Canadian farmers can’t ignore public engagement

More than 93 per cent of Canadians admit to knowing little or nothing about how their food is produced

Have you heard the new buzzwords for farming and food? One is “social licence,” followed very closely by another, “sustainability.”

These are not new to other sectors, but seemed to have taken those who farm or produce food in this country by surprise. Are Canadian farmers really in danger of losing their social licence to farm?

Since time began, farmers have been feeding their families, communities and the world. When my great-grandparents were farming (on land now occupied by Pearson International Airport), most people had a connection to the farm and understood where their food came from. Consumers knew farmers and trusted they were doing the right thing, as long as there was food on the table.

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Fast-forward to today — an era of radical transparency and escalating demands. Farm & Food Care studies of Canadian consumers show that 93 per cent said they knew little or nothing about where their food comes from, but their interest in knowing more has never been higher.

It makes sense then how celebrities and social activists (think Dr. Oz or the Food Babe) can get a lot of attention when they spout inaccurate or scary data about food or farming with more regard to ratings, popularity or fundraising than facts.

Compared to other parts of the world, Canadian farmers still enjoy a reasonably good degree of public trust. In the U.K. and the U.S., public trust in food systems has been eroded by well-orchestrated and funded pressure tactics and negative media, both of which are gaining momentum in Canada.

In speaking to a Canadian audience, Dr. Sandra Edwards, chair of agriculture, University of Newcastle said, “Canada is exactly where the U.K. was 20 years ago on public trust. U.K. agriculture was arrogant and ignored the importance of public trust, thinking ‘everyone has to eat and people like farmers.’ We took public trust for granted until it was too late and the demands on farmers quickly made the U.K. farmer uncompetitive with other jurisdictions on many fronts.”

What does losing public trust or your “social licence” really mean? Loss of public trust from the public or buyers can lead to increased regulation, burdensome market access requirements, and potential loss of customers or freedom to operate. Like a tipping point, once public trust is lost, it may be impossible to regain.

The issues will continue to ebb, flow and ignite around specific issues like food safety, waste, energy and water use, hormone and antibiotic use, animal welfare, fair labour practices and more.

So how should farmers and agri-food businesses respond to public perceptions, media scrutiny and consumer demands? Building public trust in food and farming must start with doing the right things for the right reasons. Farming — and producing food sustainably — needs to be scientifically verified, economically viable and ethically grounded. Millions of dollars in research, programming and countless hours of hard work on farms help make this happen. But the average Canadian hasn’t heard that story.

All stakeholders need to be transparent about their practices and open to communicating with the public. Because, as other sectors like oil and forestry have learned the hard way, building public trust is not a short-term public relations exercise. It requires a long-term vision and a significant commitment of resources by the entire sector.

Every stakeholder — from the individual farmer through to the CEO of our country’s largest food companies — needs to invest in conversations with Canadians to build public trust. If we want to reshape the trends from the U.K., the EU and the U.S., everyone who farms or makes a living from agriculture and food needs to create a business plan for the new buzzwords and start investing in public trust and their social licence.

Crystal Mackay is CEO of Farm & Food Care, a coalition with a shared vision to build public trust in food and farming.

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