Thomas Duffy: When agents of misinformation sow distrust in farming community, it reaps real danger

If we want to keep hard-pressed food producers onside in the fight to save the planet, we need to check our own facts, address legitimate concerns, and maintain balanced media coverage of the issues

Irish farms: according to Teagasc, only 29 per cent of farms in Ireland are economically viable, and a further 29 per cent avoid vulnerable status only because of off-farm income. Picture: Getty

We are living in the misinformation age. Online forums and social media websites that were intended to democratise information and lead to greater understanding have been poisoned.

Misinformation has polluted the well of public discourse. We have seen this in the defining issues of this decade, from the rise of Donald Trump in the US to Brexit in Britain and Covid-19 health misinformation around the world.

What happens when actors use these same tactics in an effort to influence the farming community? We see persistent myths, such as claims that methane doesn’t affect climate, that a secret cabal of environmentalists wants to drive farmers off their land, or that various tech billionaires are orchestrating a political takeover.

Before we ask what we can do about this, perhaps we should look at what creates the conditions for misinformation to take hold. In the US, an increasingly disenfranchised working class resented their depiction by what they saw as coastal elites. Calling someone a redneck and describing their home, of which they are fiercely proud, as a fly-over state is a great way to alienate them.

Legitimate concerns about issues like wage stagnation, rural decline and factory closures caused by outsourcing to other countries provided fuel for the fire that was finally lit by Donald Trump and his allies. A voter whose father had been sure of a job for life, but who then found themselves with no prospects, was always going to be open to calls for a return to a “great” America.

Many of the same factors are at play in Ireland. Unlike America, with its industrial history, rural Ireland has always depended on agriculture as its main employer. Falling market returns have slowly whittled away the viability of many of these farms, and made it a struggle to generate the profit to support a family. According to Teagasc, only 29 per cent of Irish farms are economically viable, and a further 29 per cent avoid vulnerable status only because of off-farm income.

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), with its 2003 reforms, was designed to buffer the difference in costs between complying with increasing environmental, welfare and food traceability rules. However, due to a stagnant budget and inflation, in real terms, CAP payments have declined as costs rise.

When farmer representatives have raised this as an issue, their views are often dismissed, furthering the view among farmers that Irish and EU consumers are simply not interested in the economic realities of food production.

That view has been reinforced this year by the minimal media coverage given to the protests of Dutch farmers, despite the fact that the Netherlands is one of the EU’s most important agricultural states. This has been exploited by some elements who are keen to push a narrative that the media is selectively hiding important events like the protests for ulterior motives.

Further infuriated by trade deals which they see as undermining the very standards they are obliged to comply with, in particular the Mercosur deal with beef imported from Brazil, farmers have the right to criticise the double standards on display by many leaders.

One of the most powerful tools misinformation actors can use is pointing out some basic misunderstandings among campaigners who are critical of a particular community. It’s a way of fundamentally undermining trust, not just in those campaigners who make such mistakes, but in those who share their message.

A recent example were claims by some environmental campaigners that there were more cows in Ireland than people. Citing figures from the Central Statistics Office that the cattle herd was now over 6.5 million, this message went viral, and was reinforced with messages about the negative impact of the herd on emissions and water quality.

The problem, however, was the fundamental misunderstanding that this number included calves and young cattle. Not understanding the difference between a 50kg calf and a 600kg cow is as basic to a farmer as mistaking an infant for a sumo wrestler.

Weaponising these misunderstandings is a simple way for misinformation actors to create feelings of distrust. The best way to fight this tactic is through humility, with campaigners being willing to accept and correct mistakes. However, so far there has been little evidence of that.

Another problem is the platforming of fringe views by high-profile media outlets. George Monbiot, the English writer and commentator who wants to end all livestock production entirely, appeared on RTÉ’s Prime Time programme in the same week that tension was rising about the issue of carbon emissions and livestock numbers. It was easy for some commentators online to claim that this provided “proof” of a widespread anti-livestock conspiracy.

We know from research into this area that belief in one conspiracy theory primes a mind to believe others. One common myth is that farm organisations are being controlled by meat processors – a myth which spread aggressively online during the 2019 beef protests. While these views have little credibility, they are often amplified by some commentators to delegitimise the voices of farming organisations.

Farmers who already feel they are being treated unfairly are increasingly being targeted online with slickly produced videos decrying Greta Thunberg and her movement, stating that climate impacts are exaggerated, and proposing other motives for emissions reductions. Their overlap with other “government control” conspiracies is not accidental.

The real danger is that this spread of misinformation may undermine the legitimate leadership and representatives of the sector when they are obliged to explain the difficult or detailed facts around climate change.

With the target for emission reductions in agriculture now set at 25 per cent, this could create two possible negative outcomes: an aggressive, Dutch-style direct action campaign, as certain misinformation actors have already advocated for, or alternatively a despair at the level of the challenge ahead, which will undermine take-up of measures.

Thomas Duffy is a former president of Macra na Feirme and the current vice-president of CEJA, the European council of young farmers. He farms in Cavan in partnership with his parents and sister