The road ahead for farming is branching out — and that’s how consumers like it

Embracing the shift, 
developing a brand


Public polling shows that millions of Canadian consumers remain hostile to growth hormones and GM foods, despite overwhelming evidence showing the technologies are safe. If explaining and defending ag practices with science isn’t feasible, what are the alternatives for Canadian farmers? Western Producer reporters Ed White and Robert Arnason explore this question.

Kevin Folta took more than a decade to understand why science isn’t a great way to change people’s minds in the debate over genetically modified foods and pesticides.

“It only took me 12 years, of really working hard to share science and give people facts, to realize that it wasn’t working,” said Folta, professor and chair of the University of Florida horticultural sciences department and a well-known science communicator, who talks about genetically modified foods and modern agriculture.

“I was able to preach to the choir,” he said from his office in Gainesville, Fl. “That worked great. The choir was happy… but I wasn’t reaching the people who were just concerned. The people in the middle who didn’t know, one way or the other.”

It’s clear to him that the food market is segmented and that some consumers want breakfast cereal that is non-GMO, and cage-free eggs or beef without added hormones.

Conventional farmers should fight fire with fire, Folta said.

“I think what Canada’s producers should do is use this as an opportunity to create their own segment. That’s what many places are doing.

“When you’re not doing something wrong, you lean into it…. It’s a place for us to match it with our own label. Our own brand.”

Some conventional producers are already in the branding game. Field To Market is an alliance of grower organizations, conservation groups and agricultural corporations in the U.S. that have developed metrics for sustainable production. Its mandate, at least partly, is to demonstrate that conventional farmers are doing things to protect air, soil and water.

Owen Roberts, University of Guelph research communications director and a journalist who writes about agriculture and food, said some farmers loath market segmentation and for good reason.

Labels like “Certified Humane” suggest that conventional producers are doing something wrong.

But Roberts said the “horse has already left the barn” when it comes to segmentation. So conventional producers may need their own identity in the market.

“Why not segment by conventional (agricultural) properties that are already good?” he asked.

“Like safety or price or availability or taste or appearance. Those are legitimate things to segment yourself.”

Folta doesn’t agree with some of the brands and labels on the market, such as the Non-GMO Project, but he says arguing about the validity of such claims may be a lost cause.

Saying such labels are scientifically “crazy” or “wrong” doesn’t accomplish much because few people are swayed by such arguments, he said.

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“(Some people) they’ll say, well, we are going to avoid pesticides and genetic engineering because what if there’s a problem?

“You’re not going to win that back by saying: ‘Don’t worry about it. Trust us. There’s no problem’.”

One Canadian example is using growth promotants, or hormones, to increase the rate of gain for beef cattle. The practice is scientifically safe, as the amount of hormones added to a hamburger or steak are almost non-existent.

But when producers and scientists share that fact it doesn’t move the needle on public perception.

Polling data shows the percentage of Canadians concerned about growth hormones hasn’t changed since 2001.

“Telling (people) how many nanograms of hormones (are) in 100 grams of beef, apparently isn’t working,” said Crystal Mackay, chief executive officer of Farm & Food Care Canada, an organization that talks to the public about farm practices.

“Our ‘educating’ them with the facts is absolutely not working…. I’m part of this (problem). This has been my whole career, trying to have a conversation with the public.”

Getting angry at companies that sell cage-free eggs, hormone-free beef or GMO-free products isn’t effective either.

In 2013, A&W began selling beef raised without hormones or antibiotics, as part of a “Better Beef” campaign.

Cattle ranchers in Canada were furious, particularly by the implication that there’s something wrong with conventional beef. But their outrage, on social media and in the traditional media, had little impact.

A&W reported that Canadians responded positively to the campaign and its hamburger sales jumped.

Mackay said it’s difficult to argue against consumer choice. Canadians can now choose from 10 different types of eggs and the scope of choice may soon include things like glyphosate-free oatmeal.

“That’s not going anywhere. If anything (there might be) more micro-segmentation,” Mackay said. “Why shouldn’t the consumer have choice? I’ve personally tried to get my head around this whole shift to say, embrace choice and embrace skepticism.”

David McInnes, former president of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, has said that consumers, around the world want food that provides health and environmental benefits. Canada is well positioned to deliver on those desires because it’s one of a few countries that can produce substantial quantities of food without destroying its natural resources.

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In Canada, Farm & Food Care research indicates the public wants healthy and affordable food.

“(It) was the most important issue of concern to Canadians in 2016,” Mackay said. “Above health care, energy and economy. That is huge.”

