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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Trust and risk in the context of agriculture
  5. Methods
  6. Findings
  7. Implications of lack of trust for reporting and bio-security
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

Abstract Globalisation has rendered the island nation of Australia more vulnerable to infectious livestock diseases, making bio-security a key concern of government. Although farmers are at the front line of disease surveillance, little is known about this group's behaviour and motives. A study to investigate on-farm bio-security practices – and in particular how farmers decide whether to report unusual symptoms in their livestock – was conducted with sheep and cattle producers in Western Australia. This article reports on the findings of the qualitative phase of the study, which consisted of in-depth interviews with 37 farmers. The study found that farmers make reporting and bio-security decisions based on the perceived risk to their enterprise. Trust in others was found to be a key contributor to perceived risk. In support of Wynne (2006), this study found that scientific institutions linked to the government suffered from lack of trust and credibility. If farmers are hesitant to trust government sources, important animal health messages may go unheeded.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Trust and risk in the context of agriculture
  5. Methods
  6. Findings
  7. Implications of lack of trust for reporting and bio-security
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

With the increasing globalisation of the livestock industry and the frequency and ease of international travel, nations have become more concerned about protecting their production animals from infectious diseases. As an island nation, Australia has enjoyed an advantage in terms of keeping out unwanted pests and animal diseases. Inspections at points of entry into Australia have formed part of a strict quarantine regime that has helped keep infectious diseases at bay, fostering a ‘clean, green’ image that strengthens its trade position. Quarantine measures within the nation are also in place. However, more new animal diseases have been identified in Australia since 1994 than in any previous equivalent period (Australian Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre for Emerging Infectious Disease 2003). As a result, many programs, strategies and systems to prevent or eradicate disease have been implemented by government agriculture and primary industries departments.Surveillance is a key component of bio-security, not just in Australia but worldwide. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE)1 describes it as an essential component of detecting, monitoring and controlling endemic and exotic diseases. Surveillance data underpins ‘the quality of disease status reports and should satisfy information requirements for accurate risk analysis both for international trade as well as for national decision-making’ (OIE 2005).

In their position at the industry front line, farmers are perfectly placed to provide surveillance data and enhance the capacity for early detection and response to exotic diseases (Australian Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre for Emerging Infectious Disease 2003; Hawkins 1999). However, as Frawley (2003) noted, there is ‘too little systematic reporting of observations or tests that lead to the reporting by Australia's veterinary authorities that there is no evidence of the existence of most of the diseases’ (Frawley 2003, p. 16). Because the livestock to vet ratio and the remoteness of farms in Australia makes it impossible for rural veterinarians and agriculture officers to regularly assess the health of every animal on every farm, it is incumbent upon the farmer to report ill-health and suspicious deaths. Australia has 0.0012 vets per square kilometre compared with 0.1224 in the UK and 0.1921 in The Netherlands (OIE 2008). There are 2.53 vets per 10,000 livestock standard units2 in Australia, well behind the UK, which has 16.83 (OIE 2008) (the figure for The Netherlands was not available). Hence, the reliable and regular participation of the producer in disease surveillance may be more than just helpful – it may be vital.

However, governments have no control over whether a farmer decides to report a diseased or dead animal to a vet or government agricultural body. The best they can do is attempt to inform farmers – through an extension process – and hope to influence their decision-making behaviour. Until now, very little was known about the way farmers make decisions in regard to livestock bio-security and surveillance. This article proposes that in making a consultation decision, farmers engage in a form of risk analysis, taking into consideration the perceived risk of contracting an infectious livestock disease and the risk to their enterprise of not reporting suspicious symptoms. Using social cognitive models developed in the public health domain as a guide (Conner and Norman 2005), four elements of perceived risk were identified as potentially important: perceived susceptibility (to livestock disease), control beliefs, degree of self-efficacy and level of trust in others. This article draws primarily on the findings of 37 in-depth interviews with sheep and cattle farmers (the final phase of a three-phase study), which indicate a low level of trust in the government. In the discussion that follows, we consider the effect of this on the farmers' perceived risk of an outbreak, exploring the nexus between trust and risk and bio-security.

