Join the ethical food choices debate

Crystal Mackay
April 20, 2018
By Crystal Mackay
I recently went back to school to join an ethical food choice discussion at a high school in our nation’s capital. Although it jarred me on some levels, it inspired me on many more. I’m sharing this experience as just one example of thousands like it that are happening online, in boardrooms and conversations about food across Canada every single day.

A representative from The Ethical Choices Program had been in the school for two days to speak with science classes with the mandate to “educate students about the impact of their food choices, inspiring them to make decisions that are consistent with their own values as related to human health, the environment and animals.” The presentations emphasized impacts on the environment and included disturbing videos of farm animal abuse.   

One teacher felt that her students needed some answers from someone with a practical, Canadian farm perspective. I have spoken about the need to join these conversations about food for years as a base for earning trust – how could I say no? So I prepared to speak to the most daunting group – a room full of upset teenagers.  

My goal was to put the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI) public trust research insights into action. Could I connect with these students with shared values? Walking the walk, I aimed to hear their concerns first. I went in for a conversation on food, not a lecture, with intentionally no PowerPoint or videos.

I only spoke for about five minutes upfront to introduce myself and my purpose, which was to address their concerns and help equip them to make informed food choices. I told them briefly about my farm experience, animal science education and unique work experience with all types of farmers and food system partners across Canada.   

Secondly, I shared the concept of the spectrum of opinions – some people are extremely against, others extremely for and most Canadians are in the middle. It sounded like the presentations they watched focused on one end of the spectrum. I was there to genuinely answer any question they had that I could, with the offer to find out more.

A bright young lady started the discussion by asking, “Is it true that if we all became vegetarians we would have enough food to feed the world?” I disagreed, providing a simple principle and visual to explain why. Approximately two-thirds of the world’s farmland can only support grazing animals – it’s unsuitable for growing crops. Thus, if we stopped using it for livestock we’d be feeding far fewer people.

The next young gentleman wanted to know exactly how animals are killed in processing plants. He also asked about specific things he saw in the videos on farms that didn’t seem right and about male layer chicks. These are all sensitive topics that we need to approach with care, acknowledging where improvements have been made and promising more to come.

After a few more specific questions, they started inquiring about my personal experiences. One student asked about the toughest time I ever had working with farmers. I chose to share a bit about an awful incident when a farmer who was dealing with several issues left many animals to die. It was horrible for the animals and heart wrenching for people.  

The farm community stepped up to help and created the Farm Animal Care Helpline in Ontario. While it was upsetting, the silver lining of this story is the students could see a real-life example of how farmers care for animals and take real action to do so. They then asked about my funniest experiences. We connected.  

This led to good discussion with a very engaged teacher about the need to acknowledge problems and work together on solutions. The students were clearly looking for actions – what could they do to help the environment, the animals and our food supply? Every petition they sign is against something. What could we ask them to be for?  

The CCFI public trust research shows Canadians expect transparency from the entire food system. This is just one small example of a conversation about food based upon the principles of shared values, listening and transparency that truly worked. Everyone passionate about the poultry industry can do more to share credible information about ethical food choices with the public.


Crystal Mackay is president of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity. For Canadian consumer insights on public trust in food and farming visit www.foodintegrity.ca.

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