Canadian farmers are already producing food that is nutritious and affordable, so building a brand around those attributes seems logical.

“And the third piece is local. So put the Canadian flag on it. So we have healthy, affordable food grown close to home. Boom,” Mackay said. “We haven’t capitalized on that by branding.”

Another branding opportunity is food safety. Mackay regularly takes urban foodies, chefs and social media influencers to Canadian farms, to show them what a farm actually looks like. They are often shocked by the exhaustive safety protocols for things like milk production.

“They cannot believe all the work that goes into making sure that milk is safe,” Mackay said. “No idea.”

Production standards, positive attributes and a positive brand may help conventional farmers push back on labels like non GMO.

“We’re going further than people like Chipotle who say no GMOs. We’re saying we’re using genetic engineering to cut pesticide applications and using it to decrease labour costs and carbon footprint,” Folta said. “We’re not just a marketing gimmick. We’re deeper than that.”

Part of embracing labels and consumer choice is accepting the idea that market segmentation might be good for farmers.

If consumers have an abundance of choice, like free-range, organic and certified humane, it could reduce the risk of a public backlash.

If no-added-hormone beef is widely available, the government or corporations have little reason to impose a mandate or ban the use of growth promotants in beef cattle.

And since consumers want choice, why go to war against that choice?

“It’s better to be in front of a trend than behind it,” Roberts said.

As well, it’s obvious that organic farmers are benefiting from their segment of the market because prices are two or three times higher than conventional products. Having more market niches, in the future, could increase returns for more farmers.

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“Ultimately, more choices are a good thing,” Folta said. “If people want segments, give them segments.”

  • Ractopamine use as a feed additive is authorized in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Almost two dozen countries have approved ractopamine as safe for use.
  • Its use in food animals has been banned in more than 160 countries, including Russia, China and the EU.
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved its use in pigs in 1999.
  • A peer-reviewed study submitted to the Journal of Animal Science says ractopamine promotes deposition of lean tissue at the expense of fat, providing substantial improvements in weight gain and lean tissue growth. That study concluded that ractopamine has been found to affect the behavior, heart rate and catecholamine profile of finishing pigs and making them more difficult to handle and potentially more susceptible to handling and transport stress.
  • The international reference standard Codex Alimentarius Commission has set a maximum residue limit of 10 parts per billion for muscle cuts of beef and pork.
  • richard

    What a strange little article without focus…… Foltas rambllngs say nothing other than after twelve years of hard work he has learned nothing other than the fact that academic platitudes of feeding the planet and so called efficiency have no resonance with intelligent people……. people who have not yet abandoned their critical faculties as he and his choir brethren…….. Smart people want their food whole and free of the remnants of agritoxins and environmental degradation.Kevin……And the only way you can fight that fire is with cleaner and even smarter food products….. Blind faith in technology is why we have arrived here…….and no label is going to change this….

  • WeGotta

    Non-gmo techniques are based on science.

    When the science is clear that some thing “is safe”, it could still cause you harm.

    I don’t know how people like Folta get a free pass by claiming “the science is clear”.

    This is the real world.

    In the real world, the evidence is clear that science changes and that many things once considered “safe” are now considered “not safe”.

