Consumers’ fickle wishes mean farmers must adapt

Surveys on consumer attitudes about farmers are often perplexing, and Cargill’s recent survey on expectations of farmers is no less so.

Perhaps the oddest result is that only 55 percent of consumers listed the desire for “safe, healthy, abundant and affordable food” as their top priority.”

What could be more important?

Farmers understandably might think that was their purpose in life, but that result means that 45 percent of respondents to the survey of 4,000 people in the United States, Spain, China and Mexico want farmers to have other priorities.

Sustainability drew 28 percent of respondents’ first priority, followed by well-being of animals at 10 percent.

One has to wonder if consumers have a common definition of sustainability. The California based Agriculture Sustainability Institute says the goal of sustainable agriculture is to “meet society’s food and textile needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The institute explains that sustainable ag practices include promoting soil health, minimizing water use, lowering pollution levels on the farm, promoting farmworker wellbeing and using environmentally friendly methods.

Let’s have a look at some of this. Farmers take care of the soil to ensure their very existence. Many use no till or till as little as possible — sequestering carbon and hence being environmentally friendly — in order to ensure they can farm in the future. Some families have farmed the same dirt for generations. That couldn’t happen if they didn’t look after the soil.

Most Prairie farmers don’t have much choice about minimizing water use, since they depend on rain, and farmers don’t run their diesel machines any more than they have to.

Recent research is looking into ways to reduce methane production from cattle, and if it can be done economically, no doubt many farmers will adopt those methods.

Sustainable ag also tends to frown on pesticides. But good farmers don’t use pesticides any more than they have to because it costs them money.

As Cargill points out in its release about the survey, consumer expectations are “conflicting.” Many consumers believe they’re knowledgeable about farming, yet they also want affordable food to come from “smaller/specialty, local or organic farms,” which will increase the price, as a stroll down the organic aisle of any grocery store will attest.

Asked which word describes what consumers want from farmers, that word “sustainable,” comes up on top, with 30 percent, followed by “efficient” at 28 percent. Curiously, 16 percent want farmers to be “traditional” as a top priority while only 12 percent want farmers to be “professional.”

Still, the study is more than just an exercise in bewilderment. Consumer priorities work their way on to grocery store shelves and into government legislation.

Note that General Mills is now contracting some farmers to produce their crops through regenerative agricultural practices, which have similarities to sustainable ag.

All of this points to that now familiar term — social licence. The upshot of surveys like this is that consumers are telling producers what’s important — even more so among millennials.

So farmers will have to pay attention, and some will have to change their practices. Can cover crops work in some areas? Can we end the use of glyphosate as a desiccant?

Things are moving quickly. Farmers are going to have to pay attention to all this if they want to pass on their farms to their children.

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


Stories from our other publications