Comment: Is food dividing Canada?

Social media and other communications seem to be driving the wedge deeper, not healing the rift

male farmer standing proud and satisfied

For many years, farmers have tried to convey their message, their lifestyles really, to an undereducated populace when it comes to agriculture and rural Canada. They have taken to social media with touching stories and countless messages, telling Canadians what things are like out on the farm. Some called it “agvocacy.” But Canada’s new food guide, amongst other policy decisions, is evidence that the rural/urban divide has never been greater.

Social media messages posted by farmers and farming groups are often met with a deluge of strong responses, refuting their information. Their stories are most often overshadowed by similarly powerful messages displayed by animal rights and environmental activists. And, these groups have proven themselves to be savvy communicators in the now decades-long debate on genetically modified organisms. Even if the science robustly supports the theory that GMOs are safe, doubts linger.

A recent study suggested that the less people knew about GMOs, the more likely they were to be against them. The public discourse on GMOs is now highly polarized, which has not served communities well. The same observation can apply to the issue of pesticides. Farmers have been caught in a space between science and farm-illiterate groups of citizens as technology users. Despite their passion for the land and nature, many farmers have come out of these deliberations discouraged and emotionally wounded.

Farming is essential to our lifestyle and well-being. For a long time, farming has been the most trusted profession in the country. But it is unclear whether Canadians are willing to listen to farmers anymore. The profession is trusted, but not respected. Many farmers are starting to realize this, as harsh and unfortunate as it may seem. Less than two per cent of the Canadian population lives on a farm, and the majority of Canadians have never even visited one. It is a dimension of their lives they barely understand, but want to support, to a certain degree. If food is affordable and convenient, urbanites are all in to support farmers. Some are willing to go the extra mile to make a difference, but they are far from the majority.

Agricultural trade groups are active and committed, but their message can only go so far. Individual farmers have also connected with city folk. Beyond visits to farmers’ markets, U-picks, and the impromptu encounters at various fairs, opportunities for discussion and interaction between urban dwellers and farmers are infrequent. On social media, farmers’ messages rarely reach beyond their own farming circles, rebounding as if in an echo chamber. Spending a few hours on social media will make the case crystal clear.

Countless qualitative and quantitative studies addressing perceived social media affordance for farmers suggest that such an approach has little effect. In the western world, while farmers are enthusiastic about social media’s potential to strengthen outreach efforts, enable communication channels and feedback loops, and increase levels of understanding amongst parties, studies point to the ineffectiveness of farmers to influence policy and more important, public opinion, with social media. The relationship between virtual advocacy by farmers and real political and ideological change is still speculative at best.

The GMO debate was apparently just the beginning. Canada’s new food guide was really an affront to what Canadian agriculture is all about. The food elites presented an ideal diet to Canadians and the connection between what is prescribed in the guide and what farmers can deliver is far from clear. Supported by nutritional science, the guide no doubt offers a target we should aim for. But many farmers are wondering how Canada’s agricultural policy will help our country achieve its dietary goals.

But at least some communication strategies do appear to be more effective. Farmers’ groups that partner with chefs, restaurant chains, grocers, celebrities, and other parties tend to garner more success in delivering their message. A myriad of initiatives throughout the country have been successful in connecting agriculture with cities. In other words, farmers who use someone else to tell their story appear to have more influence, since third parties will use a language the average citizen can understand. The plant-based narrative, on the other hand, is gaining traction, simply because its tone and nuances are in tune with what most urbanites can appreciate. If farmers and trade groups want a fighting chance, partnership is one path they should be pursuing.

But the nexus between agriculture and social media can get messy at times. The ketchup wars a few years ago are a good example. Loblaw customers took to social media to force a number of grocers in the country to relist French’s ketchup, a product manufactured in the U.S., while the tomato paste was made in Leamington, an issue of which most were unaware.

Regrettably, agriculture remains a poorly understood, vague concept for many of us. Because of the rural/urban divide that is profoundly changing food politics in Canada, our policies lack depth and pragmatism. Excluding lobby groups from a scientific process is one thing but excluding them altogether from a democratic process will only make things worse for everyone in the end.

About the author


Sylvain Charlebois is senior director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, and professor in food distribution policy, Dalhousie University.



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