Business & Policy
By Treena Hein
Research shows that there is a huge opportunity for the farm sector to build public trust, but it will be an uphill battle.
By Treena Hein
It was during one particular panel discussion that the need for the “Public Trust in Agriculture Summit” became crystal clear. The Summit was held in early June in Ottawa, with speakers and participants in attendance from all aspects of food production, from seed companies, chefs and farmers, to academics, farming associations and large companies like Maple Leaf Foods. This ground-breaking inaugural event was intended to “encourage continuous collaborative discussions amongst farm and food system leaders, while developing concrete actions for earning public trust.”
And this is exactly what the panel discussion involving five typical urban Canadians exposed – a distinct sense of mistrust towards the Canadian agri-food system. The level of knowledge about farming among the panelists was – for many of the audience members who live and breathe food production on a daily basis – shocking. But to be fair, many attendees also recognized how difficult it is for anyone outside of agriculture, the health care system, forestry or any other complex sector of our economy to make time to learn the basics, let along keep up with the many changes in practices and policy that are standard today.
“Their level of knowledge…on some questions, it was pretty good, [but] on others it was not good at all – industry’s fault, not theirs,” notes attendee Robin Horel, president and CEO Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council (CPEPC). “It certainly emphasized some of the information that was shared from the public survey [presented at the Summit; more on that later] – that consumers get much of their information from friends and family and do not trust industry or government.”
Horel highlights a point during the panel which occurred after the participants had been asked quite a few quiz questions on various aspects of food and farming, with the moderator letting them know in each case if they were correct or incorrect. “[The moderator’s feedback] seemed to be accepted every time by the panelists until the question of hormones in poultry came up,” he notes. “All panelists believed that poultry contained hormones, and when the moderator corrected their belief, they did not believe her, even though on all the previous misconceptions, they did believe her. Then when she asked what it would take to convince them – examples like government, scientists, etc. – they still stuck to their belief and said that they would not be convinced!”
Egg Farmers of Ontario (EFO) director Dianne McComb also attended the Summit, and says that because she’s on the EFO Public Affairs Committee and has therefore had a lot of exposure to the general public’s level of agri-food knowledge, she “wasn’t too shocked” at the panel responses. “A few others at my table were shocked, or absolutely blown away,” she says, “seeing the panelists’ understanding and that they were in some cases so far away in their opinions from the facts and reality.” (See sidebar for some quotes from panelists.)
If the reason for the Summit hasn’t been made clear yet, let’s dig into brand new survey research presented at the event, conducted by Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI), which had its launch at the Summit. (The CCFI is a division of Farm & Food Care Canada, a charity with a vision to earn public trust in food and farming. It’s also an affiliate of the well-established U.S.-based Center for Food Integrity. Both organizations are made up of members representing the diversity of the entire food system. In Canada, that includes Dow AgroSciences and Tim Hortons.
The survey results may shock you. The CCFI’s brand new poll of over 2,500 Canadians found that a whopping 93 per cent know little or nothing about farming. Exactly 50 per cent are unsure about whether our food system is going in the right direction, and 21 per cent believe it’s on the wrong track. Yes, that’s less than a third of Canadians who believe our food system is going in the right direction.
So, it’s clear that the trust of many Canadians in farming and food production has been lost to some extent. This isn’t hard to understand. There was an extremely serious listeria outbreak involving lunchmeats in 2008 resulting in 22 deaths (with new recalls in May 2016), and major outbreaks of swine flu and BSE before that. In recent years, several serious instances of animal cruelty were caught on tape and created national headlines, shaking many Canadians to the core. Then there are all the countless media stories and weighty books – sometimes published within the same year – containing conflicting claims about the health benefits, non-benefits and even detriments of food items like eggs, coffee, whole grains, various types of fat and even certain vegetables and fruits. Indeed, it’s hard not to understand where consumers are coming from and how hard it is for them to keep trusting the food system at this point.
But what’s more serious – and especially relevant to farmers – is that because trust in the food system has been lost, consumers (as well as retailers and restaurant chains such as McDonald’s responding to consumers) are now in a position where they are all but dictating on-farm practices. One stunning example is the demands for Canadian egg farmers to convert to cage-free hen housing (see story this issue). Another example is the strong consumer pressure to abolish sow gestation crates, and the current growing pressure to raise poultry without antibiotics. Demand for no added hormones in beef and for more GMO-free product availability and labelling is also increasing. Outside of farming, strong demands also exist in some instances for restaurants (for example, Earl’s in Western Canada) or grocery stores to carry local – or at least Canadian – products.
Once trust has been lost in any arena, it’s hard to build it back up again. But the Summit highlighted the fact that for farmers, it’s no longer only a quest to regain public trust in agriculture, but to keep their ‘social licence’ – their very ability to dictate their own farming practices and have the general public believe them competent to look after animals, crops, the land – a ‘freedom to operate’ if you will. On that note, here are some more CCFI survey results to ponder. Less than a third (only 29 per cent) of Canadians believe Canadian farmers are good stewards of the environment. Almost three-quarters believe videos of farm animals being treated poorly are “representative of normal livestock farming.”
“Control has already been lost,” noted Summit presenter Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity in the U.S. He and other presenters suggested that perhaps building public trust in the food system starts with accepting that the social licence of farmers may henceforth always be shared to some extent with the consumer. Several speakers pointed out that this reality – that consumers these days have a great deal of influence over farmers and the food system – is not yet accepted or believed by many in agriculture. Nor is the fact that most Canadians know little or nothing about the day-to-day reality of farming understood by many of us who produce this country’s food. So, on the whole, the Summit presented a new ‘normal’ that farmers should strive to get used to as quickly as they can.
