Sustainability is not a four letter word

A national pollster once told me that “Canadians really like farmers, but they don’t always like what farmers do.”

He followed that up by noting that the second half of the statement was the more important part, which is the agriculture industry’s responsibility to address the misinformation circulating about modern day farming.

Unfortunately, misinformation is a large contributor to Canadian opinion.

Most consumers have become disconnected from the reality of modern agriculture. The picture they have in mind as the “right” way to do it seems to come out of the 1930s.

Farming practices from that era are seen by many as idyllic, pure and healthy. Conversely, farms that don’t conform to this image are viewed as unhealthy or unsustainable.

This view is inaccurate, but an opinion does not have to be right to have influence. Food companies and marketers know this, and the skewed view of what agriculture is, and what some think it should be, is a big driver behind many of the food fads we see today.

Urban consumers in our cities, and even our small towns, don’t see the economic powerhouse that agriculture has become. They don’t realize that modern agriculture is on the cutting edge of science and technology.

They don’t understand the benefits of precision agriculture. They don’t know about the environmental advancements farmers have made since the dust bowls of the Dirty Thirties.

We need to do a much better job of telling agriculture’s story. And by “we,” I mean every part of the value chain, including crop developers, farmers, grain companies and food companies.

Part of telling our story is having the facts to back things up.

People are bombarded with “facts,” but many of them are not all that factual. Consumers can’t be blamed for asking us to prove our claims of environmental sustainability and food safety.

Ronald Reagan made the phrase “trust but verify” famous. While we are not talking about nuclear disarmament, we do need to honour the trust our customers have placed in us and be prepared to demonstrate why Canadian agriculture has a well-deserved reputation for safe food sustainably produced.

Farmers are integral in telling agriculture’s story. I know many producers wince when they hear words like “sustainability” and “verification,” but they are not swear words invented in a downtown office and are not designed to increase farmers’ paperwork and costs.

It’s quite the opposite: these are tools that Canadian agriculture will need to maintain markets and continue to attract a strong premium from domestic and international customers.

The industry, including farmers, is working on this issue through the newly formed Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops, which in-cludes all parts of the agriculture value chain. The goal is to add value to Canadian agricultural production.

Farm groups from coast to coast are at the table and are able to provide feedback on the work being done to any of their members who are interested. This is an important issue for individual farmers, and I encourage you to become directly involved.

I am proud of the Canadian agricultural record:

  • Modern practices such as minimum and zero tillage conserve soil and water and help deliver a crop in drought conditions that would have been considered a disaster a generation or two ago.
  • Modern precision agriculture helps ensure that fertilizer and crop protection chemicals are not wasted by running into our streams and rivers.
  • The science behind plant breeding techniques is cutting edge and will help meet the demands of a growing world population.
  • Canada’s science based regulatory system is envied around the world and is a key reason why consumers can have confidence in the food that we grow.

This is the story that needs to be told. This is the story you need to help tell.

Cam Dahl is president of Cereals Canada

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