In debates about food quality, science is probably not the best weapon to sway the public on the merits of your side, said Crystal Mackay, Farm and Food Care Ontario executive director.
Instead, she said, food choices tend to be based on emotion.
“In agriculture, (with) our traditional approach of science based production practices… there’s a pressure point there between this romantic, emotional, ethical discussion about what we feed our children,” she noted.
“We’re trying to have a (scientific) discussion with somebody who’s having an ethical, philosophical discussion and the two don’t mesh.”
When A&W Canada announced in September that all of its restaurants are now serving beef free of added hormones or antibiotics, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association issued a statement noting the science shows that growth promotants are safe.
The Canadian Animal Health Institute has said that six ounces of beef treated with hormones contains 3.8 nanograms of estrogen and six ounces of beef raised with growth promotants contains 2.6 nanograms of estrogen. In comparison, a glass of milk contains 34 nanograms of estrogen and a serving of cabbage has 2,700 nanograms, CAHI noted in a fact sheet.
The science may be on the CCA’s side, but when it comes to food do arguments based on science hold sway?
Stephen Strauss, Canadian Science Writers’ Association president, said scientific facts don’t resonate with a segment of the public because buying local beef, for instance, is part of their identity.
Last year the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute published a paper on Canada’s beef food system. The document authors noted most consumers base food purchases on price, provided the food is safe.
Nonetheless, the report added there are now societal expectations about how beef is produced.
“Food purchases are becoming an ethical calculation for discerning consumers. How Canada’s beef sector interprets and responds to these requirements is vitally important.”
Strauss said savvy marketers already recognize that food choices are an “ethical calculation”, rather than a decision predicated by scientific facts.
When consumers pick up products and read labels like organic, natural and so forth at the grocery store, the label isn’t conveying a message connected to science, Strauss said.
“It’s not saying (to consumers) the science says this is going to be better for you…. It says we (food producers) understand your inner valuation system and we are responding this way.”
As an example of how science can be irrelevant to the debate, researchers at Stanford University reviewed 237 journal papers and concluded that organic food is not healthier or more nutritious than conventional food. The study reinforced what earlier studies had concluded but organic buyers aren’t paying attention.
Canada’s organic market was worth $3.7 billion in 2012, triple the industry’s size in 2006.
Strauss said the agriculture industry relies on science when it comes to production practices, but nowhere in the science does it say that cattlemen have to use growth promotants.
That, he said, is part of a business model of producing more with less and a growing number of consumers are rejecting that concept.
In the ongoing debates about what is healthy and sustainable, the ag industry can’t back totally away from science, Mackay said. But there is a middle ground between the science is on our side and “the consumer is always right.”
“We absolutely have to be a science based system. But we have to listen to customers concerns or questions and provide them with choice,” she said. “If there are people that say, I don’t care what the science says I don’t think it’s right. No problem. You pay an extra dollar… and we’ll provide it.”
In terms of communication, Mackay said farmers should talk to consumers about food production, not scientists. And those discussions should be conversations, not lectures.