A CCFI statement published in a Summit booklet summarizes the situation well. “We see consumer alienation from agriculture and the food system expressed through concerns about nutrition, food safety, affordability, environmental sustainability, animal well-being and other issues. Some argue that maintaining public trust is a worthy goal, but not relevant to success in business. This outdated notion fails to recognize the financial benefit of maintaining trust of stakeholders who can determine the level of social license or social control an organization enjoys…Once lost, either through a single event or a series of events that reduce or eliminate stakeholder trust, social license is replaced with social control. Social control is regulation, legislation, litigation or market demands designed to compel the organization to perform to the expectations of its stakeholders. Operating with a social license means more flexibility and lower cost. Operating with a high degree of social control increases costs, reduces operational flexibility and increases bureaucratic compliance.”
It was stressed over and over again at the Summit, that re-gaining public trust must be everyone’s responsibility. The CCFI, Farm & Food Care, private companies, food and farming associations and individuals were all encouraged to bridge the gap that currently exists between consumers and farms. For its part, the CCFI will continue to research consumer opinions, questions and concerns. Its ‘Public Trust Research’ will benchmark consumer attitudes about food and agriculture against U.S. and Canadian data gathered since 2001. In addition, the CCFI will develop and highlight best practices, models and messages that build trust, and hold future Summits.
Horel thinks the CCFI is “likely a good thing.” The CPEPC Board has asked CCFI to make a presentation and will then decide if CPEPC should become a member.
McComb also thinks the CCFI is a positive step because it’s connected to its well-established U.S. counterpart and can draw on its experience. “We’re being forced by special interest groups and a lack of understanding and pseudo science,” she notes. “Consumers need to make choices and their choices are being taken away by these groups, so we need to reach around these groups and help consumers make their own choices. People want to know food is affordable and safe. And we do have affordable and safe food. The answers that we have in agriculture, the good answers, we haven’t informed consumers about them. With eggs, it’s things like the fact that the carbon footprint of farms is much lower than it was years ago, and at the same time, crop productivity is up, hen productivity is up, the soil is still vibrant and so on. Those are tremendous positives.”
McComb says the Summit was valuable “because the whole focus of it was the commonality of our problems and the things we need to face.” She believes “Consumers are confused. They have lost touch with agriculture today and we as a whole agriculture sector need to reconnect with the people who buy our products. I think it was a great start. I sat at tables, and I know others did too, with a great variety of people around me. We all thought we are islands, maybe, but we are not. We have lots of commonalities. The Summit helped us make connections, understand the problem, and come up with plans and solutions.”
EFO is working with Farm & Food Care and CCFI on concrete plans on topics like better understanding food-related trends, best public communication practices and more. “When we say agriculture, they [consumers] think food,” McComb notes. “We say food safety and they want safe food. We talk about biotechnology and they wonder about GMOs and steroids and hormones. We talk efficiency and they talk affordability. We have to modify our language and need to speak factually and passionately.”
Alison Evans, communications manager at Egg Farmers of Canada, found the Summit to be “an interesting event,” and notes that “the concepts of social license and public trust are very important to our farmers…We are active participants in a range of initiatives that promote dialogue and action on these matters, and value collaboration that benefits the entire sector. We will look forward to hearing more about the planned initiatives of the CCFI with interest.”
Turkey Farmers of Canada (TFC) Chair Mark Davies attended part of the Summit and TFC Manager of Corporate Communications Robin Redstone attended the entire event. “We felt it was a useful event and we certainly welcome the dialogue on what we agree is an important issue for the Canadian food and agriculture sector,” Redstone notes. “Going forward, TFC will continue in our efforts to address the public’s demand for information and transparency, and our organization will be assessing the proposal for involvement put forth by the CCFI.”
For its part, Farm & Food Care is working on five action points. CEO Crystal Mackay pointed out at the Summit that results for Google searches must be improved, in terms of offering Canadians more
balanced and accurate information about food and farming. (The top 10 ranked results for a Google search for the words ‘cage free,’ for example, turned up only animal rights websites and a Wikipedia entry.) Secondly, Farm & Food Care is going to invest in new online content, for example expanding its Virtual Farm tours to Virtual Farm and Food Tours. In addition, it will continue working to reach ‘thought influencers’ in Canadian society, such as Foodies, bloggers and Moms, to support the development of new resources and research, and to continue to build networks and momentum.
Let’s finish with some pertinent quotes from some of the Summit presenters, starting with UK-based food industry researcher and commentator Dr. David Hughes: “There are no passengers here. We all need to take action individually and collectively.”
Arnot stressed that information on farming and food must be more readily available, “We have to get past ‘There is nothing to hide, but it’s none of your business,’” he said. Arnot also put emphasis on a long-term view: “Success will not be defined by where you’ll be in 12 months from now. Three, five, ten years is what matters.”
“This is a moving target,” Mackay stated. “This is new territory…We need to commit to making mistakes.” She advised everyone to go back and look at their website and other materials and commit to helping each other and providing feedback across sectors. “If you’re not making mistakes, you’ve probably not doing enough,” she said. “It’s a movement – you have to move.”
Mackay believes the CCFI findings point to a huge opportunity to make a better connection between Canadians and their food. With the survey showing that 60 percent of Canadians would like to know more about farming practices, she’s very right. The overall survey results, however, suggest an uphill battle ahead.
The Public Trust Research Report is available at: http://www.farmfoodcare.org/canada/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/2016-Public-Trust-Research-Report.pdf