Canadians maintain their support for ag, but it is slipping

Ninety-one percent of respondents were very or somewhat confident of food grown or produced domestically. They also viewed agriculture as having a positive effect on the environment. | Screencap via grassrootspa.ca

A national survey says most Canadians have a positive view of agriculture, despite never having visited a working farm.

It’s good news, but Peter Seemann is sounding a note of caution.

“What people aren’t exposed to, and what they have no direct experience to, they sometimes can have an incorrect sort of understanding of what actual modern agriculture looks like.”

Seemann is the principal and senior consultant at Grassroots Public Affairs Inc., which recently unveiled the results of its third annual National Opinion Poll on Agri-Food Issues in Canada.

The online survey involved 1,000 people across the country from March 23 to 30, he said. “Canadians were equally weighted male and female, and also weighted per province based on population.”

Ninety-one percent of respondents were very or somewhat confident of food grown or produced domestically. They also viewed agriculture as having a positive effect on the environment.

The poll demonstrates that “overwhelmingly Canadians still remain very positive, which we think is a great message that should be communicated to government,” said Seemann in an interview. “They don’t need to convince Canadians that the sector needs supporting.”

However, the poll also found the intensity of such opinions decreased over the past year.

As a slide presentation by Grassroots Public Affairs put it: “The question for agriculture is not ‘can we earn the public’s trust?’ but rather ‘can we keep the public’s trust?’”

Eighty-six percent of Canadians endorsed government support for the agriculture and agri-food sector this year, down slightly from 92 percent in 2020.

However, 44 percent believed agriculture is of “very large importance” to the country’s critical infrastructure and national security this year, down from 59 percent in 2020.

There was also an 18 percent decline in the number of people who believe agriculture and agri-food is important to Canada’s economic landscape.

It dropped to 43 percent this year, down from 61 percent in 2020, although it topped a list of 12 sectors ranging from banking and financial services to retail.

The poll also found that while older people continued to see agriculture as very important to Canada’s economy, the perception had declined among younger people.

It fell to 61 percent this year among respondents ages 18 to 24, down from 80 percent in 2020. By contrast, it was 86 percent this year among people ages 55 to 64, down only four percent from last year.

However, fewer Canadians were willing to recommend agriculture as a career compared to 2019. Seemann linked much of the decline to the controversy last year over COVID-19 and temporary foreign workers needed to harvest crops.

“And we believe there’s still a perception, and an unfortunate perception, that most jobs related to agriculture are manual labour jobs, and while there’s lots of those, we also hear from places like the University of Guelph that there’s two or three jobs (available) for every university-educated graduate — well-paying jobs, jobs in research and innovation and science fields related to the space.”

The poll found people who have visited a commercial or working farm were more likely to believe agriculture is of very large importance to the economy and critical infrastructure.

However, seven out of 10 respondents have never visited a farm, said Seemann. “Now, if you were to go back 30 or 40 years, you’d probably have a lot more people that lived in the suburbs or the city, but grew up in rural parts of the country.”

Multiple generations have grown up in cities with dwindling opportunities to visit a farm, he said.

As a result, many Canadians likely have very simplistic, romantic ideas about agriculture that were formed from things such as children’s books when they were kids, he said. “They have no direct exposure and they take for granted where food comes from.”

Seemann said the agriculture industry needs to do a better job educating Canadians about a rapidly evolving sector that includes technological advances such as artificial intelligence and precision agriculture.

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