Given societal changes, farmers can’t take their foot off the pedal
FARMERS WANT THE PUBLIC to make informed, research-based decisions. They don’t want consumers swayed by zealous activists whose positions are founded on emotion and scaremongering, rather than facts and reality.
For example, farmers want everyone to understand that genetically modifying food has never been proven to cause ill health.
They want people to know increased automation is being used on the farm not because farmers are eager to turn their operations into factories, but rather, because the labour pool is empty. Members of the workforce are not interested in farm work.
Farmers want those concerned about the rising cost of food – and that is indeed an imperative for the public – to know that they’ve long made efforts to keep their costs as low as possible, and that in many cases they use technology to help.
Farmers want people to know animal welfare is of the utmost concern. Farming is an occupation that must be profitable. For purely economic reasons, abused animals are not profitable. And that doesn’t even consider the emotional attachment farmers have to their livestock.
And while they don’t like to talk about it much, farmers need people to understand that all the pressure they’re getting from activists – and from a society that has been turned against farmers by activists and inertia – is taking its toll.
Research by Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton and her team at the University of Guelph shows mental health issues are huge among Canadian farmers. One of the biggest pressures they feel is negative public perception.
Finally, here’s another research-based reality related to farming: farmers are losing in the court of public opinion, and efforts to stem that tide are not working.
Results this fall from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity showed only 36 per cent of consumers believe the country’s food system is headed in the right direction. The percentage of Canadians who hold a positive to very positive view of farming fell to 55 per cent, down from 61 per cent in just two years.
And Canadians who felt they didn’t know enough to hold an opinion about food and agriculture’s direction rose to 12 per cent, up from a scant two per cent in 2016, the last time the survey was conducted.
No one can accuse the agri-food sector of sugarcoating these findings. And no one is trying to put a happy face on it. This problem is not only centred on farmers, but rather the entire system, including processors and manufacturers. But to most people, it’s farmers, not corporate executives, who come to mind when the topic is food production.
As usual, the conversation now centres around the question “Now what?” – the answer to which is elusive.
So far, responses I’ve seen include a greater emphasis on transparency. That’s good. Farmers need to counter the hidden cameras of activists with their own video accounts of what goes on.
And superb examples exist, including in our own area dairy farmer Tim May, and a bit further away, sheep producer Sandi Brock. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter.
People want to hear from farmers like May and Brock. They’re super busy farming, but communication is a modern need that they’ve found time for.
What else? Communications efforts by all the commodity groups are important. Some critics will dismiss such efforts as advocacy and biased. But people in the middle – those making up their minds about agriculture and food – need a place to go to learn.
That points to education. Perhaps the Canadian Agricultural Trust Steering Committee, struck two years ago to after ag groups decided public trust and social licence needed more attention, will get behind public education efforts in 2019.
The figures all point to the fact that it’s time.