Local. Organic. Hormone free. Gluten free. No pesticides. Nothing artificial. These are the buzzwords in food marketing today. Who can object to all of these wholesome-sounding concepts?
Food companies are trying to take us back to a time which many consumers imagine as idyllic, pure and healthy. The fact this is an effective marketing strategy is proven by how many companies are using it. These are not ad campaigns from little stores, but strategic marketing efforts by our largest grocery stores and restaurant chains.
Two things strike me about these trends. First off, the “good old days” were not nearly as good as today’s advertising makes them out to be. Some in society seem to want to push producers and farmers back to the rural lifestyle and production practices of the 1940s and 1950s. In other words, houses with no running water, wood heat, a standard of living below poverty, one-room school education, even longer work hours, etc.
The second thing that strikes me about the latest marketing trends is the portrayal of modern commercial agriculture as being bad for our health and bad for the environment. This view is both wrong and dangerous.
I have heard it said that trends like this are the indulgences of a rich society. This statement has a ring of truth as not only will this misinformation about agricultural practices hurt farmers and ranchers, but unchecked, it will have a large impact on those who can least afford to spend more on food.
Don’t get me wrong. I applaud every producer who is able to access niche markets like “local” or “organic” and to increase their incomes through hard work and their marketing skills. However, I do have a problem when some of these multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns spread inaccurate and damaging information about the way the majority of our food is produced.
Let us take a look at some of the claims made by the latest foodie trends, like the notion that food in great-grandma’s time was somehow safer. Canada has a strong science-based food safety system. Year after year, statistics from the Public Health Agency of Canada show that modern agriculture is delivering food that is safer than the year before. The days gone by are not so good when one actually looks at the facts around incidences of foodborne illnesses.
What about the claims that agriculture from years gone by had less impact on the environment? Did you know that the drought faced by Western Canada in the 1990s and 2000s was in fact worse than the droughts of the “Dirty 30s?” Yet, Manitoba soil did not blow into Ontario because modern production practices, like the use of pesticides and biotechnology, have allowed agriculture to manage the soil and moisture levels better. How could it be good for the environment to go back to the old practices?
Modern grazing practices are an integral part of grassland ecosystems and help us meet everyone’s conservation objectives. Economically viable beef production also provides society with many environmental services such as preserving wetlands. Beef production both creates jobs as well as delivers important environmental goods and services for all Manitobans.
Opposition to antibiotics in livestock production is another advertising trend. But how can anyone consider it humane not to treat an animal that has become sick? Failure to treat illness is simply not a good management practice and it is not the right way to care for livestock.
So how should agriculture respond to this growing romanticized trend towards consumers seeking food produced like it was 1930? We could just complain about misguided city folk. But that won’t change the way our customers are selling the food we produce. Instead, agriculture needs to get out front and guide these trends. We need to show our urban cousins the effort we make to protect the environment and to care for our animals. This is the only way consumers will be informed about how agricultural production takes place today and how it continues to evolve.
This is one of the purposes of the recently revised Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle. The new code is practical and science based. Beef producers have had the opportunity for input into the development of the new code. Animal welfare representatives, enforcement agencies and other representatives from civil society were also directly involved in developing the new code. The wide representation will help ensure that our efforts to promote the highest standards of animal care are supported and understood by Canadians.
Having a code of practice is step one. Confirming it is being followed will be step two. There may be some who feel that having customers ask, “Are you following the code of practice?” is interference in their ranch. But as we have seen in other industries and sectors of agriculture, we can either try to get in front and inform these trends, or have others like Tim Hortons and Walmart impose arbitrary and impractical standards on us without our consent or input.
Many consumers are asking, “Where does my food come from?”
We as producers need to be ready to answer this question. Failure to do so will mean others will answer it for us and history has shown that it is never good to have others tell our story.