Public trust hard to earn in era when distrust is common

Agriculture leaders, experts, government officials, farmers and academics gathered in Gatineau, Que., last week for a two-day conference to talk about public trust.

It’s a hot topic, a reality quickly confirmed by the fact the room was full.

But what does public trust actually mean?

In broad terms, public trust is the idea that a person or groups have enough faith in an industry or concept that it ensures those practices continues.

It’s social permission to continue conducting oneself in a certain way.

For the agriculture sector, securing public trust often means getting the consumer on board.

Many farmers will tell you that’s easier said than done — thanks to the growing gulf emerging between people’s forks and the farm.

A new survey release by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity found that for the first time since 2006, Canadians’ trust in farmers and the agriculture industry has declined.

The thing is, the agriculture industry isn’t the only group grappling with the concept of public trust.

These days, public doubt in traditional institutions, including government and the media, is on the rise.

They’re targeting the “elites” (politicians, journalists, academics), who need to be challenged or who are apparently so corrupt and allegedly so in it for themselves that nothing — or no one — else matters.

Today’s global environment should be enough to confirm the fact that people are questioning the status quo: think anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, Brexit, Donald Trump and increased trade protectionism, to name a few.

People every where are questioning what is the truth, even if the truth hasn’t changed — a reality that, at times, can be extremely frustrating for anyone who works in a world where facts matter.

More and more rational discourse is being replaced with conversations dominated by extremes, exaggeration and sometimes even, mistruths — sometimes with little consequence.

Compromises are overrated. Sometimes it seems the motto, “my way or the highway,” is the mantra of the day.

So how does a sector or industry secure public trust in this environment?

There’s been many suggestions.

Farmers need to tell their stories. More public education is needed. Industry needs to push back against “fake news” about food and farming, a problem that, according to one summit attendee, has plagued the sector for 25 years.

In certain instances these suggestions will likely help.

But do they address the core issue?

Do they deal with why people are doubtful and skeptical?

Does it deal with the fact that very few people in the world really like change?

And, really, there’s been a lot of change.

It’s human nature to be scared of what we don’t know. No one truly likes to admit when they don’t know something.

When our lives are a whirlwind, most people crave simplicity.

And the simple fact of the matter is this: people don’t know what they don’t know.

One farmer at the summit said it best: when I meet someone who doesn’t understand what I do or has questions about their food, I try and meet them where they’re at, rather than where I want them to be.

Another truth about human nature: people may not always agree.

Emotions may come into play.

Take farming and food, for instance: the agriculture industry feels like it’s under attack. Consumers feel like they’re in the dark.

But, yet, despite the gap, both sides already have something in common: food is personal for both sides.

Maybe that’s a good place to start.

Kelsey Johnson is a reporter with iPolitics, www.ipolitics.ca.

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