BLOG: Canada underfunds efforts to build public trust in ag

Agri-food is a $110 billion industry in Canada.

Canola, just canola, supports 250,000 jobs and has a $26 billion impact on Canada’s economy, based on a 2016 study.

Those numbers are eye-popping — as is another financial statistic from Canada’s ag sector, but not in a good way.

A few years ago, like-minded groups and individuals came together to form the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, an organization with a mandate to help Canada’s food system earn trust.

The centre has a long list of high profile members and financial supporters, including Maple Leaf Foods, Bayer, Tim Hortons, Richardson, Cargill, the Canadian Canola Growers and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

However, its annual budget is less impressive.

In 2017, the centre had revenues of $989,677 and expenditures slightly above $1 million.

To put that in context, a 3,000-acre grain farm in Saskatchewan would likely have revenues of more than $1 million. That means a national organization, responsible for public trust in a $110 billion industry, has a smaller budget than a single grain farm.

Building public trust in food and farming, with a budget of $1 million, is not an easy task.

Canadians do know that farmers exist, but polling shows that they have outdated perceptions of agriculture. Many associate farming with red barns, 20 chickens pecking at the ground and a grim-looking man wearing a dusty baseball hat and mud-stained overalls.

Over the last three to five years, most people in the ag sector have realized that such perceptions are hazardous for the industry, and there’s an urgent need to clear up misconceptions about things like pesticides, biotech crops and other tools of modern agriculture.

Such efforts to connect with consumers and share the realities of modern farming fall into the categories of public trust and social license.

These efforts are needed because public research shows that a significant percentage of Canadians don’t trust agricultural technology:

• A 2017 poll found that 89 percent of Canadians think pesticides are a threat to bees. It was ranked as the most serious threat in the poll, even though beekeepers believe that disease, varroa mites and weather are the key reasons for bee colony losses.

• Polling continues to show that 35 to 45 percent of Canadians think genetically modified food is unsafe to eat, despite decades of research showing it is safe.

Getting back to the financial figures, the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity has only been around for a few years, so its relatively small budget is not a total shock.

Still, its budget represents a broader pattern in Canada’s agric-food sector. Public trust is frequently on the agenda at commodity group conferences and farm organization meetings all across the country. Many groups and ag leaders like to talk about public trust, but they don’t back up those words with a big pile of dollars.

For the sake of an example, not to point fingers, the Sask Wheat Development Commission spent $6.8 million in 2016-17. Of that, $4.29 million went to research, $511,000 to market development and $196,000 to policy, advisory and advocacy.

Groups like Sask Wheat definitely need to fund research on managing fungal disease and effective uses of seed treatments so wheat farmers can be profitable.

At the same time, if Canadians don’t support the use of seed treatments to control crop pests or technologies like gene editing to devise new and improved wheat varieties, what’s the point of such research?

Similarly in the beef industry — if the public opposes the use of growth hormones in beef cattle, what’s the point of funding research on growth hormones for beef cattle?

There are many groups and individuals in Canada’s ag sector besides the Centre for Food Integrity that are trying and succeeding in building public trust.

However, most of those organizations are working with a small budget or no budget.

Given that misperceptions of modern ag are not going away and could get much, much worse, the shortage of cash for communication and public trust has become absurd.

There is a real risk that Canada may become more like Europe, where politicians and consumer groups have successfully banned GM crops and are trying to ban all uses of pesticides.

Commodity groups, farm organizations, corporations, co-operatives and Canadian farmers need to get serious about this issue. In this case, getting serious means dedicating more dollars to credible groups like the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity.

Or, another option is to spend no money and continue arguing about modern farming on Twitter — with the usual crowd of lunatics, trolls and blockheads.

At last count, that strategy has changed about four minds.

Contact robert.arnason@producer.com

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Comments

  • richard

    I wonder if the author has considered why Canadians should invest more money to tell themselves why they are ignorant or misinformed??? People know what they know and the reason industry is constantly on its heels trying to rationalize its excess as sustainable, is because there is no rationale. A system jacked up on the premise that extracting more commodity by injecting more Chemistry and more Pharma is never going to fly with the public. Who is really ignorant and misinformed here? …. Perhaps the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity should examine its own integrity.

  • Denise

    It appears there is a dominant gene in some human beings that leads them to believe they are ordained to decide what is best for everybody.
    Gaining power and control over people and the environment and making lots of money is their mission.
    We usually think of this happening in zealous religious cults or fanatical political parties but …it can also occur in scientific communities,under corporations’ control.
    Despite all the scientific findings that glyphosate (Roundup), neonics, dicamba (Enlist Duo) etc. cause great harm to people, beneficial insects , the soil, the water, birds, animals and food crops, these guys still want to play god and try to convince us they know best. “Build public trust”
    Guess what ? Most people with half a brain don’t want the most basic necessity of life, their food, tampered with and genetically manipulated to withstand poison chemicals that kill or pollute everything else that comes near it.
    I don’t appreciate someone taking the liberty to add drugs to animal feed to make them grow faster or slim down faster,or breed more. I’m referring to Factory farms.
    The factory hog producers are in trouble. Sow deaths and reproductive failures are increasing more and more every year. Don’t believe me? Check out ” Farmtario” or “The Pig Site”.
    A perfect example of what happens when man arrogantly defies nature and can’t understand what’s happening? Anybody with common sense can see what’s wrong with the factory hog model but they won’t admit it. They bought into the ” believe the science” theory. Let’s hope the lessons will be learned from this sad tragedy.
    Many people are educating themselves and finding out, much to their alarm, that the safe guards and government regulations we always counted on to protect us have been compromised by chemical and drug industries,and factory animal industries to promote their products and increase their bottom lines.
    Europeans are on the right track. North America lags behind because we have been misled by the cunning propaganda ads designed by the agrochemical, biotech industry, and Big Ag.
    Greed knows no bounds. It’s all about the money and control over the market at any cost to the people, animals and the environment.
    Never underestimate the consumers’ knowledge and concern. We know more than they want us to know and our knowledge is growing quickly, so I can understand why there’s a great need to create a new “modern farming story”
    Yes, please go ahead tell us a story but make sure it is the true story told with integrity and the facts.

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