Sunday, 18 August 2013

Fonterra's Doublethink

I'm surprised to see that less than 3 years ago I was praising Fonterra (pdf) and wishing it well as a national champion. Since then I've learned more about the firm and my ardour has definitely cooled, to the point where Fonterra now seems infected with a bad case of doublethink.

Lets start with ownership. Fonterra is an extremely hierarchical farmer-owned agricultural processing co-operative. The previous chairman's mantra of "100% farmer ownership & control" was on high rotate last year even as he was selling $500m of the company's shares to non-farmers. He was pushing the same line in 2007 while trying to float Fonterra on the stock market. Simultaneous belief in two mutually exclusive things - that's doublethink!

Then there are the farmer meetings. Fonterra seems not to want to hear what all farmers think. Meetings with directors are stage-managed affairs where inconvenient questions are actively sidelined. There is no encouragement for farmers to chat online, just a moribund token forum on the Fencepost website. We farmers don't even have email lists for peer-to-peer discussions with neighbours. Fonterra says it wants to hear from us, while making it hard for us to even talk to each other.

Then there's the purity/crap nexus. Fonterra tells itself and the world that its products are pure, but at the same time its fighting a rearguard action against the environmental neglect of some farmers. That neglect is partly because the Clean Streams Accord was so light-handed that many farmers just didn't get the hint, or perhaps they suspected that Fonterra didn't really believe what it was saying. Things are much improved now though because Fonterra has mastered the doublethink problem. It now simultaneous believes that we are 100% pure and need to do a lot better.

I'll have more to say about soil & health issues later, but there is a massive contradiction between Fonterra's claims about good healthy products and the reality that it is importing dodgy PKE, selling genetically modified stock food without labelling it as such, and promoting herbicides for weed-control.

Maybe some of this is inevitable, at least while the industry is cleaning up its act. But until Fonterra starts being more open and truthful, it will look like they are using doublethink to ensure that awkward questions are "neither acknowledged as contradiction nor experienced as uncomfortable".

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