Opinion: ‘Canadian grain — it won’t hurt you’

A merged Cigi/Cereals Canada should deal with customers, not consumers

In 1935, the Canadian Wheat Board launched a promotion campaign in the United Kingdom with a film called “The Kinsmen.” It showed how British immigrants to Canada were now farmers sending wheat back to their “kinsmen” in the U.K.

The film showing how their wheat was grown, harvested and shipped had high production values for the time, and audiences packed community halls and church basements to learn about farming in Canada and how Canadian wheat was best for making bread.

But there was a problem. Consumers don’t buy wheat. They buy bread. Shoppers who had seen the film would visit the local bakery and ask for a loaf made with Canadian wheat. This annoyed bakers, who don’t buy wheat either. They buy flour. Bakers complained to the millers, who do buy wheat, and they aren’t interested in specifying where it comes from or in saying that Canadian wheat is better. That wouldn’t go over well with British farmers.

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Lesson learned. If you are in the wheat business, don’t annoy the customer.

That’s an appropriate lesson for the impending merger of the Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi) and Cereals Canada. Cigi’s main role has been to show customers how to use Canadian wheat and other crops in the products consumed in their countries. It’s also worked with Canadian industry staff and farmers to show them what customers are looking for when they buy grain.

Cereals Canada’s role has been vague. Set up with a board of various industry representatives after the end of the wheat board, it says it “brings a broad and diverse collaboration of partners from all sectors of the cereals value chain.”

Judging by a series of opinion pieces by CEO Cam Dahl, much of the focus seems to be convincing consumers that Canadian grain is produced under scientifically safe, modern production practices, and implying that sales are being hindered by customers who object to them.

“Canadians have been food secure through the pandemic because of modern agriculture that includes pesticides, chemical fertilizers, precision agriculture and science-based regulations,” says Dahl’s latest opinion piece.

“Further, Canada needs to use this time of a resurgence in the understanding of the value of science and research to push for a greater scientific foundation of the world’s trading system. After all, it is not just Canadian consumers who depend on the resiliency of a science-based food supply chain, but consumers in every country… ”

To their credit, Cereals Canada and Dahl have promoted the “Keep it Clean” initiative, encouraging farmers not to use products which can cause problems with buyers. But the new merged organization needs to continue to reinforce Cigi’s main purpose, which is to show buyers how Canadian grain can make the products that their consumer customers want. Given that some of those consumers do have concerns about some farming practices, the buyers don’t want to see public statements about how ingredients are made with “pesticides, chemical fertilizers, precision agriculture and science-based regulations.”

That’s an implied tag line of “Canadian grain — it won’t hurt you,” which is not appropriate for an organization for promoting sales. Dealing with real or imagined trade restrictions is the job for government, or industry organizations such as the Canada Grains Council, not for an organization working with customers.

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