“Remember, they’re not looking for people to tell them they don’t pay enough for food.”
– DAVID HERLE
Farmers need to put aside their philosophical differences and reach out to consumers to ensure the long-term health of the sector.
That message, under various names, was advanced by several speakers at the annual meeting of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture Feb. 23-24. After endless conversations during and around the gathering, the CFA agreed to work on develop a national food strategy.
“The belief that farming and food production will always be there has led to disjointed policies and programs,” said CFA president Laurent Pellerin. “We can’t expect agriculture to exist with no comprehensive plan for the future. A strategy is required so that we have a vibrant agriculture sector in Canada. Without a long-term vision, it will be difficult to build the future of Canadian agriculture.”
He said CFA will consult with member groups as well as other farm organizations, government, consumers, food processors and distributors in developing the strategy.
For Senator Hugh Segal, agriculture is vital to the country’s security. If international trade grinds to a halt because of a major disease outbreak, Canada only has “a five-to eight-day supply of fresh food. So we need to build in a strategic redundancy in our agriculture system to make sure we can go on feeding ourselves. We should look at it as part of our national emergency infrastructure.”
Grace Skogstad, political science professor at the University of Toronto, said farm groups have succeeded in keeping the economic viability of farmers on the public agenda. However, they need to move from “the politics of production to the politics of collective consumption,” collaborating with consumers in developing a system that produces safe food, is sustainable and good for the environment.
David Herle, an Ottawa consultant and aide to former prime minister Paul Martin, said for all the concerns Canadians have about the source of their food, “farmers remain a sympathetic figure. People support them.” He urged the CFA to stress the word farmer because surveys show the public sees a corporate connotation to the terms agriculture industry or producers.
Farm groups should work at building a coalition with consumer and other public interest groups, he added. “But remember they’re not looking for people to tell them they don’t pay enough for food.”
Few people understand the financial problems facing farmers, he added. “They do understand that there is something wrong in farming that needs fixing.” Farmers need to tell their story in a way the public will understand.
Segal said it’s time for the currently fractured array of farm groups in Canada to learn to speak with a single voice. Governments look at the financial issues in the farm community the wrong way. Instead of focusing on the importance of food to the country’s well-being, they frame the issue in terms of how to help farmers from one year to the next.
The real issue should be how to ensure farmers will be able to feed the country if foreign food supplies are cut off, he added. “We have to link the health of our agriculture and rural communities to our national security. We have to change the public perception of the issue.”
Farm groups need to stress the national interest and the importance of producing our own food, he continued. “Farmers are part of our future and must be part of our future.”
Skogstad said farmers should focus on building better connections with consumers and framing a food strategy that promotes what’s in the best interest of consumers. “There’s a huge reservoir of support for farmers but there’s a lot of anxiety about modern production practices. Farmers must be ready to deal with these issues.”
Governments have compounded the problems in agriculture by reducing basic research and allowing the farm supply and food-processing sectors to become overly concentrated, which squeezes farmers from both sides, she said.