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Public trust in farmers takes a hit

OTTAWA — Consumers are taking a dimmer view of the Canadian food system, according to an organization set up to improve the perceptions of Canada’s food industry.

The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity found in a large-scale study of adult Canadians, that 36 percent of consumers felt the food system was headed in the right direction, while 23 percent felt the system was on the wrong track.

Agriculture, as an element of the system, did not fare any better in the polling.

The Food Integrity Centre, with partners from producer groups to retailers, released summaries of its 2018 study during its Public Trust Summit in Ottawa, where several hundred participants took part in presentations and lively discussions about the industry.

Ashley Bruner looks after research at CCFI and said that “after four previous studies (2006, 2009, 2012 and 2016) where opinions about agriculture improved each time, 2018 bucked the trend and fell significantly.”

The percentage of Canadians that hold a positive to very positive view of farming was 41 percent in 2006. By 2009 it was 52; in 2012 it was 56; and by 2016 it was 61 percent. This year, it fell to 55 percent, driven largely by Canadians who said they didn’t have enough information to hold an opinion, which amounted to 12 percent this year, versus two percent in 2016.

American perceptions of the overall system held their own, at 42 percent in favour of the direction and 24 against, matching the previous year’s assessments.

That study was performed by the CCFI’s United States organization.

While the food system is made up of many parts, including primary production, Canadians placed a significant level of concern about specific areas.

For instance, the study found that 67 percent of respondents were concerned about the rising cost of food; 63 percent about keeping healthy food affordable; and 55 percent about the safety of imported food.

By comparison, 63 percent of Canadians were concerned with rising energy costs and an equal percentage were worried about rising health-care costs.

When it comes to forming an opinion about Canadian agriculture, 49 percent said they were concerned about the humane treatment of farmed animals; 54 percent said food safety is concerning; half said the effect of food production on climate change was important; 46 percent were concerned about having enough food to feed ourselves and 29 percent worried about feeding the rest of the world.

“Women were more concerned, overall, about all issues raised with them, than men,” said Bruner.

Crystal Mackay, who was speaking on behalf of the centre, said the rising cost of food took the top position of Canadian concerns among a broad area of daily-life issues like health care, employment and assurance of food supply and food quality.

“There is a dangerous disconnect in the perception of the treatment of (farmed) animals in Canada,” said Mackay.

“Six in 10 Canadians said they would consume meat, milk and eggs from animals that are treated humanely, but less than one-third feel (animals) are,” she said.

The overall concern for the way animals are handled and raised has been growing, now at 49 percent, up from 40 in 2017 and 43 in 2016.

Only one-third of Canadians believe that videos showing farmed animals being poorly treated are not representative of normal farming practices, Mackay said.

Centre chair Kim McConnell said efforts by the group are important to improving Canadian views of agriculture and food.

“But the role of informing farmers about how the rest of Canadians see them is critical. Understanding public concerns and perceptions is key to making changes and communicating all the right things that farmers are doing every day,” he said.

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