Gaining trust difficult when public lacks information

Consumers are always right, even when their views make no sense at all.

Among farmers, there’s a growing tendency to despise the nonsensical opinions that are gaining strength among consumers, but maybe we should just pity them for all the conflicting information they receive.

A couple years ago, this issue was called social licence. Agriculture needed to earn a licence from society to operate.

The agriculture industry now prefers to use the term public trust, and all sorts of projects are underway about how to enhance public trust in the food system.

The marketing gurus say that using science to make arguments is far less effective than using empathy. There’s no use explaining why genetically modified crops are safe. It’s better to tell consumers that you’re a consumer, too, and that you have no qualms feeding them to your family.

Trouble is, even from within agriculture, consumers are getting mixed messages. Even Cargill has succumbed to the pressure and is labelling some of its food products as verified GMO-free. While Cargill is obviously a big GMO supporter, the company still couldn’t resist the marketing opportunity of a non-GMO label on products that would qualify.

Some observers argue that this diversity isn’t a problem. If some consumers want non-GMO or organic or free range or all-natural, whatever that means, let someone fill that market demand.

Unfortunately, each one of these “niches” is predicated on the perception of problems with how regular stream agriculture operates. And the niches have a way of becoming mainstream. You can hardly avoid organic produce in supermarkets anymore.

A recent trend is to vilify glyphosate, thereby encouraging a number of food companies to demand grain produced on land where glyphosate hasn’t been used.

Consumers don’t readily differentiate between residue levels in parts per million, billion or even trillion. They believe any residue has to be bad, even if it’s well below acceptable levels as determined by a very large safety factor.

As scientific testing advances, it has become easier to find minute traces of almost anything.

Most consumers have no idea what GMO really means. All they understand is that it sounds scary and involves corporate agriculture. Therefore, it must be bad.

And they don’t understand the trade-offs. Organic agriculture often involves more tillage, which is bad for the soil and bad for carbon emissions. GMO crops can naturally resist pests.

While some of the food trend push comes from environmental organizations and consumer groups, a lot of it originates within agriculture. Sometimes it’s a heartfelt conviction that GM crops or crop protection products are inherently bad. Other times, it has more to do with a marketing tactic and making money.

For those of us in mainstream agriculture, there’s a tendency to shake our heads at the nonsense and just go about our business.

While that live-and-let-live attitude sounds nice, it isn’t that easy. Niches grow and when major crop protection products are pulled from the market because of public pressure rather than scientific assessment, conventional production practices are threatened.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at kevin@hursh.ca.

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