Trust and risk in the context of agriculture

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Trust and risk in the context of agriculture
  5. Methods
  6. Findings
  7. Implications of lack of trust for reporting and bio-security
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

Some of the focus on risk perception in recent years is a result of the recognition of the mismatch between perceptions of risk and measurable probabilities of risk. As Bernstein (1996) notes: ‘To the lay person contemplating the possible introduction of foot and mouth disease or a nuclear accident – a one-off event – the “what if” scenario is important even if expert opinion suggests it is highly improbable’ (p. 6 in Botterill and Mazur 2004). The probability of the event's occurrence may be overshadowed by personal experience, memory and other factors which influence the way people perceive risks – in other words, risk perception is socially constructed (Lofstedt and Frewer 1998; Botterill and Mazur 2004; Lupton 1999). Recognition that risk is not perceived as an objective reality has shaped risk communication into a dialogue between experts, practitioners, interest groups and the public (Lofstedt and Frewer 1998). The importance of risk communication has emerged largely as a result of the lack of trust in scientific expertise, which Beck (1992) sees as a symptom of the postmodern risk society – a society in which citizens no longer take for granted the benefits of industrialism and technology as evidence of progress. This is a theme taken up by Giddens (1994), Wynne (1996, 2005), Fischer (2005) and others, who have explored differences in risk perception between lay people and experts and the different rationalities that are brought to bear in risk analysis. Pellizzoni (2001) calls for public reviews of science and technology to recognise that there is no purely technical definition of risks, rendering benign the claim that lay people misinterpret or misunderstand probability data (Priest et al. 2003). Rather, ‘knowledge and concerns are wide-ranging’ and therefore lay people have the right and the skills to join in debates on new technology (Pellizzoni 2001, p. 220). De Marchi and Ravetz (1999) also plead for an understanding of the complexity of risk management, noting that a risk issue typically involves numerous actors operating in different contexts, none of whom should be excluded. While science can provide important information, it should not be relied upon to determine policy, they contend. Rather, lay people should be called upon and treated as peers.

The success of the bio-security and surveillance system (in Australia at least) relies on stakeholder interdependencies in which trust is a crucial element. The significance of declining levels of trust in public institutions and science and technology has been noted (Slovic 1999; Poortinga and Pidgeon 2004; Walls et al. 2004). Whether the public understands the science or technology related to the risk may be irrelevant – and, as suggested by the ‘risk society’ thesis, the degree of disagreement in these areas even among experts makes it difficult for the public to assess the various accounts and opinions. Hence, as Frewer et al. (1998) suggest, it is the public's trust of the sources that disseminate the risk-related information that is most pertinent. Thus, the messenger may be of more importance than the (scientific) content of the message. Frewer et al. (1998), in a UK study of food-related risks, found that after tabloid newspapers, government ministers, ministries and members of parliament were the least trusted sources of information. University scientists were the most trusted sources. This is significant, since trust in public institutions is critical, given that they are often charged with protecting the public from risks (Poortinga and Pidgeon 2005; Walls et al. 2004). Poortinga and Pidgeon (2005) have shown how trust in institutions is closely related to the perception and acceptability of various risks (see also Pellizzoni 2001; Priest et al. 2003; Lubell 2007; Marshall 2008). Pellizzoni (2001) asserts that regulators and policy-makers are perceived as ‘self-interested or too dependent on expert advice’ and that regulatory decisions are perceived as influenced by economic interests (2001, p. 211). He contends that past experience of poor performance on the part of regulatory institutions shape this perception of untrustworthiness. Pellizzoni (2001) cites the handling of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis in the UK as a prime example of this problem, as do De Marchi and Ravetz (1999).

Priest et al. (2003) found that trust in relevant institutions was more important than education and a knowledge of science for predicting the acceptance of biotechnology. Likewise, Giddens (1994) asserts that in the context of late-modern reliance by institutions on generalised expert systems over local forms of knowledge, experts need to win the trust of citizens. Poortinga and Pidgeon (2004) suggest that people constantly re-evaluate and change their trust judgements; but because doing this continuously means it cannot be done comprehensively, they tend to do so intuitively on the basis of perceived similarity (that is, people with similar social identities or similar understandings of situations). Lubell (2007) found this to be the case in his study of farmers' trust in government institutions:

Expectations about a trustee from a particular social category are often based on stereotypes, reputation, and other information gleaned from media and political discussion and do not necessarily rely on direct experience. (p. 240)

Marshall (2008) notes, however, that trust in the media has also declined, potentially reducing the media's influence.

