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Canadians do know that farmers exist, but polling shows that they have outdated perceptions of agriculture.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.