Why farmers should care what consumers think

Unless consumers trust the ways in which their food is produced, in most cases using pesticides and genetically modified varieties, those tools may disappear. | Michael Raine photo illustration

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

OTTAWA — Cherilyn Nagel, a grain farmer and agricultural advocate from Mossbank, Sask., used to dismiss consumer concerns about farming practices.

She thought earning public trust was unimportant and there was no value in providing credible information about farming to Canadians.

Farmers had other things to think about, Nagel told those at the May 31-June 1 Public Trust Summit.

“Farmers are too damn busy to care about what Joe Consumer thinks about what we farm and how we farm it,” she said to an audience temporarily stunned into silence.

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“We’re growing food and we’re adopting challenging new technologies that take innovation to an unimaginable level. Farmers are under enormous pressure to maintain our operations, diversify our farms and even more pressure to maintain these farms that are three, four and five generations.

“We do not have time to care about what the public thinks about whether or not we’re growing safe, healthy food.

“At least, that’s what I used to think.”

Nagel said a new realization of the gap that exists between most consumers and most farmers awakened her to the necessity of establishing trust.

“My attitude has changed from when believing that farming the way I want to farm is my right, to understanding that the decisions and the choices that I get to make are truly a privilege, a privilege that without proper care, can be taken away from me.”

Unless consumers trust the ways in which their food is produced, in most cases using pesticides and genetically modified varieties, those tools may disappear, she said.

That would make farmers less able to produce the same amount of food.

Establishing consumer trust in Canada’s food system is the goal behind the May 31 official establishment of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity. Modelled after the U.S. centre, it is an offshoot of Farm and Food Care Canada.

A recent survey commissioned by the latter group showed public trust levels in many aspects of farming and food are low.

Rory McAlpine, a senior vice-president with Maple Leaf Foods, recounted first-hand experience with public trust issues. He was with the company during the 2008 listeriosis outbreak that killed 22 people and forced a massive meat recall.

“It certainly is a time when you face a crisis like that, where trust of course is everything, and you have an opportunity there to ultimately reinforce it and build a legacy of trust or destroy it, and I think we achieved the former in the way we handled that,” McAlpine said.

Maple Leaf’s values were tested in the crisis but they held.

“In a moment like that, the decisions you take and the way you come together as a team to decide on actions fundamentally have to be instinctive.”

McAlpine said it has become obvious that the first priority in retaining social licence is to “do the right thing,” whatever that might be for each food sector.

Claire Tansey, a chef, teacher and former food director at Chatelaine magazine, said consumers face information overload when it comes to food choices, labels and health advice. As a result, they don’t know who to trust.

Additionally, many don’t know how to cook food, properly or at all, in some cases.

She suggested mandatory culinary education for every Canadian teenager as a step toward food literacy and trust.

“I’m telling you if we started in Grade 9 … we would be sending people to university who could actually make smart decisions about their food,” she said.

“It’s the magic bullet we’ve been seeking. We don’t respect food enough right now. We need to bring that respect back.”

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