The road ahead for farming is branching out — and that’s how consumers like it

Public polling shows that millions of Canadian consumers remain hostile to growth hormones and GM foods, despite overwhelming evidence showing the technologies are safe. If explaining and defending ag practices with science isn’t feasible, what are the alternatives for Canadian farmers? Western Producer reporters Ed White and Robert Arnason explore this question.

Kevin Folta took more than a decade to understand why science isn’t a great way to change people’s minds in the debate over genetically modified foods and pesticides.

“It only took me 12 years, of really working hard to share science and give people facts, to realize that it wasn’t working,” said Folta, professor and chair of the University of Florida horticultural sciences department and a well-known science communicator, who talks about genetically modified foods and modern agriculture.

“I was able to preach to the choir,” he said from his office in Gainesville, Fl. “That worked great. The choir was happy… but I wasn’t reaching the people who were just concerned. The people in the middle who didn’t know, one way or the other.”

It’s clear to him that the food market is segmented and that some consumers want breakfast cereal that is non-GMO, and cage-free eggs or beef without added hormones.

Conventional farmers should fight fire with fire, Folta said.

“I think what Canada’s producers should do is use this as an opportunity to create their own segment. That’s what many places are doing.

“When you’re not doing something wrong, you lean into it…. It’s a place for us to match it with our own label. Our own brand.”

Some conventional producers are already in the branding game. Field To Market is an alliance of grower organizations, conservation groups and agricultural corporations in the U.S. that have developed metrics for sustainable production. Its mandate, at least partly, is to demonstrate that conventional farmers are doing things to protect air, soil and water.

Owen Roberts, University of Guelph research communications director and a journalist who writes about agriculture and food, said some farmers loath market segmentation and for good reason.

Labels like “Certified Humane” suggest that conventional producers are doing something wrong.

But Roberts said the “horse has already left the barn” when it comes to segmentation. So conventional producers may need their own identity in the market.

“Why not segment by conventional (agricultural) properties that are already good?” he asked.

“Like safety or price or availability or taste or appearance. Those are legitimate things to segment yourself.”

Folta doesn’t agree with some of the brands and labels on the market, such as the Non-GMO Project, but he says arguing about the validity of such claims may be a lost cause.

Saying such labels are scientifically “crazy” or “wrong” doesn’t accomplish much because few people are swayed by such arguments, he said.

“(Some people) they’ll say, well, we are going to avoid pesticides and genetic engineering because what if there’s a problem?

“You’re not going to win that back by saying: ‘Don’t worry about it. Trust us. There’s no problem’.”

One Canadian example is using growth promotants, or hormones, to increase the rate of gain for beef cattle. The practice is scientifically safe, as the amount of hormones added to a hamburger or steak are almost non-existent.

But when producers and scientists share that fact it doesn’t move the needle on public perception.

Polling data shows the percentage of Canadians concerned about growth hormones hasn’t changed since 2001.

“Telling (people) how many nanograms of hormones (are) in 100 grams of beef, apparently isn’t working,” said Crystal Mackay, chief executive officer of Farm & Food Care Canada, an organization that talks to the public about farm practices.

“Our ‘educating’ them with the facts is absolutely not working…. I’m part of this (problem). This has been my whole career, trying to have a conversation with the public.”

Getting angry at companies that sell cage-free eggs, hormone-free beef or GMO-free products isn’t effective either.

In 2013, A&W began selling beef raised without hormones or antibiotics, as part of a “Better Beef” campaign.

Cattle ranchers in Canada were furious, particularly by the implication that there’s something wrong with conventional beef. But their outrage, on social media and in the traditional media, had little impact.

A&W reported that Canadians responded positively to the campaign and its hamburger sales jumped.

Mackay said it’s difficult to argue against consumer choice. Canadians can now choose from 10 different types of eggs and the scope of choice may soon include things like glyphosate-free oatmeal.

“That’s not going anywhere. If anything (there might be) more micro-segmentation,” Mackay said. “Why shouldn’t the consumer have choice? I’ve personally tried to get my head around this whole shift to say, embrace choice and embrace skepticism.”

David McInnes, former president of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, has said that consumers, around the world want food that provides health and environmental benefits. Canada is well positioned to deliver on those desires because it’s one of a few countries that can produce substantial quantities of food without destroying its natural resources.

In Canada, Farm & Food Care research indicates the public wants healthy and affordable food.

“(It) was the most important issue of concern to Canadians in 2016,” Mackay said. “Above health care, energy and economy. That is huge.”

Canadian farmers are already producing food that is nutritious and affordable, so building a brand around those attributes seems logical.

“And the third piece is local. So put the Canadian flag on it. So we have healthy, affordable food grown close to home. Boom,” Mackay said. “We haven’t capitalized on that by branding.”

Another branding opportunity is food safety. Mackay regularly takes urban foodies, chefs and social media influencers to Canadian farms, to show them what a farm actually looks like. They are often shocked by the exhaustive safety protocols for things like milk production.

“They cannot believe all the work that goes into making sure that milk is safe,” Mackay said. “No idea.”

Production standards, positive attributes and a positive brand may help conventional farmers push back on labels like non GMO.

“We’re going further than people like Chipotle who say no GMOs. We’re saying we’re using genetic engineering to cut pesticide applications and using it to decrease labour costs and carbon footprint,” Folta said. “We’re not just a marketing gimmick. We’re deeper than that.”

Part of embracing labels and consumer choice is accepting the idea that market segmentation might be good for farmers.

If consumers have an abundance of choice, like free-range, organic and certified humane, it could reduce the risk of a public backlash.

If no-added-hormone beef is widely available, the government or corporations have little reason to impose a mandate or ban the use of growth promotants in beef cattle.

And since consumers want choice, why go to war against that choice?

“It’s better to be in front of a trend than behind it,” Roberts said.

As well, it’s obvious that organic farmers are benefiting from their segment of the market because prices are two or three times higher than conventional products. Having more market niches, in the future, could increase returns for more farmers.

“Ultimately, more choices are a good thing,” Folta said. “If people want segments, give them segments.”

  • Ractopamine use as a feed additive is authorized in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Almost two dozen countries have approved ractopamine as safe for use.
  • Its use in food animals has been banned in more than 160 countries, including Russia, China and the EU.
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved its use in pigs in 1999.
  • A peer-reviewed study submitted to the Journal of Animal Science says ractopamine promotes deposition of lean tissue at the expense of fat, providing substantial improvements in weight gain and lean tissue growth. That study concluded that ractopamine has been found to affect the behavior, heart rate and catecholamine profile of finishing pigs and making them more difficult to handle and potentially more susceptible to handling and transport stress.
  • The international reference standard Codex Alimentarius Commission has set a maximum residue limit of 10 parts per billion for muscle cuts of beef and pork.

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