Opinion: Public trust and modern agriculture

Don’t dread the public’s newfound interest — treat it as an opportunity

‘… when it comes to tending to the environment in a sustainable way and caring for animals humanely, Manitoba farmers are world leaders.’ – Cam Dahl.

I find that many farmers react to the words “public trust” like a cat running across hot pavement.

The subject is often viewed as a threat, seen by some as rhetorical cover for those who want to dismantle modern agriculture.

While I understand the reaction, I have a different response. I see public questions on food production as an opportunity. Addressing consumers’ questions will help enhance the connection and relationship between farmers and the public. This will also differentiate Manitoba’s farmers, and the food they produce, in both domestic and international markets, and is a key tool to secure sustainable and long-term consumer demand.

Until recent years, Canadian agriculture did not have to consider questions from consumers on how their food is produced. Governments established food safety standards, registered farm input products and set environmental regulations. This provided the assurances that consumers were seeking — at least most of them. That has changed. Nowadays, farmers, processors, and everyone involved in supporting agricultural production are required to actively engage in telling the story of modern farming.

The question “where does my food come from” is not a fad that will be gone tomorrow like the latest internet diet. The growing focus by many consumers on food production practices is a true trend that agriculture needs to be ready to meet head-on. Consumer interest will only continue to grow for years to come.

Rather than responding to questions from consumers with skepticism, Manitoba farmers can embrace them with optimism. That is because when it comes to tending to the environment in a sustainable way and caring for animals humanely, Manitoba farmers are world leaders.

We need to do a much better job of telling the good news story of modern agriculture. Decades of land and water stewardship have proven that farming can be considered the oldest “green job” in Manitoba. For example, pork producers create more food today with less environmental impact than even 10 or 20 years ago. Over the last 50 years, hog farms have significantly reduced their carbon footprint. Manure that was once thought of as a waste product is now viewed as a valuable organic nutrient. Using new technology farmers inject manure below the soil so that it is efficiently taken up by crops. The modern practices that have made environmental gains possible are the result of years of research investments by farmers, governments, and industry.

The same progress has been made in ensuring animals are raised in appropriate housing, that they receive well-balanced and nutritious feed, that diseases are prevented where possible and judiciously treated when not, and that they are handled humanely at all stages of their lives. Animal welfare is assured through a combination of rigorous provincial animal welfare regulations, and thorough industry standards.

An important component of the standard for animal care is the science-based code of practice that all Manitoba producers are required to follow. The code is backed up by requirements for engagement with a veterinarian including onsite visits. Adherence to it is supported by audits and farmers cannot deliver to federally inspected processing plants unless they are part of the program. Animal care requirements are regularly revised if scientific research demonstrates that changes in practices are warranted. Consumers can take confidence that hogs in Manitoba are ethically and humanly raised.

The environmental and animal care record of modern Manitoba hog farmers is one in which they take pride. It is also a record that should be a source of pride for all Manitobans. Nutritious high-quality pork from Manitoba’s farmers is raised in a sustainable way that will help ensure the industry’s ongoing contributions to our economy and job creation in our local communities.

We can answer the question ‘where does my pork come from?’ in a way that meets the needs of consumers. Demonstrating our sustainability and animal welfare record will help ensure ongoing consumer demand for Manitoba pork, both here at home and abroad.

Cam Dahl is general manager of the Manitoba Pork Council.

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