete trial results each and every time.

This is why uncritical media coverage creates problems.

In the pursuit of a story, uncommon practices and hype are presented with equal weight giving the impression they are equally viable. Without qualification, this understandably has non-farmers asking why farmers don’t use them.

Marketing hype is perhaps the greater problem because it seeps into the heads of regulators and politicians looking for a solution.

For me, as a farmer, I do not wish to incur costs unless I know it will benefit our farm and the environment.

Just because it is printed doesn’t mean it is true.

Just because someone says it, doesn’t mean it is so.

Just because we see something doesn’t mean we should believe it.

Demand evidence before making decisions or publishing claims. This is why the media need to retain a healthy scepticism to claims, the same one it seems to show towards farmers.

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Anders Crofoot is a Federated Farmers National Board member who farms Castlepoint Station in the Wairarapa, which was 2012 Wairarapa Farm Business of the Year. You can contect him here » or 06 372 6465, 027 426 5324

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12 Comments

I wouldn't worry abot the media they pretty much get everything wrong. Anyone basing investment decisions of an article in the media would be bonkers.
 Every time I see an article in the MSM on something I know a little about, Im astounded at the inaccuracy of the reporting.

Sadly it is not just farming media. I have been complaining for some time now about the poor quality.
I can only imagine that since internal assesment was introduced as a means of passing exams that the whole education standard, including journalism, has gone down the gurgler.
We have a whole bunch of morons who think their clever because they were given their qualifications by a moron teacher who liked them because they always turned up for class.
The worst part is that journalist won't look in the mirror because "its not their fault" No it is the fault of the editor, the publication owners, or the advertisers Blah, Blah, Blah.
Remember the good ole days when money was pouring in from advertising and journalists felt really important people. They wrote great news stories like "how Winston Peters dresses like a ponsey" yes they were the real journalists with great news stories like that.
I better go now and take my blood pressur pills
 

Agreed.
 
One of the biggest failures is to set up a he-said/she-said, and think of it as 'balanced'.
 
If both the he and the she were wrong in the first place, it's not balanced, and it's nowhere the truth.
 
It requires investigative journalism, which implies that journalists need knowledge.
 
We're a long way from that. Kim Hill would stand out as about the only main-source journo in the country who actually seeks to be big-picture informed. I'm hard pressed to think of another.
 
 

Lost confidence in mainstream media since 11/9/2001.
 
Still believe in what ABC, CNN, NBC, Fox told you? Got be joking.

"The problem is that Zespri has evaluated over 500 special products"
So you researched this, or just took Zespri's word for it. Had Zespri used this product or just their own preferred suppliers products? Just asking.

Jesus you are opening a can of worms there Anders, just about every product in our lives is down to who tells the best story. Eyes wide open my friend.

Does rural media have editorial independence and integrity? I assume this includes rural media.

It requires a mindset change in staff of councils etc as well.  It isn't just the 'witch doctor' cures.  Take this example:
http://www.stuff.co.nz/southland-times/opinion/8189355/Letter-Misplaced-...
 
Then compare it with this article from the same paper
http://www.stuff.co.nz/southland-times/farming/8176861/Farmers-lift-game...
 
 

From the first two paragraphs, medical claims are about the only ones that will get any traction simply because those are the only ones with legal sanction. Even then, there can be a lot of money to be made in the gap between the PR pushing the product, and the regulators stepping in- surely people remember New Zealand spending $2 million on Lyprinol back in 1999 after the Holmes show got sucked in by a PR campaign based around a dodgy "study" "proving" it's anti-cancer powers.

The advertising in general to the agricultural industry is pretty borderline against the test of 'reasonable'. Even this morning, Seales Winslow's advert was prattling on about making more money from feeding protein concentrates as a way to balance out grass' deficiences. This in itself is disingenuous - there is a 1 in 100 situation where protein in the Waikato will be limiting milk production (will be pure energy deficiency) and then you need a payout that delivers a positive margin on the additional milk. So in short, absolute tosh - but would a challenge stand up to the rigours of the ASA?
 
Then you could get into the claims of organic farming - but I don't have enough time on my hands to get into that one here...