Business & Policy
From the Editor: Communicating with Consumers
Take consumer education back to basics
By Brandi Cowen
An oft-repeated call to action – and one frequently taken up here in the pages of Canadian Poultry – urges agriculture professionals to seize opportunities to educate the consumers who expect farmers to keep their kitchens stocked with safe, plentiful and affordable food. However, it turns out educating the average Canadian on the hows and whys of farming may be even more difficult than many of us appreciate.
An online survey conducted on behalf of the Ontario Science Centre in 2016 revealed science literacy is sorely lacking among Canadians. More than 1,500 respondents were asked about their specific knowledge of several science-based topics, including frequent headline-makers such as climate change and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While 85 per cent of respondents claimed to understand the basic science behind climate change, 40 per cent reported they believe the science is unclear despite broad consensus within the scientific community. With respect to GMOs, 19 per cent of respondents reported their opinions are based on intuition rather than science.
Further evidence of widespread science illiteracy among consumers can be found in a recent Health Canada report, which revealed Canadians have very limited understanding of the science behind GMOs. In fact, the term “GMO” itself is problematic. According to research conducted via focus groups and online surveys, “Consumers believe that genetic modification is a process which does or could include injecting fruits, vegetables, animals and food products with potentially hazardous materials such as hormones, antibiotics, steroids or other product enhancers which then fundamentally changes the nature and composition of the product.” The report flagged low levels of science literacy, coupled with an “information void” that, so far, has been filled by anti-GMO advocates, as major contributors to this consumer confusion.
These results hold an important lesson for anyone who finds themselves speaking to laymen about agriculture: going back to the basics is a must. Whether the conversation happens in the grocery store checkout line or on the farm during an educational outreach event, the ag industry needs to talk to consumers at their own level. You may often find that level is below where even the consumer perceives it to be. In these cases, helping that consumer learn what they don’t yet know may spark curiosity about the different egg choices available from their local grocery story or the use of antibiotics and hormones in poultry that they’ve read all about on the Internet. That curiosity can serve as a starting point for a meaningful conversation rooted in science and facts.
Identifying a problem is the first step in solving it. While school boards and governments wrestle with ways to address science illiteracy among children, the ag industry will have to develop its own strategies to educate the rest of the population.
And, of course, we ourselves must never stop learning. We hope this issue of Canadian Poultry offers up new information to help you grow your mind as well as your business.