Editorial: Who is confused? How consumers view agriculture

The final report to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada from a series of consumer focus groups it commissioned last year is enlightening, but not because of what it tells us about how domestic customers view this country’s agriculture sector.

Rather it speaks volumes about the people asking the questions.

The final report “Modern agriculture and agricultural awareness focus groups” was delivered to the department in April, but never publicized. It now sits quietly tucked away in the online archives — perhaps for good reason.

It reflects a department and an industry that is remarkably out of step with what is arguably its most important constituency: the Canadian consumer and taxpayer.

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The conclusion — again, not surprising given the prevailing culture in agriculture today — is that better propaganda is needed to convey the “correct” message.

AAFC awarded a contract worth just under $100,000 to “undertake a series of focus groups to gauge public perceptions of the industry in order to feed into strategies aimed at shifting current public perceptions (from views of the sector as a traditional farm enterprise to an industry with strategic priorities focused on innovation, competitiveness and market development) and the development of communications approaches and products,” the final report says.

Interestingly, the focus group participants expressed a fair bit of confusion over what the term “agri-food” actually represents. We concur. After all, is there any other kind of food?

The report concluded Canadians are clinging to “quaint” images of agriculture. “When participants think about the sector there is a tendency to envisage farms, livestock, crops, green pastures, endless wheat fields, and Prairie landscapes. This type of imagery reinforces a view of the sector as traditional, rather than modern, progressive and innovative.”

This, apparently, is a problem.

  • From the Country Guide website: The wide view

“Recent surveys of the Canadian public have underscored a number of misperceptions about the agricultural sector and a relatively pessimistic public view with respect to its future outlook,” the report says.

It cites “alarmist documentaries and media reports” as the culprits.

The first question that comes to mind is why public perceptions of a particular industry are a $100,000 concern for government. Does it undertake perception-changing communications on behalf of the auto sector or shoemakers?

Some of the focus group participants raised the same question. When asked for recommendations on how best to raise awareness and understanding of agriculture’s contribution to the economy, “some participants immediately questioned what the actual goal of this type of initiative would be and questioned whether this would be a good or appropriate use of government funding,” the report said.

Secondly, what misperceptions are we talking about? The focus groups raised concerns about genetically modified organisms, consolidation in the agricultural sector, encroachment of development on agricultural lands, declining interest among current and future generations in the sector, unsustainable farming practices and global population growth.

The last time we checked, other than perhaps genetically modified organisms, many in agriculture shared the same concerns.

Another “misperception” the authors cite is the belief among many consumers that Canada lacks food self-sufficiency. “Unclear on the facts, there was a tendency among many to conclude that Canada must be a net importer of agricultural goods,” the report says.

Consider this data from the Hellman’s Eat Real, Eat Local campaign:

  • Canadians import 53 per cent of their vegetables and 78 per cent of their fruit, including basics that can be grown domestically;
  • Over the past four decades, red meat imports have risen 600 per cent;
  • Over the past 15 years, Canadian food imports rose 160 per cent while the country’s population rose 15 per cent;
  • For every apple Canada exports, it imports five; for every pear exported, we bring in 700;
  • In the last half of the 20th century, Ontario paved over 49 per cent of its prime farmland to accommodate expansion of the Toronto area;
  • There is a continuing decline in the number of people who know how to grow food.

So while Canada may be a net exporter of agricultural goods measured in dollars, thanks largely to production from those quaint “crops, green pastures (and) endless wheat fields,” consumers rank the sector’s import/export balance according to the food going into their grocery carts. By that standard, it’s not measuring up very well.

The perception seems to be that this is something that can be fixed with a better PR campaign. In this case, however, it would appear it’s not the consumers who are confused.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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