Most consumers see farmers as trustworthy: survey

But consumers don’t know much about agriculture and aren’t convinced farmers are good environmental stewards

Barb Glen reports from the farm & food care conference in Ottawa about public opinion and agricultural policy

OTTAWA — Farmers make a favourable impression among Canadian consumers.

A recent survey of 2,500 people, weighted to represent the non-farming Canadian population older than 17, showed 69 percent view farmers in a warm and friendly way in terms of providing information about food.

And, compared to data obtained in another survey in 2012, Canadian agriculture is being viewed more positively, with 61 percent giving it the thumbs up today compared to 56 percent in 2012.

However, not all factors are rosy for Canada’s food industry. Data also showed half of consumers aren’t sure if agriculture is heading in the right direction, 93 percent say they know little or nothing about farming and only 29 percent think farmers are good environmental stewards.

Paradoxically, farmers and ranchers rate highest when consumers were asked who they believe most on environmental issues.

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Those are only a few statistics in data obtained by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, contracted by Farm and Food Care Canada, to explore public trust in the food system.

Crystal Mackay, chief executive officer of Farm and Food Care, said the survey showed numerous points of disconnect between public views and how the farm and food industry views itself.

Environmental stewardship is one of them.

“This is a low, I would say, on the report card and inconsistent with the fact that they view farmers very positively. We definitely need some improvement there.”

Another inconsistency relates to food costs.

In the survey, consumers rated food affordability as the top life concern. Sixty-nine percent listed the rising cost of food as a concern, followed by 66 percent who listed “keeping healthy food affordable” as a concern.

However, only 13 percent of those surveyed believe Canadian food is the most affordable in the world.

“You know that this is a fact,” said Mackay, “so there is absolutely a disconnect here. Note that concern about food affordability … is the most important topic to Canadians and they don’t actually believe that we have affordable food right now.”

The survey also sought to explore public attitudes about hormone use in food animals, pesticide and antibiotic residue in crops and meats, genetically modified crops and animal welfare.

“People in crop production feel really strongly about issues related to pesticides or genetic modification. People on the animal side are concerned about hormones or antibiotics,” said Mackay.

“The public basically views them all with a similar level of concern.”

Seventy-three percent of those surveyed believe videos of farm animals being poorly treated are representative of normal livestock production, and 25 percent think animals should have the same rights as humans.

Food industry consultant David Smith advised caution about the “halo effect” surrounding the favourable rating given farmers and agriculture.

“It’s a great halo, and what is that halo? Let’s understand it,” said Smith, who helped lead the CCFI launch.

“Is that the reality of a modern food system that is providing affordable food or is this some static notion that they may have about buying local and buying natural and that small farmer they might meet at the farmers market, none of which will deliver the affordability that they all ask for.

“It’s a great halo, but let’s not get too comfortable here.”

Mackay also noted that the survey shows consumer trust in food companies, retailers and restaurants is relatively low when it comes to nutrition, food safety, environment and animal welfare.

Millennials, those born between about 1980 and 2000, were the most skeptical about all food and farming issues among those surveyed.

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