Rebuilding trust in food and farming a “very serious” issue.
“Very serious” – that’s how United Potato Growers of Canada (UPGC) general manager Kevin MacIsaac describes the issue of lost public trust in Canadian agriculture.
“We have to approach this in the same way we would deal with issues of food safety and other key issues,” he says, “because it will eventually lead to declines in consumption of certain foods if people do not trust the source.”
John Bareman, chair of the Canadian Potato Council (CPC), agrees that any potential loss of public trust loss in agriculture is a serious issue. “But is not something that cannot be resolved. As well, while the headlines can be scary, in-depth review of recent research shows lots of reason for optimism.”
This new research was conducted by the new Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI), an affiliate of the U.S.-based Center for Food Integrity and made up of members spanning the entire food industry, from John Deere Canada to Dow AgroSciences to Tim Hortons (see sidebar for more). The findings from the CCFI’s survey of over 2,500 Canadians was presented at the inaugural Public Trust in Agriculture Summit in Ottawa in June, organized by non-profit Farm & Food Care Canada.
The survey finds that a whopping 93 per cent of Canadians say they know little or nothing about farming, and perhaps even more shocking is less than a third believe this country’s food system is going in the right direction. MacIsaac is surprised at the second point and says he would have hoped it was at least 50 per cent. He is not very surprised however, about a vast majority of Canadians knowing little or nothing about farming. “[I believe] the only way to reintroduce the topic is in schools.”
Bareman looked at the results a little differently, noting the 50 per cent of those surveyed who are unsure about the direction of our food system and the 30 per cent that believe it’s going in the right direction show there is a lot of room for improvement if more effort is made to communicate with the public. Bareman says the fact 60 per cent of respondents would like to know more about farming practices indicates interest and an opportunity to address the disconnect between consumers and an understanding of how food is actually produced. Additionally, the CPC points out the survey result indicating farmers are viewed as being highly trustworthy by respondents, more warmly and favourably than any other group in the survey including medical professionals.
“Our farmers are providing nutritious food at a very reasonable price and are using sustainable production methods to do it,” Bareman notes. “We need to do a better job of communicating those facts.”
MacIsaac explains the UPGC has worked hard to respond to the consumer desire to know more about potato production. “As an industry, we have tried to put as much information on the bag as possible with the intention of providing information on who, when and where the potatoes were produced,” he notes. “Now, large grocery chains and retailers have picked up on this, featuring full-sized pictures around the display area of some of their key suppliers and their families – all with the hope that it will enable consumers to trust the source and put the product in their carts.”
WHERE HAS TRUST GONE?
It may seem strange to some that many Canadians have lost faith in farming and food production, but let’s go over some hard facts – things like the listeriosis cold cuts incident in 2008 that led to 22 deaths. Before and after that point in time, there’s been the BSE crisis, serious bird and swine flu outbreaks, and the shock of several very serious farm animal cruelty incidents caught on tape. Don’t forget the hundreds of media stories and books that have surfaced over the last few years with conflicting claims about important food items, from carbs to soy to coffee. Taken altogether, with food recalls, dropping bee populations, Walkerton, algal blooms and more, it’s not hard to understand why consumers feel somewhat betrayed and unsure about where to turn.
Why the loss of public trust in the food system matters to farmers, noted presenters at the Summit, is because we now live in an era where consumers (as well as retailers and restaurant chains) hold strong sway over on-farm practices. Indeed, many in agriculture believe it’s now no longer just about a quest to regain public trust, but about winning the fight for farmers to keep their “social licence” – their very ability to dictate what they do on the farm and to have the general public believe them competent to look after animals and the land (also described as a “freedom to operate”). CCFI research has found, for example, that only 29 per cent of Canadians believe Canadian farmers are good stewards of the environment.
A stunning example of consumers dictating on-farm practices is the move towards cage-free hen housing. While Eggs Farmers of Canada has committed to having all Canadian hens out of battery cages by 2036, this timeline is far behind the 2025 demanded by most restaurants, food makers and major retailers. In pork farming, strong pressure from consumers and animal rights groups is causing gestation crates to be phased out.
Off the farm, but obviously still affecting farmers, is the growing demand for GMO labelling. While legislative battles continue in the U.S., in Canada the House of Commons Agriculture Committee is currently studying the issue, spurred by the Canada/U.S. approval several months ago of the highly-controversial GMO AquAdvantage salmon.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The CCFI is blunt in its belief the economic success of everyone in the Canadian food system depends on building public trust. “Consumer alienation from agriculture and the food system [is being] expressed through concerns about nutrition, food safety, affordability, environmental sustainability, animal well-being and other issues,” it states in its research summary. “Some argue that maintaining public trust is a worthy goal, but not relevant to success in business. This outdated notion fails to recognize the financial benefit of maintaining trust of stakeholders who can determine the level of social license or social control an organization enjoys.”
MacIsaac believes potato farmers need to regain trust so they can once again become the go-to source for factual information and expertise on how this food is produced. “We are constantly bombarded with negativity about pesticides, irrigation water use, nitrate levels, soil conservation and GMO,” he says. “The necessity of using these tools in feeding Canadians must be better presented, or our social license will expire.”
Neither the CPC or the UPGC have yet been approached by CCFI to join, but both would consider it. “We have been involved with other similar initiatives like the Ag More Than Ever program sponsored by Farm Credit Canada,” MacIsaac adds. “We have also partnered in a Half Your Plate initiative in conjunction with the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, using the services of Chef Michael Smith in videos. These focus more on cooking and food preparation, but also contain snippets on the actual product.”
He adds potato growers across Canada were given opportunity to provide information to McDonald’s for its Sustainability Initiative so they could show customers that potatoes are produced in a safe and sustainable manner. “The long list of questions has been refined over the years to create a very good audit,” McIsaac says. “French fry companies ask their grower suppliers to complete the audit as a supplier requirement. It reaches out much further than food safety and goes into some of the social license discussion points.”
Bareman also points out many activities are already ongoing by the potato industry that contribute to public trust. “Some processing growers are required to participate in the Potato Sustainability Initiative,” he explains. “This collaboration of potato growers, processors, distributors and retailers under a single, comprehensive program had the original goal of promoting and reporting on the adoption of IPM and other best practices that help reduce pesticide use. It has since expanded to include energy and water conservation, waste reduction and greenhouse gas reduction.” He points out Canadian potato growers also comply with the CanadaGAP food safety program, but believes, “the industry needs to do more to inform consumers” about what’s in place that results in “the safe and healthy potatoes available in supermarkets.”
At the Public Trust in Agriculture Summit in June, all agreed that re-gaining trust must be a concerted effort, involving the CCFI, Farm & Food Care, food processing and farming associations, private companies and individuals within Canada’s food system. For its part, the CCFI will continue to research consumer perspectives and develop best practices, models and messages for building public trust. Farm & Food Care is working on improving Google search results so more balanced and accurate information about food and farming appears in the top 10. It is also producing new online content, reaching Canadian food sector leaders such as moms, foodies and bloggers, supporting new research and building momentum.
With time and hard work on everyone’s part, perhaps the 71 per cent of Canadians who are either unsure or believe the food system is on the wrong track can be convinced otherwise.