Ag faces challenges keeping its social licence

Researcher who has studied the topic says it’s important for the industry to improve how it communicates with the public

As the gap widens between urban consumers and the land, so too does the gap between what farming actually is and what consumers think it is, said a speaker at a recent online seminar hosted by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity in Guelph, Ont.

“We’re getting generationally farther away from the farm,” said Erin Cote.

Most Canadians live in urban centres, creating “a really big disconnect between what people know as a farm and what a farm actually is … so it drives a lot of fear, and we’ve seen this fear create change in our industry,” she said.

Cote recently completed a dual MBA and masters in food and agribusiness management at Audencia Business School in Nantes, France. Just as other sectors are realizing they must engage with the public, agriculture must do the same, she said.

This means farmers need a social licence and that means their businesses must be regarded by the public as being worth the impact on everything from labour to the environment, said Cote, who is based in Saskatoon as a communications officer at seed company BrettYoung.

“I’ve always been very much aware of how the public has a lot of opinions surrounding agriculture, and those opinions do tend to kind of make their way back through our food chain and really influence a lot of what our industry is able to do.”

These range from the treatment of animals to the use of chemicals, she said.

As part of her work on her thesis, she conducted several interviews that included people at companies within the industry to find out whether agriculture in North America needs a social licence to operate.

Cote learned of several challenges the industry faces around this issue. One of them is the public can “really be distilled down into that they’re powerful, interested, unaware, and afraid.”

The problem is that “food is such a personal and emotional issue for many people,” she said. People want to know what’s going on because otherwise we end up with this disconnectedness and fear at the end of the day.

However, the agriculture industry lacks a voice, which is its biggest challenge, she said.

“We’ve gone through some really great improvements, we’ve created some amazing new genetics, we’ve got new tools and products that we can use to be so much better in our industry. But we haven’t really communicated that outside of our industry, which isn’t really something that we can pick up a lot of blame for it because many industries don’t communicate to the public.”

By contrast, any member of the public with an opinion that isn’t based on facts can rapidly spread their views through social media.

It makes it “really hard to navigate as a company because companies tend to move fairly slowly through changes like this and take a little bit of time, especially when you’re used to having one dedicated person who is the contact point for all your media,” said Cote.

Ignoring such problems risks the public deciding to use their power to hurt your business, she said.

“And they can do this on a minor level, they can increase things like labour costs, trade costs, but they can also increase those costs to a point where you can’t do business anymore, and they’ll actually impede you from conducting business at all, so it can get really serious if the public really decides that they don’t like what you’re doing and they don’t believe that you have a right to operate anymore.”

The agriculture industry needs to step up and start improving how it communicates, she said. It partly means using trusted sources such as public figures, doctors, nutritionists, dietitians , chefs and food bloggers, not simply company spokespeople who are seen to be inherently biased, she said.

It also means creating messages that resonate with the public, “so communicating how this new product is going to increase farmer profits, how it’s going to increase yields, maybe shorten the growing season … that’s great if you’re talking to a farmer, but absolutely no one in the grocery store cares about that,” said Cote.

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