In Australia, as in some other parts of the world, the government has communicated scientific information to farmers via agricultural extension, disseminating information mainly through printed material, field days, seminars and on-farm visits. But extension has been facing a crisis in the past 10 to 20 years. This is partly because of (a) a lack of valid theoretical rationale underpinning the practices, which has seen the continued application of outdated extension practices which deliver less than satisfactory results (Vanclay and Lawrence 1994; Marsh and Pannell 1998; Dunn et al. 2000; Ison and Russell 2000; Shulman et al. 2000; Coutts et al. 2001; Vanclay 1994, 2004) and (b) a lack of government funding which has seen the privatisation or disappearance of government extension services (Marsh and Pannell 1998; Orlando 2006; Commonwealth of Australia 2007). Both these factors may be having an impact on the degree of trust farmers have in the government. Despite programmes and strategies to counter the top-down approach (or deficit model) and increase public engagement in science (Ison and Russell 2000; Woodhead et al. 2000) the verdict is that scientists engaged in extension work (or similar) remain separate from their public and that their approach is still not considered to be truly democratic and inclusive (Dunn et al. 2000; Shulman et al. 2000). Vanclay (2004) states that ‘many decades ago, Australian farmers placed a great degree of trust in the agricultural research and extension system’ but that those days have ‘long gone, if they were ever true’ (p. 220). Now farmers are more sceptical and question more what is being promoted to them.

Methods

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Trust and risk in the context of agriculture
  5. Methods
  6. Findings
  7. Implications of lack of trust for reporting and bio-security
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

The study consisted of 37 in-depth face-to-face interviews with sheep and cattle farmers which were tape-recorded. This was the final phase of the three-phase project: the first phase of which was a scoping study that gathered the perspectives of various stakeholders and identified themes to be explored in the second phase – a mail-out questionnaire. The quantitative results of the questionnaire, completed by 455 farmers, helped to define the issues to be explored in the interview phase. The interviews were conducted at the farmers' properties and took between 40 and 90 minutes. An interview guide that set out broad topics of interest was used.

Sample

Most of the farmers interviewed had completed the postal questionnaire within the previous 8 months. A total of 65 of the respondents to the questionnaire indicated they were interested in participating in an interview. The sample of 37 was drawn to represent a range of socio-demographic factors such as their geographical location, livestock type, age and gender, and according to theoretical relevance, following the principles of theoretical sampling (Bryman and Burgess 1994; Silverman 2000). In all, 19 sheep, 15 cattle (11 beef and 4 dairy) and three mixed (sheep and cattle) farmers were interviewed.

Analysis

The interviews were analysed using an inductive approach, following the recommendations of Glaser and Strauss (1967) and Lofland et al. (2006). The first interviews to be analysed were coded meticulously using the system of open coding and focused coding outlined in Lofland et al. (2006). Subsequent interviews were coded according to the thematic categories established by the initial coding process, incorporating any additional emerging themes.

Findings

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Trust and risk in the context of agriculture
  5. Methods
  6. Findings
  7. Implications of lack of trust for reporting and bio-security
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

Some general findings are presented first to provide a background and context to the findings related to trust. Reporting practices varied, and a variety of conditions prompted the consultation of a vet. These ranged from the value of the animal to whether an infectious disease was known to be in the area. However, one condition was almost universally consistent: it was not considered necessary to consult a vet for the illness or death of just one animal. Knowledge and understanding of bio-security practices ranged from excellent to basic. Some bio-security practices, such as footbaths, were regarded as extreme by most farmers. Farmers who demonstrated the greatest understanding were not necessarily more likely to implement the greatest number of measures. The farmers' level of self-efficacy was generally high and most farmers felt confident in diagnosing and treating sick livestock themselves. This indicates that farmers saw themselves, at least at some level, as experts. Most farmers did not feel that there was a very high risk of an exotic disease outbreak on their farm (partly because of confidence in their practices), but many conceded it was a possibility. The current disease-free status was perceived as unsustainable on a national level.

Trust in the government

Of all the topics raised in the interviews, issues related to governance or particular government bodies generated the most passion. This is not to say that all farmers interviewed were passionate about governmental issues, but those who did speak about them spoke vehemently. The farmer's degree of trust in the government was shaped by experiences with government on at least one of three levels:

  • the state agriculture department
  • other specific government departments and agencies with which they had come in contact
  • government in general, which could include impressions formed from hearing about other people's experiences with government institutions on a range of issues (not just agricultural).

