Confidence in the food system reaches a five year high, but producers urged not to ignore concerns about sustainability
Although a survey has underlined the long-standing faith Canadians have in farmers and the food system, they increasingly regard issues such as sustainability as a vital part of that trust, said an expert.
“At what point are they going to say, ‘hey, wait a minute here. We’ve been expressing our concern for years, and you’re not paying attention, so now I’m going somewhere else with my purchasing,’ whether it’s growing it in your back garden in the summer, or some other way of dealing directly with a farmer,” said Ellen Goddard, a professor at the University of Alberta.
She spoke at a recent webinar hosted by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity in Guelph, Ont. It detailed the conclusions of the centre’s 2020 Public Trust Research report, Trends in Trust and the Path Forward.
It is partly based on a survey of 2,903 Canadians conducted on behalf of the centre by Ipsos-Reid from July 28 to Aug. 27. Farmers were rated as the group Canadians trust the most, with university researchers a close second and politicians ranked last, said Paighton Smyth, partner engagement co-ordinator at the centre.
It also showed that the “proportion of Canadians who feel the food system is headed in the right direction has reached a five-year high — and more specifically, the food system’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is highly praised by Canadians,” she said.
Such ratings came despite the survey identifying the cost of food during the pandemic, and keeping healthy food affordable, as being among the top five issues for Canadians, she said.
The first survey was conducted in 2016. Although the cost of food has been a top issue for the past five years, “the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted this struggle, with most Canadians indicating they have less money to spend on food due to the pandemic,” said Smyth.
The survey also indicated “sustainability and food is not just a trend, but a requirement to be a trusted and successful food player,” she said. “Canadians desire concrete actions to ensure a sustainable food system, not just greenwashing the issue.”
As the Co-operative Chair in Agricultural Marketing and Business at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences, Goddard wondered when the breaking point will come for Canadians over such issues.
Such questions might be suitable for next year’s survey, she said. Goddard is a member of the centre’s Research Advisory Council.
Despite being “amazed and pleased” to see Canadians believe the industry has done a good job during the pandemic, something she agreed with, she said the crisis has also revealed things such as labour issues at meat-processing plants.
“Are those things likely to grow in terms of people saying, ‘hey, wait a minute here, this isn’t how I want my food industry to be?’ And I think we need to be trying to push the envelope a little bit in those areas.”
Although the survey gave a high trust rating to farmers and the food system, food processors and manufacturers were second from the bottom, just above politicians.
Generation Z, which includes people born in the mid-to-late 1990s until the early 2010s, are more motivated about environmental concerns than other age groups, said Alexandra Grygorcyzk, a member of the council. Grygorcyzk is also a research scientist at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre near St. Catharines, Ont.
Members of Generation Z are entering the age where they’re becoming independent, primary purchasers, “so I am very much in conclusion that this sustainability question is not a temporary trend,” she told the webinar.
“It’s only going to grow in importance over time,” she said, adding it is vital to ensure the agricultural sector has “input from Gen Z as we plan for the future.”
Smyth said the survey also showed that after years of consistency, there has been a shift in Canadian attitudes about the use of antibiotics in agriculture.
“Concern about drug resistance due to farm animals being given antibiotics and drug residues in meat, milk and eggs have reached a five-year low, with just over a third saying they’re very concerned about these issues, both of which are significantly lower compared to last year,” she said.
But the survey also revealed fewer Canadians want sick farm animals to be given antibiotics, said Smyth.
“This perception may reflect a lack of awareness around the scientific and animal welfare options for this practice, so this may be an area that requires increased communication.”
Smyth said the most popular agri-food topics for Canadians seeking information online are nutrition and healthy eating, followed by sustainability and plant-based alternatives. Other topics include animal welfare, along with labour and human rights in food production, she said.
People in the agricultural sector may be surprised to learn that Google searches and websites, not social media, are the top two sources for these topics for Canadians, said Smyth.
Communication efforts “need to be on platforms where people are looking; not pointing any fingers,” she said. “But Canadian agriculture might tend to focus on social channels such as Twitter to provide accurate information to Canadians when in reality Canadian agriculture is just sharing information with Canadian agriculture.”