Science partnership is good branding for agriculture

Success in marketing often rests on how you can differentiate your product from the other guy’s — in other words, branding.

Branding is your image and the way you portray the story of your product.

Tim Hortons is all about everyday Canadians, hockey and the grit needed to get through winter, while Starbucks portrays urban sophistication.

Mazda is zoom zoom while Volvo is safety.

A decade ago Apple computers were all about individual creativity and fun while they tried to show Microsoft as stodgy and corporate.

Former Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has been popping up at agricultural conferences and other places in the past several months talking about pipelines, energy and environmental policy.

And a key point he makes is about marketing and branding.

His warning: don’t let others do your branding for you.

He argues that the oil industry, particularly those involved in the oilsands, allowed others to get the upper hand when telling the story and establishing the brand of Alberta’s energy resource.

In speeches and interviews Wall describes how opponents identified the resource as the dirty “tarsands” rather than “oilsands,” and in so doing has coloured public perceptions of the industry, allowing crippling roadblocks to be thrown in its way.

Wall notes that the people behind these types of environmental advocacy campaigns are interested in more things than oil.

“Those same groups by the way, a lot of them … don’t like modern agriculture either,” Wall was quoted in the Regina Leader Post as saying at last fall’s Canadian Western Agribition.

Of course, the debate over the oilsands and pipelines is part of a much larger global debate about climate change and what to do about it.

On one side is the existing energy infrastructure — a huge part of the global economy — and those with an interest in maintaining it, from the oil billionaires to the rig workers.

On the other side are those who believe the vast majority of climate scientists, who warn that unless we quickly reorient the global economy away from greenhouse gas production, we will create an unprecedented environmental disaster.

With such stakes on the table, there is a vast amount of lobbying happening on all sides — from the left and right, from industry to foundations to grassroots — and billions of dollars are spent in the fight.

Wall is correct that agriculture is caught up in this debate. He specifically draws attention to efforts to discredit genetically modified organisms.

This not a recent development. As soon as the public became aware of the science of plant genetic modification, some decried it as Frankenfood.

But it doesn’t stop there. There is the debate about the use of pesticides and, though just beginning now, I believe there is potential for a movement against meat.

I’m not talking about the animal rights movement or health department dietary guidelines. I mean a climate change argument against meat, particularly beef, because of the large amount of methane and other greenhouse gases that the meat industry produces. Protein produced from plants has a vastly lower greenhouse gas footprint than protein from animal sources.

Could there be a tax on beef one day in the future?

From today’s vantage point it would seem crazy, but the likelihood would grow if, as Wall warns, agriculture loses control of its image, its brand, to others.

Wall says the agriculture industry must tell its story of environmental efficiency, its huge contribution to the national economy and how its technological advancement, including GMOs, can improve the lives of all people.

Extremists’ minds are likely unchangable, but it is possible to influence the average person, who does not have established strong beliefs, particularly if they can be shown that their well-being is directly linked to your issue.

The question of how agriculture can control its message is a topic at many meetings. Some have taken up the challenge of being an “agvocate” on social media, but it is not easy. Those who do it open themselves up to criticism and backlash from activists on the other side.

Food manufacturers try to avoid controversy and too often align themselves with superficial and even nonsensical environmental or health messages.

Is there a role for government? Wall admits that governments, including his own, have been “flat-footed” in defending the oil and gas sector.

I think the first role of government is to protect the well-being of the public and that means paying attention to the economy and the environment. In doing so, it must be honest that there will always be compromises.

And when weighing the compromises, it is best to be guided by science. It is not perfect, but it is the best tool to use when seeking objective good.

Luckily, modern agriculture and science go hand in hand, creating an attractive brand. In several controversial areas, from pesticides to GMOs, the weight of scientific evidence supports current practices. The increasing productivity that new technology makes possible reduces the carbon footprint of each unit of production, be it a kilogram of beef or a bushel of canola.

That is a compelling brand that farmers, processors and government can all present.

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