Trust in the agriculture department

Farmers tended to express dissatisfaction and cynicism with the department based on their previous experiences, including its lack of accessibility, inappropriate handling of issues, inconsistency, poor communication, lack of transparency and over-administration. Some farmers, frustrated at the difficulty in contacting department staff in their area, conceded that a lack of funding and resources could be responsible. More than half of the farmers in this analysis commented on the decrease in or disappearance of extension services, the decrease in free government services, the lack of staff, the poor response time to telephone calls and general unhelpfulness. The following quote is typical of the sentiment:

I come from the good old days where you would ring up the Ag Department and the bloke would come and see you, and he'd know what was wrong and he'd fix things. (Farmer No. 26)

A farmer waited a week for a department vet to look at his sick calf, only to be told no one could come because there was no car available. While the reason may have been legitimate (lack of resources may have genuinely meant that the vet had no work vehicle), it resulted in the farmer's diminished confidence in the department:

Bloody stupid, and that's your first line of defence and you're supposed to have confidence in them. (Farmer No. 29)

The farmer's reference to ‘defence’ is in relation to exotic disease prevention. If the farmer perceives that his report of livestock illness has not been taken seriously enough by the government vet, he may not bother to report in the future.

Farmers were also frustrated with department regulations governing foot-rot, an infectious disease of sheep, which were seen as impeding their ability to make a living. A lack of faith in the way the department dealt with foot-rot and with a recent outbreak of Johne's disease, a wasting disease of sheep and cattle, led some farmers to question the way an exotic disease outbreak would be handled:

I tend to think that they probably should tighten up on some of those diseases, and I'm including foot-rot and bovine and ovine Johne's disease and those sorts of things too. They tend to sort of, oh, throw up their hands a bit and say ‘well there's nothing we can do, they're here now’. (Farmer No. 33)

I think sometimes more follow-ups could happen publicly ... I don't really know what ended up happening with all their OJD [ovine Johne's disease] sheep. Did it just suddenly go away or did they forget about it, or it's suddenly not become so important? (Farmer No. 3)

I've lost my faith.... I don't believe there's anyone there that really believes in what they're doing, you know. And that worries the hell out of me if we ever had something serious. (Farmer No. 6)

These comments relate to poor communication or a lack of transparency – which could rapidly engender lack of trust – and indicate a perception that the government staff are not sufficiently committed to preventing an outbreak.

Criticism was not universal, however. Some farmers were very positive about their dealings with the department. The level of satisfaction could be seen to vary between districts depending on the staff and resources at particular branches – and even within branches. A few farmers said they were selective about who they asked to speak to, and some had developed a good rapport with individual staff members. Farmer No. 36 said his local Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia office provided a good service and he was always able to ‘ring and discuss things’ and another said his government vet had become a ‘good mate’ through their regular contact. There were other comments of a similar nature.

Trust in other government departments or agencies

Farmers' experiences of other government departments influenced their trust in the agriculture department. Their criticisms included incompetence, lack of co-ordination, unclear lines of responsibility, lack of rigour and inertia.

The most criticised government entities, aside from the state government agriculture department, were the department responsible for public land management (Department of Environment and Conservation), the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS), local government councils and the government-owned electricity provider. The farmers felt the environment and conservation department and local government councils had a poor record in controlling feral animals on government and public land. However, the farmers were expected to be able to control them on their own land. Farmers were frustrated at the lack of a long-term, co-ordinated approach to controlling feral animals (mainly pigs), which they saw as a major bio-security risk because of their potential for spreading disease rapidly. Farmer No. 31 was among a few farmers to identify demarcation problems between government departments. Issues could be passed from one department to another as each declined responsibility. They saw this lack of co-ordination and communication between departments as being a potential problem in the event of a disease outbreak:

So if we end up with an outbreak of foot and mouth ... both departments will push it backwards and forwards, and neither of them will accept responsibility, so that is a major problem. A major, major problem. (Farmer No. 31)