    • Harold

      There is not a single thing on this planet, or in the solar system, or in the universe that is based upon science; all things are based and exist upon energy. Science is based upon opinions only and the opinions have always changed. Science simply means: to study; or – the study of. To assume that something is safe or is unsafe is to either accept or reject the held opinion. To know something is safe or is unsafe is by evidence. To say that anything is “science based” is to say that it is opinion based. When someone says “science based” the proper response is to see the evidence that supports the opinion; added evidence changes that opinion for which the doors of science are never closed. In this case, the GMO Industry is hidden and is highly dependent upon all of the methods of public deception and manipulation. The Article’s suggestive headline picture portrayal of a consumer’s current confusion is an obvious and deliberate disconnection from any true reality, but hidden is its true intent. The portrayals intent is to maintain the current membership by manipulating the pro GMO group into the Industries orchestrated false sense narrative that the public opposing them, are suffering in a mindless state of existence. To the existence of the preconceived mindlessness, one is led to teach and are not led in the opposite direction of self-examination or examination of their own source of information as they are led when facing the mindful. To inspire those in the GMO camp to stay true and to teach there must be a fabricated image of a mindless public. (mind and thought control 101) The Industry plays both sides while wearing the same white hat; the black hat figure is a cartoon inspired illusion. After the Picture of the mindless is implanted then comes the corporate believer’s narrative. Insulting the learned (mindless/anti) brings forth an emotionally charged and led “anti” GMO argument which are often one sided, but this is favorable to the “pro-side” instigator.(GMO Industry) The Anti group needlessly put their “cards on the table” and the “pro side” picks them apart, and this is very favorable to an ideal no-resolve outcome, (is, is left as is) for which is played for, over and over again. (are we tired yet?) Tiring the public is another method in gaining eventual silence and to fabricate the illusion of acceptance and agreement. Truth is played when only the “pro-side” (nature needs no cards) puts only their own cards on the table and the cards are left for the “anti” to pick apart. This is UNFAVORABLE to the pro side (industry) because some of their cards will be discovered face up while other cards face down and a discovery made by both the GMO supporters and natural examiners will leave no one mindless. To confound this outcome, the GMO Industry is heavily dependent upon secrecy, deception, and manipulation to cover the cards played face down.
      “People like Folta get a free pass” because they, and their Institutions are funded and we would not likely hear from them if it were otherwise. Where a learning Institution is funded by Industry, the Institution becomes the Industry spokesmen. Cornell for example, is a Land-Grant university (agriculture) funded by Bill Gates,(pro GMO) Monsanto, Government, and Student enrollment whereby its science is a Monsanto political and profit arena akin to many other influential Land Grant Institutions in the USA, Canada, and abroad.
      Crystal Mackay said “Why shouldn’t the consumer have choice? to whom is she asking the question? In The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms 2) Everyone has (a) the freedom of conscience. (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression. 7) everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of the person. Equality Rights. 15 (a) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination. BOOM; Consumer Choice. If Mackay knew of our own Constitution, she would have never had to ask the question
      The article for me was predictable and lack-luster to say in the least.

  • Kissing optional

    “FDA Sued for Withholding Records Pertaining to Ractopamine Safety”

    The trouble with fighting informed consumer decisions with fire… the science didn’t change, just the exposure of scientists bribery.
    When up to twenty percent of the heart attack causing food supplement has been shown to remain in slaughtered carcasses, the failure isn’t in ‘how to advertise your product’ it is in your greedy worship of money.

    • ed

      Nailed it!

  • Jim Martindale

    Folta is a shill for Monsanto. Gone so far down the road with Monsatan now that he has no way back. The proponderance of scientific evidence is exactly the opposite of everything Folta says is fact.

  • ed

    Actually nations with far more population and intellegence and integrity than North America have studied such matters extensively and deemed the evidence on these technologies to show that overwhelmingly they are not fit for human consumption. Thus they have ban them, end of story. That is what the world should be paying attention to, not hocus pocus corporate keep your profits up at the expense of consumers health and wallets b.s.

    • Harold

      To dummy up Canadians you only need to be patient and start with the public education system and eventually even the emerging politicians will become elected dummies. Periodically give the dummies graduation parties starting in kindergarten and tell them how smart they are in their achievement; the trusting parents proud. To dummy up Canadians further take control of the media and slowly without notice, remove their freedom of speech and censor what they watch and hear. Hocus pocus is left for the public to focus upon.
      Canadians are inherently intelligent and without government they can collectively resolve any issue that may arise. No? Then what was the purpose of our education system? Ya, I know; debt slavery and Elite servitude and obedience to any authority but your own. The only powerful thing that Canadians need to focus upon is their own individual authority and then to obey it. (do you feel a overwhelming emptiness at the very thought? dummied education system)
      Every Canadian has the authority over government and our authority comes to us at birth. So powerful is our authority that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are Laws written for the government to obey; [32 (1)] not Canadians. Because Canadians have a greater Authority and do not have to obey the Charter we can lawfully allow the government by our authority to amend the governments Charter for which by government obedience in the carter/law they would not have the lawful authority to do on their own. When a Canadian expresses their authority which is above The Canadian Charter of Rights and freedoms, by citing any portion of the Charter (evoking) – just watch the government and their agencies back off. Evoke the charter to another fellow Canadian and they only smile because they have the identical authority above the Charter. Although taking authority above the charter is what we are doing, very few understand. Is the Charter part of the curriculum in the Public Education System? Is it mandatory? dummied up system. What has happened is that our authority has been gradually given over to the State by our own authority because we didn’t understand it. We need to focus on our authority by learning of it and then to obey it. When we obey our authority we will act and in a majority repeal many of the governments and corporates over-reaching laws.