Pork producers want to “be part of the solution” but speakers at the Manitoba Pork Council’s annual meeting recently had trouble spelling out the problem.
“My personal opinion… is that you do have a target on you. If there has ever been an industry targeted in Manitoba, it’s the pork industry,” Graham Starmer, president of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce told producers.
Starmer wondered if the moratorium was based on public perception, poor science or a political agenda as he moderated a discussion on how to improve public perceptions.
Last spring, the Save Lake Winnipeg Act passed the Manitoba legislature unanimously, expanding the province’s moratorium on new hog barn construction. It also left some people believing the industry had been unfairly maligned.
“You often hear the comment that decisions have to be science based, and I don’t disagree with that, but at the same time science isn’t always enough,” said Curtis Brown, a former journalist who now works with Probe Research.
He has worked with the pork council on issues of public opinion, and said public perceptions are often more enduring than scientific facts.
Perception problems are compounded when average Manitobans are unfamiliar with the sector. “It’s one of the areas where it’s difficult to get your message across,” Brown said.
While some at the meeting pointed the finger at government policies, others suggested public opinion is the root cause of the current restrictions producers are facing.
“We see government in an adversarial role, but government is a reflection of what the population wants,” said Doug Chorney, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers.
The key to changing government policy is changing public opinion, he said.
“We have to design a way to change how the public sees all of agriculture, not just hog farmers,” Chorney stressed.
Producers are frustrated by the government’s reliance on a study of Lake Winnipeg by Peter Leavitt, which recommended a 50 per cent reduction in phosphorus levels to reverse regular algae blooms and return the lake to a pre-1990 state, as the basis for its expanded moratorium.
“This accusation that hog manure running off fields into Lake Winnipeg is causing algae blooms, really, we know there were algae blooms on the lake long before there was ever hog production in Manitoba, and probably a lot thicker than they are today,” said council chairman Karl Kynoch.
He emphasized a need for sound science along with Steven Sheppard of ECO Matters, a soil scientist and environmental consultant.
Sheppard recently released a report titled, What To Do And What Not To Do About Phosphorus In Agro-Manitoba — The Science, on behalf of the Manitoba Pork Council.
“Science has always provided the best way forward,” he said. “The public relations side of it will help deliver the right science.”
Conservative MLA and former KAP president, Ian Wishart, raised concerns about scientific reports being commissioned by government and special interest groups, although he did not appear to consider the pork council as one of those special interest groups.
“Lately we’ve seen an alarming trend… for government and special interest groups to fund science with a specific goal in mind and to get a study that agrees with them,” he said.
But Sheppard also noted there are environmental issues surrounding the hog industry that don’t need a study to be seen — or smelt.
“Public perception really isn’t my business, but I have to say odour is an environmental issue, and if there is something stamped in the minds of the public, it’s odour,” he said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been in Winnipeg at a mall, sniffed the air, and said ‘that’s not a city smell.’”
Kynoch noted the council is working to combat negative perceptions around the hog industry through advertising, partnerships with sports centres and innovative initiatives like the Bruce D. Campbell Farm and Food Discovery Centre.
He said people need to be informed about the economic benefits the hog industry brings to Manitoba, such as the fact that it accounts for 10 per cent of all manufacturing jobs.
“Can you imagine where the province would be without the hog industry?” he said. “It would be devastated, and I think that’s one thing we don’t get enough credit for — how much value the hog industry brings to the province.”