Most farmers saw AQIS as being the first line of defence and an essential service but many did not regard it as effective. There were many accounts of farmers declaring at Australian airports that they had been on farms overseas (including, apparently, in foot and mouth disease-affected areas in the UK), who were surprised to find that they did not have to surrender their boots. Whether or not this is regarded as necessary in terms of the official acceptable risk, it is being perceived as too lax:

Now, if that's the response you get at quarantine level at the airport, then I don't think we're being heard. I mean, we hear lots of those sorts of things going on. And therefore, yes, I don't have faith in the people at the top, based on those types of things. (Farmer No. 8)

Another farmer who grows fruit in addition to running cattle blamed government bureaucracy for failing to heed a warning about a fruit disease. He saw a potential for the same happening with livestock:

Bio-security Australia [a federal government body] and AQIS were actually told that there could be a problem [with citrus canker] 2 years before it happened, and because of bureaucracy, it wasn't sorted at the time, and then the disease outbreak happened 2 years later, and I wonder whether the quarantine system isn't the same for cattle. I do think it's a little bit better, but I'd still think there is a risk there. (Farmer No. 31)

The preceding quotes indicate that these farmers do no not trust the government to take responsibility on matters for which it is perceived to be responsible. This increases the farmers' perceived risk of an outbreak occurring or spreading, which could motivate them to take matters into their own hands, avoiding allegedly ineffective official protocols. The farmers also indicated that they did not see the value in implementing bio-security practices on their own properties if measures at the national level were inadequate or incompetently performed.

Trust in government generally

In addition to negative incidents related to specific government departments or agencies, some farmers held negative perceptions about the government generally, sometimes as a result of years of accumulated incidents and observations. Again, there is a sense that the government does not support farmers and that this is due in part to national policies such as economic rationalism:

All of this stuff is a simple government cop out ... [after the 1980s] everything was done by consultants, which meant that the government and the departments weren't responsible ... result of it was that they became profit-making organisations, they've got to support themselves. (Farmer No. 26)

Commenting on the treatment of a farmer who had recently had an outbreak of Johne's disease, Farmer No. 29 said:

I don't know what the final outcome was but certainly never got much support from the government ... That's typical Australian, just throw them to the wolves.

There was a sense of being misunderstood, of being unsupported, of bureaucratic incompetence and political indifference. The effect of this was to make farmers distrustful of the government in their handling of critical issues such as bio-security and disease outbreaks:

There's no point in educating the farmer over bio-security when you've got the upper levels, like the politicians and them, making decisions that are really contradictory to what we're going to do down here, so it's going to have to be right across the board or you're pushing mud uphill with a pitchfork. (Wife of farmer No. 8)

[W]e've been pretty heavily involved in our local Ag Department and it's just been closed down by default. They've slowly siphoned the money out and whether that goes with the lady in here that does the job with the bio-security, I don't know. I daresay her funds will slowly get cut too. I just feel the government doesn't place enough importance on weeds and diseases and wild animals. They just don't think it will cause any problems. (Farmer No. 34)

The government emerged as the main entity in which farmers lacked trust. There was mistrust of expertise and of private vets to a small degree, and also neighbours (and even more so hobby farmers) to a minimal extent. Farmers lacked trust in the government to deal with the bio-security issues that were beyond the farmers' control. Trust was also a major influence on communication and information sources. Information about livestock disease was regarded as objective while information about bio-security was thought to be more subjective. Most farmers said they would like to receive more information about livestock disease, but bio-security information delivered by the government may be treated with suspicion, based on their previous negative experiences with government bodies. The farmers were more likely to trust sources known to them, which were more likely to be members of the local community. Increased personal contact with agriculture and extension officers may therefore improve the way in which government information is received.

Implications of lack of trust for reporting and bio-security

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Trust and risk in the context of agriculture
  5. Methods
  6. Findings
  7. Implications of lack of trust for reporting and bio-security
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

