Defending ag practices seen as ineffective: report

Many farmers and commodity groups use social media to explain and defend agricultural practices.

The goal is typically to clear up misperceptions about farming and food production.

The communication may be changing a few minds, but defending farming practices isn’t going to build consumer trust, says a new report on the future of Canada’s agri-food sector.

“If we don’t (share) the facts, then opponents of modern agriculture, or social advocates, or even consumers who are questioning it … will continue to undermine the credibility of the sector,” said David McInnes, president of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute.

“(But) if we are merely trying to just better communicate, it’s a proposition that we will not win.”

CAPI, which hosted an Ottawa forum in November about Canada’s agri-food future, released a Feb. 1 report based on those discussions called Achieving What’s Possible for Canada’s Agri-Food Sector.

The report attempts to answer a significant problem: how to restore and enhance consumer trust in agriculture and food?

“Trust is now the defining issue facing nearly everyone involved in food production and supply, both in Canada and among competitors and customers abroad,” the report said.

According to CAPI, data and openness are critical for social licence.

“Securing trust requires greater transparency about food practices and their impacts, as well as credible national metrics that measure and demonstrate performance. This is the route to attain the sector’s ‘social licence’ to operate.”

The topic of social licence now comes up at most agricultural conferences in Canada. Keith Currie, an Ontario Federation of Agriculture vice-president, said the industry is working on a cohesive strategy around consumer trust.

“Some commodity leaders and the CFA (Canadian Federation of Agriculture are) starting down that road of formulating a process of how we can organize,” he said in the fall.

“I think the aim, right now, is hopefully have some sort of roundtable discussion (on social licence) next summer … to gather everybody and put our heads together.”

In its report, CAPI said justifying agri-food practices will not create trust because many consumers have lost faith in the food system.

“It is becoming clear that a growing number of people will give no licence for the appropriation or destruction of natural capital, as they see that as an existential threat,” the report said.

“Other matters of confidence include issues relating to human health, animal care and ethics.”

Canada’s food industry needs greater transparency and more measurement of practices to demonstrate how it produces safe food in a way that “enhances ecoystems and improves nutritional quality,” the report said.

As an example, reducing chemical residues is good for the environment and will help the ag industry connect with consumers.

“Valuing and managing natural capital must be at the forefront of every business strategy,” the report said.

“Demonstrating ecological services … circles back and helps the sector win consumer and societal support and reinforce the national brand.”

In an ideal scenario, Canada’s ag industry has an opportunity to be part of the solution, McInnes said.

“It (agri-food) is one of the (few) sectors that can make a concerted positive impact on ecosystems and human health.”

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