Industry consensus: what is it good for?

Policy debates often centre around the word “consensus,” bandying it about like a sword in battle.

Well-reasoned arguments and debates are habitually dispatched with the phrase, “there was no consensus on that.”

But what does consensus really mean?

The dictionary tells us that consensus means a general agreement, but the definition is vague regarding the point at which consensus is reached or breached. Does one objection with 100 voices in favour mean there is a lack of consensus?

Activists who want to stop progress dead in its tracks aggressively seek out that lone voice to help their cause. The media then takes this exercise a step further.

Reporters like conflict. “He said–she said” sells newspapers and keeps eyeballs tuned into newscasts, but is it reasonable to give that solitary voice of objection equal billing with the 100 voices that support change?

Of course, politicians should never ignore voices of concern and objection. Sometimes the minority is right and can serve as the voice of reason against the sound of the mob.

However, trying to please everyone all the time will ensure that nothing ever gets done. I have heard it said that “everyone should have their say, but not everyone will get their way.” This is a good rule to follow.

We have recently seen an apparent lack of consensus come up during the debate on plant breeders’ rights and the Agricultural Growth Act, which is currently before Parliament.

Some would have Canadians believe that there is no consensus within agriculture and that heated discussions are underway about the need to modernize our regulations protecting innovation. Perhaps this is because some media reports portray two sides of the debate at loggerheads.

However, the facts are quite different. It is true that a select few organizations do not support the legislation, but most farmers and industry from coast to coast have been working with parliamentarians of all political stripes to see this bill become law.

Fortunately, when it comes to Bill C-18, it appears that the coalition of support has been heard by political leaders, but that won’t always be the case.

A lack of a common message from Canadian agriculture has harmed the industry in the past and will hurt the industry in the future if it recurs. We only need to look at past policy debates on transportation, marketing and research to see how the lack of a unified agricultural message can hold back necessary reforms for many years.

Arguments about a lack of balanced reporting are not going to change the way the news is delivered and will not change how politicians respond to the perception that there is a lack of agreement. However, we can change how agriculture’s message is delivered to political leaders. We can deliver a strong, unified consensus.

Agricultural leaders have taken steps in the right direction.

The Partnership for Innovation coalition was brought together to promote research and development in the grain sector, while the formation of Cereals Canada was driven in large part by the need to deliver a common message from the value chain as a whole.

However, we still have work left to do before we can confidently say that agriculture consistently delivers a common message to consumers, customers and the country’s political leadership.

An effective and consistent message will not be possible without the voice of producers. Industry needs the active engagement of commercial farmers.

I know many farm families are running multimillion-dollar operations and don’t seem to have time to be-come involved in commodity organizations.

However, farmers’ voices and active involvement are critical to industry consensus.

The absence of farmers’ voices will mean that progress on key policy issues are stalled, that market development lacks co-ordination and that industry and government don’t come together to carry out critical research.

Be involved, be active. It is important.

Cam Dahl is president of Cereals Canada.

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