Trust in food system falls, but opportunities still exist

It was a surprise to see public trust in the food system drop in the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity’s 2018 survey of consumers, but it might not be as bad as it looks, and there is opportunity in consumers’ hunger for more information.

For the first time in 12 years, consumers who feel the food system is going in the right direction declined to 36 percent from 43 percent a year earlier. Yet just two years ago, only 30 percent thought the food system was going in the right direction, so there is volatility in the results.

Forty-one percent were unsure whether the food system is headed in the right direction. Much of that uncertainty lies in the rising cost of food (67 percent cited this as a factor for concern) and lack of information about agriculture (12 percent this year versus only two percent in 2016).

For the most part, this survey does not indicate displeasure with farming practices. Still, there remains a high degree of skepticism surrounding animal welfare. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they would have no problem consuming milk, meat and eggs if farm animals are treated properly. Yet only 31 percent strongly agree that Canadian meat is derived humanely from farm animals, and 61 percent are unsure. This represents what centre president Crystal Mackay called a “dangerous disconnect” between actual farming practices and public perceptions.

And it’s also possible that when people were answering the survey some high-profile agricultural controversies such as news of glyphosate residues in grain (albeit almost always at safe levels), Monsanto court cases involving Roundup, the banning of neonicotinoids in Ontario and published videos showing poor animal treatment might have crept into the public psyche.

In all, the percentage of Canadians holding a positive or very positive view of agriculture dropped this year to 55 percent, down six points from 2016 but still up 14 points from 2006.

The opportunity lies in the number of people who are unsure if the food system is on the right track mainly because they feel they do not have enough information.

To be sure, there are a variety of efforts being made to earn public trust. Most provinces, for example, have public trust in agriculture initiatives, the National Farm Animal Care Council’s codes of practice are updated, Agriculture in the Classroom is well established, public trust is part of the $388-million Canadian Agricultural Partnership, some 9,500 students recently attended Canadian Western Agribition in Regina, and of course there are efforts by the Canadian Centre for Food integrity.

Yet still we have this salient observation from former agriculture minister Gerry Ritz, who recently summarized his experience with urbanites this way: “They’re experts; they might have a plant on their balcony but somehow they’re telling me what to do about bees and neonics and things like that and they haven’t looked at the science. You can’t argue science with people that are thinking with their heart and make any kind of a dent.”

Canadian Federation of Agriculture President Ron Bonnett (a cow-calf producer) said farmers need to verify and communicate best practices. Such communication “might not be what we signed up for when we became farmers, but it will be what we have to do if we want to remain them,” he said.

The federal government is providing $440,000 to create a public trust strategy and to research Canadians’ priorities on the food system.

Producers and ranchers will likely be asked to participate in ensuing initiatives. This should be looked upon not as a task but an opportunity to secure a positive future for agriculture.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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