While scientists and experts still favour a technical approach to risk and seek to quantify the risk of a disease outbreak (Taylor-Gooby and Zinn 2006) farmers clearly adopt a constructionist stance that a risk is never entirely an objective reality but is influenced by pre-existing knowledge. In assessing the risk of an outbreak, farmers consider multiple situational and social factors, hence risk ‘can be changed, magnified, dramatised or minimised within knowledge’ (Beck 1992, p. 23). In accordance with the risk society thesis, farmers are more likely to evaluate animal health risks themselves than to rely on experts, in whom they have limited trust. The risk society thesis indicates that the incalculability of consequences leads to uncertainty, prompting the increased reflexivity of citizens. While this is likely to be the case with a new technology such as genetically modified (GM) food – the pros and cons of which citizens struggle with (Pellizzoni 2001) – it is less applicable to livestock disease. While proponents of GM foods (companies and perhaps governments) endeavour to convince the public that there is no risk, animal health bodies are endeavouring to convince farmers that their practices may constitute a bio-security risk. In this sense bio-security and livestock health have more in common with public health campaigns such as quit smoking campaigns. In the same way as a smoker may acknowledge the health risks of smoking but continue to smoke, most farmers in this study appeared to acknowledge the risk and severe consequences of an exotic disease outbreak, but not all would necessarily change their practices. This is because the risk is evaluated from a sociocultural perspective, taking their personal circumstances into account, rather than in a technocratic manner. Where bio-security differs from public health campaigns is that while governments are not seen as being directly responsible for a person's health habits (that is, what someone eats and whether they smoke is ultimately up to the individual, even if governments and health organisations try to influence this) it is responsible for bio-security to some degree. With farmers, governments and animal health bodies responsible for the prevention of exotic diseases, trust is destined to be a critical factor.

Mistrust of new technologies such as GM crops and nuclear energy has long been thought to be the result of public lack of understanding of the science involved (Levidow and Marris 2001). But Wynne (2006) suggests that while public ignorance of science exists, it is not a cause of mistrust. The findings of this study appear to support this. Farmers with a sound understanding of bio-security and livestock health (and the responses to the open-ended questions in the questionnaire and the interview data suggest that this applies to most farmers) were not necessarily more likely to implement bio-security measures or consult a vet more often than their peers. In accordance with the findings of other studies related to acceptance of science and technology (De Marchi and Ravetz 1999; Pellizzoni 2001; Priest et al. 2003), this study suggests that while high levels of mistrust persist, increased knowledge and understanding will not necessarily achieve the outcome animal health bodies desire (that is, increased reporting and surveillance). This has implications for the way in which extension is practiced.

Wynne (2006) sees scientific and policy institutions as being at the centre of the problem of mistrust in science. He attributes the failure of public engagement with science activities – a two-way process between scientific institutions and citizens designed to replace the ‘primitive’ one-way assumptions about the need to educate an ‘ignorant’ public – to an ‘unreflexive institutional culture of science and policy’ (2006, p. 213). Institutional science bodies and policy bodies, relying on risk assessment procedures, believe that support for the policy has already been scientifically determined, Wynne (2006) says.

This science-centred or risk-centred stance does not allow for an alternative view, leading to accusations of arrogance and public alienation. The institutions fail to recognise that the basis for different meanings is cultural, and not about one correct version. Ontological questions are not explored; rather, institutions impose their own definitions and meanings on to the public. While further exploration of this issue would be needed to confirm the extent to which scientific bodies impose their animal health ideas on farmers, there seems to be ample evidence to suggest that a particular stance on bio-security and livestock health is promulgated by agricultural science and animal health bodies such as Biosecurity Australia, the OIE and veterinary organisations. Definitions of good bio-security practices have already been defined by these bodies (as Enticott [2008] also finds in the UK) and are set out factually in brochures and on websites. Being based on ‘scientific fact’, they are assumed by these bodies to be of benefit to farmers and it is assumed that farmers with the ability to understand this will see it this way also. Vets, through their training in the science faculties of universities, also believe their definitions and meanings to be the correct (scientifically based) ones. This science-centred stance contributes to an impression of being out of touch with the farmer's reality. Wynne (2006) accuses scientific institutions of lacking the ability ‘to imagine that public concerns may be based on reasonable questions that are not being recognised and addressed, rather than being rooted in ignorance and misunderstanding’ (p. 219). As the findings demonstrate, many farmers in this study felt that their concerns had not been heard – particularly with regard to national bio-security issues and local feral animal problems. It is not possible to judge accurately the extent to which scientific and government bodies blame farmers' reporting and bio-security behaviour on ignorance, since this study focused on farmers' views rather than those of experts and scientists. However, the material provided to farmers suggests that an educative (deficit of understanding) approach is being applied, despite indications that mistrust in the governing bodies and the political processes is more likely to blame for low levels of consultation and application of bio-security measures than a lack of understanding.

