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.

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.

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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