Ministers favour education to fight activists

The CFA says consumers have expectations on animal welfare and environmental issues that are based on myths

CHARLOTTETOWN — Canada’s agriculture ministers say they support a co-operative effort to boost public confidence in agriculture and food.

But they stopped short of recommending a social licence roundtable be established, as proposed by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

CFA president Ron Bonnett said consumers are increasingly challenging the industry. They don’t necessarily have the facts, and fragmented responses from the industry to counter misinformation are not working, he said.

Taking the time to walk people through processes and address their concerns is required.

“We won’t convince the extremes, but the danger is if you don’t respond, some of that huge block (of people) in the middle will go to the extreme.”

Bonnett said consumers have expectations with regard to things like the environment and animal welfare.

“Behind that is the problem that their references are based on perception, not reality.”

He said the industry has to get ahead of activists and lobbyists with the truth.

The CFA hosted a meeting with industry leaders and ministers to discuss the topic ahead of last week’s annual federal-provincial-territorial ministers’ meeting.

Federal minister Gerry Ritz said government should work with industry on this issue, not impose regulations.

He agreed that educating people about basic food production, the work that goes into it and the care and attention paid to safety, quality and consistency of supply is re-quired.

There could be opportunities to include more information in school curriculum, he said.

But he disagreed that another roundtable meeting is necessary.

“We also had presentations from the heads of all of our value chain groups that are under the impression, and I tend to agree with them, that we already have the manpower there (and) that to set up another group might be a little bit time-consuming and would really start over at square one,” Ritz said.

He suggested using the existing roundtable leaders to tackle social licence. Current roundtables represent beef, grains, horticulture, special crops, food processing and in-dustrial bioproducts.

Saskatchewan is ahead of most other provinces in terms of its social licence programs. Rolled out several years ago as agricultural awareness, the programs aim to improve public perception.

Saskatchewan agriculture minister Lyle Stewart agreed that if the industry doesn’t tell its positive story, that leaves room for others to tell their versions.

“There are many interests that are not exactly supportive of commercial agriculture and they will fill that vacuum with a story that’s not factual, but a story that is readily believable,” he said.

While social licence issues tend to focus on pesticides, genetically modified crops and other hot button topics, host minister, Alan McIsaac of Prince Edward Island is facing a food safety issue that could harm public trust and the province’s brand.

Despite the offer of a $500,000 reward, no one has yet come forward to name the culprits who stuck needles into potatoes from several farms on the island. The first were found last fall.

Both McIsaac and Ritz pledged to bring the full force of the law down on those caught tampering with the food supply.

Ottawa, the province and producers have all spent money on metal detection equipment, and McIsaac said some farms had to shut down while waiting for equipment to arrive.

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