The farmers in this study were more likely to feel controlled by – and less trusting of – government bodies and scientific bodies under the auspices of government (such as government agriculture departments) than independent science bodies (for example, private veterinary practices). Scepticism about whose political interests are being served by the promotion of a particular innovation or advice, identified by Priest et al. (2003) and McKechnie (1996), among others, is evident in this study. A number of farmers indicated a complete lack of faith in the government to do anything that would benefit farmers (‘If the Ag Department told me it was dark, I would go outside and check’). While not all farmers were this cynical, many questioned the motivation of government staff in many cases perceived as uninterested in farming issues or hamstrung by bureaucracy. Ideas promoted by the government may therefore be greeted with suspicion.

If government information is so poorly regarded, it may seem logical to question whether the reduction in government extension services is, in fact, a problem. However, from the farmers' comments it appears that the decreased service is one of the causes of the lack of trust in government, contributing to the perception that they are uninterested in the issue. Farmers, as business operators, no doubt realise that in a political climate of economic rationalism, government services must be economically justified. The reduction or withdrawal of government animal health services possibly sends a signal to farmers that what they do is not taken seriously by the government or is not considered important. Some farmers in this study expressed this view, as did some UK farmers, who believed the government ‘just doesn't seem to want agriculture’ (Enticott 2008, p. 1578).

If knowledge is not likely to affect behaviour such as reporting and bio-security practices then perhaps education through extension is not the answer. Yet many farmers spoke longingly of a time when extension services were well-resourced and well-respected. They seemed to value extension officers, even if they did not read and absorb all the information provided. The authors suggest that provision of services encourages the perception that something is being done and provides assurance that farming is still important, rather than the sense that government bodies have given up on farming. This assists in building a sense of security and trust in the government. This is critical for bio-security and surveillance: since these are issues of national security and public health for which the government takes responsibility, responsibility for education and information provision must also rest (directly or indirectly) with the government. Farmers in this study expected and even demanded this. This presents as a paradox, also identified by Heffernan et al. 2008. Farmers seem to be demanding that government take more responsibility for disease issues but at the same time resent government interference. It appears, however, that even more resentment is created by not providing services. The key is in the delivery of the services. As Enticott (2008), Heffernan et al. (2008), Vanclay (2004), Wynne (1996) and Marshall (2008) have suggested, this should be done with respect for and understanding of farmers' knowledge.

Where trust is present, education may be more effective. Ison and Russell (2000) suggest that in this information age the communication process is seen as a rational transfer of information rather than as an emotional process. But the more determined agricultural and extension officers are to achieve this transfer, the less likely it is that ‘effective communication will be achieved’ (Ison and Russell 2000, p. 47). The contention that trust in the messenger is more important than the message seems to hold true for the farmers in this study. Positive personal communications and experiences with vets or agriculture officers stood out as fostering a positive attitude to recommended forms of livestock management. In these cases, expectations of social similarity may play a role (Poortinga and Pidgeon 2004; Lubell 2007), but previous personal experience would appear to play a bigger one. If, as Poortinga and Pidgeon (2004) contend, people constantly re-evaluate and change their trust judgements, there is some hope for a change in farmers' attitudes. Fostering conditions in which trust is nurtured, such as where there is perceived similarity and where ideological and institutional distance is closer and contact is greater (Lubell 2007), may require an increase in the accessibility at both the physical and personal levels of agriculture officers and vets.

Notes
  • *

    Corresponding author.

  • 1

    In 2003 the OIE (Office International des Epizooties) was renamed the World Organisation for Animal Health, but is still referred to by its historical acronym, OIE. It is the intergovernmental organisation responsible for improving animal health worldwide.

  • 2

    One livestock standard unit is 250 kg, calculated on the basis of the average weights of different species (OIE 2008).

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Trust and risk in the context of agriculture
  5. Methods
  6. Findings
  7. Implications of lack of trust for reporting and bio-security
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References

The authors wish to acknowledge the professional advice of senior veterinary epidemiologist, Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia, Dr Chris Hawkins, and the financial support of the Australian Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre for Emerging Infectious Disease. Many thanks also to the farmers who participated in the study.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Trust and risk in the context of agriculture
  5. Methods
  6. Findings
  7. Implications of lack of trust for reporting and bio-security
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. References
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