So-called “common knowledge” about food products and their relative health and environmental effects is not really that common. Or that knowledgeable.
Growing demand for non-genetically modified canola oil is one recent example. Canola seed crushers report an increase in the number of requests for such oil despite the fact that virtually all canola oil is non-GM.
About 96 percent of canola grown in Canada last year was a GM variety, and that modification affects the protein of the seed. The oil from GM and non-GM canola is the same.
Yet processors are willing to pay more for oil from non-GM canola varieties for the simple reason that consumers are willing to pay more for the food that will eventually contain it. In the competitive food industry, few can afford to reject an opportunity for market differentiation.
Essentially, consumers seem to be signalling that they will pay more for a label even if the contents of the package are the same as those they reject.
The emperor has no clothes in the non-GM oil world.
In the same realm is the trendy backlash against gluten, the protein combination found in many cereal grains. Until a few years ago, most people could not have identified gluten as an ingredient in cereals. But today, bread is the bad boy.
Though human civilizations over hundreds of years have made and used bread as a dietary staple, it is now being blamed for digestive problems, flabby thighs and myriad other physical ailments.
Gluten does represent a health threat for some, in the form of celiac disease or a particular gluten sensitivity. For the vast majority, however, rejection of food containing gluten increases the risk of vitamin, mineral and fibre deficiency.
Gluten-free labels have become another method of market differentiation, but the gluten free emperor has no clothes, either.
Milk, another dietary staple, is also facing new competition.
Milk from cows is now competing with stuff made with almonds. Almond milk is being touted as the “greener” choice because it is sourced from trees instead of cows. Additionally, almond milk purports to have fewer calories.
Dan Murphy of Drovers Cattle Network did some homework on these assumptions. He found that an eight-ounce glass of almond milk has one gram of protein compared to eight grams in the same amount of cow’s milk.
And although dairy cattle do use water to produce milk, bear in mind, says Murphy, that almonds do, too. It takes more than one gallon of water to grow a single almond. A cow needs about two gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk.
The emperor who touts almond milk over dairy? He’s naked, too.
Beef cattle production has been much maligned in recent years, branded as environmentally unfriendly because of greenhouse gas emissions. An oft-quoted but flawed study said livestock are responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas production.
Subsequent studies showed the figure is closer to three percent, at least in the United States. By comparison, transportation is responsible for 26 percent.
The emperor who embraces meatless Monday on environmental grounds? A jaybird.
Producers can’t afford any rest in their battle against misconceptions because each of these examples represents a threat to one sector and, cumulatively, to agricultural production as a whole.
Producing food for this nation and others is not enough. In these modern times of information and misinformation, fact and fiction, it’s also necessary to help clothe the emperor.
Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen and D’Arce McMillan collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.