The consumer, supposedly, is always right.
As a result, if consumers want farmers to grow crops with less fertilizer, fewer pesticides and less water, producers must satisfy those demands.
In other words, farmers have to adopt practices that consumers believe are sustainable and acceptable.
Rene Van Acker, a University of Guelph plant scientist, said such logic is incorrect because consumers don’t care about agricultural practices.
“It’s not practices that the consumer is interested in, it is in fact outcomes,” Van Acker said during a coffee break at the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture, held June 22 to 25 in Winnipeg.
Using neonicotinoids as an example, Van Acker said most people aren’t outraged because farmers plant seeds coated with an insecticide.
The public is more interested in the impact of those pesticides.
“The consumer is worried about the fate of bees and pollinators,” Van Acker said. “That’s an outcome.”
Lee Moats, a farmer from Riceton, Sask., said he shudders at the idea of consumers telling producers how to grow crops.
Moats, who participated in a panel discussion on the food value chain and sustainable sourcing, said there is a more sensible alternative.
If the public wants a certain environmental outcome from agriculture, such as fewer greenhouse gas emissions, then farmers can figure out how to achieve that goal, said Moats, vice-chair of Saskatchewan Pulse Growers Association.
Van Acker agreed, saying it’s essential to measure outcomes because farmers need to prove they are delivering results.
“Farmers have to be careful not to just greenwash … and say we’re doing these practices, so it’s all good. That’s not good enough,” he said.
“Mr. Moats … he was bang on. Tell me what you want to achieve and we will achieve it. That’s a contract with consumers.”
Rod Snyder, president of Field to Market, the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, said his organization is also focused on results.
“Field to Market and its members are not dictating practices (to farmers),” he said.
“It’s all designed to be outcomes based. A farmer takes (his) own practices and decisions … to figure out a plan for continuous improvement.”
Field to Market is an American consortium of producer groups and end users such as McDonald’s, General Mills, Unilever and Kellogg’s.
Nick Betts, market development and sustainability specialist with Grain Farmers of Ontario, said it’s tricky to balance consumer demands and producer independence.
A farmer’s idea of sustainability may not mesh well with consumer expectations.
“If we do something to satisfy a farmer’s definition of sustainability, we’re not going to do the same for the consumer,” Betts said.
Corporations that deal directly with consumers may want Canadian farmers to adhere to certain practices in a check-the-box approach.
However, Betts said agrologists, and not retailers, should help farmers identify best management practices.