Consumers are receiving mixed messages

Consumer engagement and education has become an agricultural growth industry, but as the famous adage goes, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Public trust, or more accurately the lack of public trust, is now recognized as one of the biggest threats facing agriculture. We all know the story. Fewer and fewer consumers have any real contact with agriculture so they’re vulnerable to those who oppose modern farming practices.

Surveys rank farmers at or near the top of the list of those most trusted by the general public, so who better to take the “correct” message to consumers.

Farm and Food Care organizations do a tremendous amount of work. So does Agriculture in the Classroom. Farm Credit Canada has had great success with enlisting industry partners in its Ag More Than Ever campaign. At industry-government roundtables, public trust is now regularly on the agenda.

Farmers, by most counts, are only two or three percent of the general population, but if we all take to social media, open our farms to public tours and keep our noses clean, collectively we’ll be able to manage this public trust challenge, right?

The approach has a great deal of merit, but as a farming community we’re not all on the same page. Actions speak louder than words and dissenting actions are visible in the plethora of ways in which food is being promoted.

Products are often being labelled non-genetically modified even when the ingredients clearly contain no GM crops. Why do we need a non-GM label on wheat or oat based breakfast cereal when there is no GM wheat or oats?

Labels proclaiming meat to be hormone and antibiotic free promote sales. Consumers assume a health or quality benefit when none exists. In the case of A&W, rather than filling a consumer demand, the company has helped create an unreasonable distrust among consumers to drive its sales.

I cringe every time I see an A&W commercial and I wish consumers knew that a lot of their highly touted beef isn’t even Canadian.

Most consumers can’t explain the difference between all-natural, organic and sustainably produced, but they’re pretty sure those labels somehow make a food healthier. At least certified organic food has an actual rule book that producers need to follow.

Many producers complying with the various protocols actually believe in the superiority of their products, but some do it for purely economic reasons.

On one hand, you can argue that production with different protocols is just filling a demand. Providing what the consumer wants is good business. Live and let live; there’s room in the marketplace for everyone.

Unfortunately, every non-GM label makes consumers believe that GMOs must be bad. Every claim for meat that’s hormone and antibiotic free has consumers certain that other meat must be laced with scary-sounding chemicals.

Every sale of organic, all-natural or free range product casts aspersions on regular practices. Organic used to be a relatively small niche. Now it’s mainstream. You can scarcely avoid it at major supermarkets or at high-end restaurants.

Don’t get me wrong. All the people working hard to educate consumers and build public trust should be applauded for their valuable work. However, it’s an uphill battle because farmers are not all on the same page. And we’re certainly losing ground in the retail and restaurant industry, which has a much more direct link to consumers than we do as farmers.

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