False commercial campaigning – sadly the world of farming is no stranger to this

by Glyn Roberts, FUW President

WITH the Welsh sevenday average of coronaviru s cases downto 245 per 100,000 people as Y Tir goes to press, and Wales’ vaccinationprogramme finally getting going after a d isappointing start, it certainly feels like we are starting to tu rna corner.

There canbe little d ou bt that moves su ch as drop‐an d‐go policies inau ctionmarkets have beeninstru mental in protecting farming commu nities, bu t the second wave of infectionhas nevertheless takena greater toll onou r members thanthe first one, and the danger is ever present, with concerningly high levels insome ru ral areas. Infact, some of the highest incidence levels inWales at the time of writing have beeninMeirionnydd, Radnorshire and Flintshire, and there is no room for complacency that wou ld place additional pressu res ona National Health service that is at breaking point.

As is the way of the world now more thanever before, the role played by the press and social media inswaying pu blic and government opinionhas beenanever present featu re of the pandemic, and it has beenastou nding how qu ickly some popu lar newspapers have performed U‐tu rns by moving from a positionof opposing any kind of lockdownto calling for harsher penalties for those who breach the ru les.

While UK press and broadcasting standards may leave much to be desired, social media is, by comparison, a free for all, allowing all sorts of conspiracy theories, lies and untruths to rapidly spread and gain belief and followers.

The storming of the US parliament building was perhaps the most startling example of this power, although the lack of US press and broadcasting regulations and standards must also take a large share of the blame, and while the farming industry may regularly feel anger at the perceived bias of the BBC, if we were in the US, Chris Packham would probably have his own BBC programme dedicated to far more blatant attacks on farming and rural communities.

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that the false claims and propaganda is only spread on the internet by individuals and extremist groups, and we should not underestimate the degree to which companies can and do use such messaging to further their own commercial interests.

Sadly, the world of farming is no stranger to such commercial campaigning: Anti dairy and meat campaigning is now not only conducted by vegetarian and vegan groups, as vast companies selling non animal‐based food now employ exactly the same tactics to increase their market share.

Amongst the most recent examples has been the claim by Swedish ‘oat milk’ company Oatly that the “…dairy and meat industries emit more CO2 e than all the world’s planes, trains, cars, boats etc., combined” as part of the launch of an aggressive anti‐dairy campaign aimed at boosting the sales of its own brand.

The claim is of course wrong ‐ global transport emits far more greenhouse gasses than the dairy industry, and in the UK, transport emissions are 2 8 0 % the rate of the entire agriculture sector (of which dairy emissions is just a portion).

Farmers responding on Twitter wasted no time in exposing the misinformation, but how many swallowed this at face value or were persuaded to switch permanently to putting money in the pockets of Oatly, however low their advert stooped?

All things being equal, any such benefits will put money in the pockets of farmers growing oats, while taking money away from those producing milk, highlighting an additional concern regarding the way in which such cut‐throat tactics risk dividing our industry at a time when we need to stand together against a barrage of attacks, whichever sector we work in ‐ concerns I have raised in a letter to the Federation of Swedish Farmers (Oatly being a Swedish company).

As well as providing a perfect platform for spreading misinformation, the internet also allows lobbying to take place in response to campaigns, and while Russian interference in US elections has attracted significant attention in recent years, Wales is no stranger to such lobbying.

As long ago as 2 0 0 9 , when the then Welsh Government consulted on a proposed badger cull, a breakdown revealed that 8 5 % of Welsh respondents supported a cull, but when responses from outside Wales were included the proportion fellto49%.

And in 2 0 1 9 , work by the Countryside Alliance revealed that 8 8 % of the signatories of a petition supporting a ban of pheasant shooting on land managed by NRW came from outside Wales, including from outside the UK.

In light of such evidence, the FUW has been fighting for the geographic origin of responses to the 2 0 1 7 Taking Forward Wales’ Sustainable Management of Natural Resources consultation, which proposed sweeping changes to Welsh public access and attracted 1 7 ,3 9 1 responses, to be revealed.

While an appeal to the First Tier Tribunal against the refusal of our Freedom of Information request was ultimately unsuccessful, based on UK law, the documents submitted by the Welsh Government during the appeal process have revealed some staggering facts.

For example, the Welsh Government claimed in June 2 0 1 8 that “…of those who included their geographical location the overwhelming proportion (via organisation or submitted individually) was from Wales”, and Deputy Minister Hannah Blythyn said in April 2 0 1 9 that “Over 1 6 ,0 0 0 responses were received to the proposals on access alone, reflecting the passion many of us in Wales have for the countryside and outdoor recreation.”

However, it turns out that these statements were based on an assessment of just 1 .4 % of responses, while 7 0 per cent of the consultation responses were generated by internet campaigns run by UK, as opposed to Welsh organisations.

But perhaps the most shocking revelation is the attitude of the Welsh Government to the Welsh electorate.

In its submissions to the Tribunal, the Welsh Government stated that “The request for geographic information suggests that there is a need to distinguish the views of people from within and outside Wales for the issues being consulted” and that “The Welsh Government believes that the community of interest of respondents [mountain bikers, ramblers etc.] is a more relevant consideration in terms of developing policy in this area rather than geographic origin.”

In an age when it is as easy for people (or robots) in Caernarfon, Canterbury or Canberra to respond to an online consultation, such a dismissal of Welsh views by our own Government should strike fear into the hearts of anyone who wishes to see democracy upheld, and over the coming months the FUW will be campaigning to see legislation put in place requiring future Welsh Governments to ensure transparency regarding consultations which attract responses from outside Wales as a result of populist internet campaigns.

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