Agriculture transparency requires better education

A recent news release from two agri-marketing agencies says this: “COVID-19 forced Canada’s food industry to lift its veil when Canadians experienced food shortages, likely for the first time in their lives. This further shows the opportunity and need for clearer transparency around Canadian agriculture.”

It begs the question: will any amount of transparency be enough to satisfy the average non-farmer? Will it satisfy that person who had, at best, two agriculture classes in school and probably has a more lasting memory of farming and food as delivered by Gwyneth Paltrow, Dr. Oz or food advertisers who claim the superiority of GM-free, antibiotic-free, non-meat, non-dairy and organic?

Popular culture’s internet-published non-news has waged war on reality. Science and food, including the environment and agriculture, have been some of the biggest victims.

From the purported evils of wheat gluten and abusive rearing of farmed animals to the supposed human health dangers from genetic modification of plants, the 96 percent of people with no direct tie to a farm or processor have been influenced for ideological reasons and for profit.

Complete transparency in agriculture has not been achieved despite the efforts of star power, animal rightists or over-the-top environmental activism. They’ve instead created the opposite effect in at least one sector.

Livestock operations want to strengthen their largely metaphorical fences as a way to protect themselves, and right-leaning governments have created legislative boundaries around food and agricultural operations — so-called “ag gag” laws among them. These might appear to be good for farmers but ultimately this form of public policy is bad for farming and food production.

The average citizen becomes suspicious when businesses, even in this most trusted category of industries, need legal protections from public scrutiny.

In Texas, laws prohibiting aerial photography of feedlots have been on the books since 2013, with multiple regional enhancements since then. In some cases it made it illegal for a farmer to look at an adjacent farmer’s operation when checking his own spray-drift effects or runoff. Ag-gag laws that make it illegal, even for legitimate journalists, to collect images from barns and packing plants do more damage to public opinion than they prevent.

From a farm perspective, not getting caught doing the wrong things starts with not doing things wrong.

The public’s ability to understand agriculture begins with the opportunity to see it in action and that is where transparency begins. Trespassing laws are needed when the intent is harm to a farm or its inhabitants but other laws should not be used as obstacles to public observation and scrutiny.

Generally speaking, Canadians trust farmers. Some 47 percent of those polled by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity said Canada’s food system is on the right track. That’s 12 percent better than the percentage that thought so last year.

To further improve that number, greater support for factual communication is a necessity. So is greater transparency in agriculture.

It has to start with better agricultural education in schools. As it stands, the subject matter is poorly resourced. We can’t expect Canadians to understand farming and food if it isn’t being taught. Learning about the sources of food and its production should be part of the curriculum from day one.

That will require action and funding from governments.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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