A recap and lessons learned at the Australian Farm Institute Roundtable Conference “Evidence Meets Emotion”

Blog prepared by Nikki Dumbrell

Each year The Australian Farm Institute hosts a Roundtable conference with a topical theme. This year the conference was held at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra on Tuesday 16 October with the theme “Evidence meets emotion”. This theme follows on from their John Ralph Essay competition earlier in the year on the topic “society should determine the right to farm”. The winning essay submission by Deanna Lush is available here: In addition, if you are interested in the topic, a selection of submitted essays will be published in the next issue of the Australian Farm Institute’s Farm Policy Journal.

The essay competition and conference were both designed following recognition of the importance of the community and consumers exerting influence on the actions and behaviours farmers are allowed to take on farm and the decisions they make regarding where to sell their produce. A term commonly used to refer to ongoing acceptance of actions or behaviours by local communities and stakeholders is the ‘social licence to operate’.

This is now a blog in two parts.

  1. Conference topics and conclusions

The conference had four closely related sessions on the following topics: (a) animal welfare; (b) community trust; (c) environmental policy; and (d) agricultural statistics.

Each of these sessions presented issues and then questions to be addressed and/or potential solutions or needs to address issues. Some key points from the discussions are included below.

  • Consistency and coordination of agricultural statistics collections is needed to create evidence based policy. Currently there is much to gain from sharing data across organisations such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), and various industry or sector specific Research and Development Corporations (e.g. Cotton Research and Development Corporation, Grains Research and Development Corporation, Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, etc.). Despite recognising this, questions remain on who is responsible for and who will fund the efforts to coordinate data collection, integration of data sets and comparisons of data.
  • As we increasingly recognise the complexity of people (as consumers and as citizens) we must consider whether social sciences have a greater role to play in leadership and management in the agricultural industry. To date it could be argued that the sector has relied heavily on biological and physical sciences to set priorities and remain competitive and sustainable. One way to approach this is to consider whether it is time to increase the social science element of agricultural science degrees?
  • The human brain is hardwired for stories. Scientists are trained to present facts and evidence. It is then not surprising that we can struggle to change human behaviours without doing more than just presenting facts and evidence. To help explain this point let us consider the question: what do you think has a greater impact on the average Australian’s thoughts on an issue (such as climate change or animal welfare)?
  1. media portrayal of [insert relevant issue here]; or
  2. public access to accurate scientific information on [insert relevant issue here]?

You probably guessed it. Evidence is rarely (if ever) enough, especially when presented on its own. In addition to this point, the following two points were presented in talks by Bernie Hobbs and Richard Heath, respectively and I think they are particularly pertinent.

  • The plural of anecdote is not data. But, one anecdote is one data point.
  • Emotion leads to action, evidence leads to conclusion.

2. Groovy conference tips

Are you in the middle of organising a conference? Are you about to start one soon? This conference did two things that I had not seen before (and quite liked).

Firstly, they set up a conference-specific platform on to allow the audience to submit questions throughout talks or participate in polls. Questions posed in this way allowed like questions to be combined before posed to the speaker and the most popular questions to be prioritised. In addition, with all questions recorded in this way if there was insufficient time to have all questions covered in the Q&A sessions, speakers were able to follow up with questions at a later time.

The second (and possibly most cool thing) was ‘live’ note taking in pictures on white boards throughout each session. This conference used the very talented Jessmay Gee to capture the themes in each of the presentations and the following Q&A sessions. You can see more of Jessmay’s work on her Twitter/Instagram at @JessamyG_draws.

Notes drawn by Jessamy Gee during the keynote presentation by Bernie Hobbs

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