Public support for ag has its limits

Like most industries, there are times when agriculture needs government and public support.

In an ideal world, the sectors within agriculture would get government help based on need, or according to the importance of the sector to the economy.

A public opinion poll, released last week, suggests Canadians strongly support some agricultural commodities, but aren’t sure if government should help farmers who produce meat.

Grassroots Public Affairs, an Ontario firm, asked 1,004 Canadians about their views on government subsidies and support for certain commodities, including fruit and vegetables, grains, dairy, poultry, fish, beef and pork. The online poll was conducted in April.

Poll respondents were told to rank their support from one to five, with one being very little priority and five being very high priority.

About 80 percent of Canadians said supporting fruit and vegetable production is high priority (4 or 5 on the scale), but the numbers for beef and pork were much lower.

Fifty-six percent of respondents said government support for beef is a high priority. For pork, it was 51 percent.

“The views that people have regarding healthy choices and healthy foods matter in terms of their level of support,” said Peter Seemann, who runs Grassroots Public Affairs.

He conducted the survey for the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity and presented the findings in a webinar Aug. 19.

The poll suggests that Canadians are less supportive of the meat industry, but they back other farm commodities. When it comes to grains, 70 percent of respondents said government support is a high priority. It was slightly lower for dairy and poultry, 65 and 64 percent, respectively.

Fish and aquaculture received 56 percent of support from Canadians who said it’s a high priority.

When results are separated into demographic groups, the relatively weak support for meat production can partly be attributed to the younger generation.

Around 52 percent of Canadians ages 18-24 said government help for beef is a lower priority. That’s much different than the 55-64 demographic. About 66 percent of them said support for beef is a high priority. The results were similar for pork. Older folks support the sector and young Canadians are indifferent.

The gap between younger and older Canadians, in their dedication to the animal protein sector, is concerning, Seemann said.

“We’re seeing more (of the) younger people going to the vegan diets. I think that’s what’s driving this number,” Seemann said, noting that social media has an oversized influence on younger Canadians. “A very small but growing percentage of the population… is encouraging Canadians to get off traditional animal proteins.”

Social media has a powerful hold on young Canadians, but traditional media also plays a role in how they think. The Globe and Mail newspaper routinely publishes the opinions of Jessica Scott-Reid, an animal rights activist and vocal opponent of meat production.

Canadians may strongly support the fruit and vegetable sector, but Canada is a minor player in the world of fruit and veggie production. In 2019, Canada had a trade deficit of $9.3 billion in fresh and processed fruit.

Meanwhile, Canada is the world’s sixth-largest beef exporter and the third-largest pork exporter on the planet. In 2019, Canada exported $4.2 billion worth of pork. In 2018, exports of beef and cattle were worth $3.8 billion. Such exports help pay for imports of watermelon, oranges and avocados.

“Canada is the fifth largest exporter of agricultural and agri-food products in the world after the EU, U.S., Brazil, and China,” says the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance. “Over 90 percent of Canada’s farmers are dependent on exports as well as about 40 percent of our food processing sector.”

In some good news from the Grassroots Public Affairs poll, Canadians are aware that agriculture and food is a critical component of the country’s economy.

When asked to rank the importance of different sectors of the economy, with one being very little importance and five being very large importance, 61 percent of respondents ranked agriculture and agri-food as a five. That’s the highest percentage for any industry.

“A great number of Canadians are very supportive of the (ag) industry and they believe government should make it a priority,” Seemann noted. “We just need to convince more government leaders and politicians that it should be a priority. To put it up above others.”

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