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Editorial: Butt out

Recently Manitoba’s Bothwell Cheese announced it had received Project GMO certification for one of its product lines.

Boiled down, it means the cheese in question is made from milk that comes from cows fed non-GMO feed.

The move came, the company explained at the time, as a result of consumers asking for such a product. Their producer partners at the Dairy Farmers of Manitoba were ready and willing to provide the raw milk produced according to those specifications. It is a win-win for farmers and the company.

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Portion of Cheddar (detailed close-up shot) on vintage wooden background

After all, that pull from the market is real. Just look at the results of a survey commissioned a couple of years back by a Canadian agriculture industry group and performed by pollster Angus Reid: 43 per cent of Canadians were more likely to buy a product that is “GMO free.”

Yet despite the fact that a consumer goods company is meeting a consumer demand, it took little time for the agriculture industry to show its less attractive face on social media. Repeatedly, the company’s Twitter presence was shamed for failing to take the opportunity to ‘educate consumers about GMOs.’ Most of this negative reaction came from both farmers and industry representatives, such as employees of life science companies.

While it’s true that everyone has a right to their own opinion on a topic like this one, I’m not sure picking a fight publicly with a company like this is going to be a winning strategy over time.

So far the results have been mixed. Earls restaurants, for example, backed down on their antibiotic- and hormone-free, welfare-friendly beef initiative after a public backlash. However, it doesn’t seem like the initial product claim was the pivot point of that decision, so much as the poor optics of replacing Canadian beef with U.S. beef.

Over an even longer time frame, A&W restaurants have steadfastly stuck to their own antibiotic- and hormone-free claims, much to the chagrin of many in the beef sector.

The first mistake many are making is expecting rationality in marketing. This has never been the case and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.

People buy cars and trucks, for example, based on what colour they are, or the model name. The world is full of accountants driving SUVs because they listened to an ad that told them to heed the call of the wild. It seems like there’s an entire sector of that industry entirely devoted to producing midlife-crisis cars for the late-middle-age set with more money than sense.

I myself have driven more than one vehicle that was more sizzle than steak and treated the service bay like a second home. None of us are immune to this.

One trait that’s nearly universally shared, however, is that none of us like to be told we’re wrong, or that we’re making stupid choices. Nor do we like to be told what we will or won’t be allowed to do, unless there’s a darned good reason for it, one that’s better than “it’s a dumb idea.”

The very heart of an open-market economy is willing buyers meeting willing sellers. The only two parties who should have an opinion on a transaction that’s legal and above board are the two who are exchanging money for goods or services. The rest of us are all kibitzing and our input is about as welcome as that of the person who’s hanging over someone’s shoulder, telling them the next card to play.

I happen to agree that there’s really no need for a GMO-free cheese. There’s absolutely no scientific evidence that the conventional products pose any sort of risk. Any attempt to meet this need is a lot of effort in the name of little, except for that consumer demand. But who are we to tell a company or individual they should or shouldn’t pursue a perceived market niche? Or consumers that they can’t or shouldn’t have a market choice?

It wasn’t that long ago the communist world pursued exactly such a model, with disastrous results. It turns out not everyone likes the blue pyjamas of Maoist China, nor the barely functional Lada sedans of socialist Russia. Like pretty much the entire rest of the world, these consumers like designer clothes, Levis jeans, Coca-Cola, and BMWs and Mercedes-Benz.

So why does the agriculture sector want to tell people what they want or need, or dictate how consumers should be “educated” on the value of preferred methods of production?

Why should a modern consumer only take what the industry makes? Why don’t they have the right to ask for something different?

You may look at what they’re asking for and disagree with their choices, and that’s OK. But it’s a mistake to presume they shouldn’t be allowed that choice and to attempt to shame any company that’s trying to meet that market demand.

It would be far better to try to figure out a way to either capture some of that market yourself, or create a new one.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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