Agri-food sector criticism stings because it’s true

When business journalist Amanda Lang told those at the recent Canadian Agrifood Policy Institute forum that the agriculture industry should be ashamed of itself for its poor self-promotion, it smarted. 


Compared to the well-publicized oil and gas industry, Lang said agriculture is bigger and more important, yet few know it is responsible for one in eight Canadian jobs. She didn’t specifically mention its role in supplying food to the masses, which is also a given.


Lang said industry leaders should speak with one voice in telling the nation about the importance of agriculture.


And however true, her suggestion is deceptively simple. 


The sheer diversity of the agriculture industry precludes easy consensus. In the rare times that disparate factions agree on a position, it is often so general as to be innocuous or so obvious that it’s akin to a motherhood statement.


Neither one is likely to resonate with the public and generate collective respect for the business of farming.


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Lang made a comparison with the energy industry. Love it or hate it, everyone is aware of it each time they watch the spinning dial on the gas pump. They know it is a big industry and a vital economic generator.


But when those same people buy a box of fettuccine, do they think about farmers who grow durum or that Canada is the world’s largest exporter of the crop that makes pasta? 


The length of the supply chain combined with generally poor understanding of food production makes that unlikely.


As well, it is easier to promote an industry that is geographically concentrated than one that stretches from British Columbia to Prince Edward Island and produces more than 200 commodities.


With relief, we learn that leaders in Canada’s agricultural industry are addressing the problem. Some of them met recently to figure out how they can nationally promote farming and food.


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This effort must be applauded and, more importantly, funded by all players in the business so it becomes truly national and truly powerful.


Given that everyone comes in contact with food every day, there are myriad ways to impart a message.


What should that message entail? Perhaps some of these facts:


  • The agriculture sector is a $100 billion powerhouse that generates seven percent of Canada’s gross national product.

  • Food and beverage processing makes up 16 percent of Canada’s manufacturing sector GDP. It is bigger than the auto sector.

  • Canada is the fifth largest food exporter in the world. Exports are vital to the farm sector. So are domestic sales, which protect food sovereignty.

  • Canadians spend 9.6 percent of their household income on food, one of the lowest percentages in the world, and that food is safe. 


Perhaps the magnificently diverse agricultural industry can begin new promotional efforts based on statistics like these.

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Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and D’Arce McMillan collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

  • Crystal Mackay

    I don’t disagree with Ms. Lang’s assertions, as much as I wish they weren’t true. Competitive, technical and regional differences need to be put aside on this new and growing challenge of communicating with Canadians. The 2% of our population that farms can’t subdivide any smaller than that – by numbers or budget – and be effective at reaching the other 98%.

    Farm & Food Care was created for this very purpose – a whole supply chain coalition approach to proactively work together with the shared vision of building public trust in food and farming. This work is about a shared investment in strategy and development, and many partners from individual farmers to major food companies and everyone in between who believes in a strong agri-food sector for the future. Check out http://www.realdirtonfarming.ca as an example of what we can do together.

    If you’re interested in taking Ms. Lang’s challenge to do better, send us your ideas and invest in efforts that will make a difference.

    • ed

      How about some politicians that quit listening to food corporations and setting new policy that keeps hammering farm producers incomes into the stone ages. It becomes a bit like a fiction novel attempting to speak positively about primary agriculture when it keeps going backward in response to cleverly disguised corporate greed arguments. This will not end well.