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This article was published 6/2/2016 (417 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Nearly every farm-conference agenda these days contains one or more speakers talking about consumer attitudes to farming, food and agriculture’s "social licence.’
The titles are often provocative, as in "Will farmers be allowed to benefit from new technology?’ or "Don’t let your silence take away your licence to farm,’ and "Don’t let activists drive your combine.’
The presentations offer what is usually very good advice on how farm folks can communicate with passion and conviction about what they do.
However, they often perpetuate the view that reassuring a skeptical public can be accomplished by deconstructing the criticisms and discrediting the critics.
A report by the Canadian Agricultural Policy Institute points out that gaining and keeping the public’s trust is a much more complex process than can be achieved by a communications exercise or exchanging retorts through blogs and tweets.
The institute, which describes itself as an independent, non-partisan policy catalyst, has just facilitated a sector-wide discussion on the question of trust and concluded it must be earned, not claimed.
"The view emerged that consumers should confer such a label rather than see the sector or government declare it so,’ the report says.
This is a problem for modern agriculture, which has become increasingly cloistered within bio-security, intellectual-property rights and its convoluted stance on labelling.
For example, food producers have fought vociferously against labelling foods made with genetically modified crops, saying it would be too costly and such information is meaningless when GMO crops produce the same quality of ingredient as non-GMOs.
Yet the same industry is perfectly willing to use labels claiming "gluten-free’ or "trans fat-free,’ even on products that never contained them in the first place.
It didn’t matter to the skeptics that foods containing GMOs are, for all intents and purposes, the same as those that don’t. What mattered was the lack of transparency, which played right into the anti-GMO campaign’s ability to say, "Well, if there is nothing to hide, why are you hiding?’
The institute’s process is an attempt to get the food and agriculture industry in Canada thinking proactively about how to position itself for the future, using trust as its beacon.
"It is in Canada’s best interest — both economically and for the well-being of its citizens — to see that the country’s agri-food system delivers a strategy to enhance and retain trust,’ the report says.
"This goal requires a new spirit of collaboration, one that includes a dramatic change in how scientists, policy-makers and industry collaborate and tackle innovation priorities.’
The report identifies four challenges, starting with achieving that all-important social licence through transparency.
Secondly, it says Canada must look for ways to leverage its natural advantages into global competitiveness, which may require rethinking how subsidies are used. While well-intended, subsidies have unintended consequences, such as overproduction, suppression of crop prices, intensifying animal diseases, resource depletion, pollution and climate change. Those consequences are not factored into the costs of these programs.
The report calls out Canada’s complacency about adding value, noting it is seemingly content to remain a commodity supplier. It is also seen as a laggard at investing in innovation and being proactive on important issues such as establishing trade rules.
It says the sector is fragmented, "with each part narrowly defining what is in the ‘national interest,’ undermining the potential leverage required to attract greater support on important issues.’
While much of the talk around Canada’s global competitiveness in agriculture is built around production potential and marketing prowess, this report strikes at the heart of what the sector needs to do.
"How we cultivate trust may very well be the key to future competitiveness,’ it says. "Securing trust requires greater transparency about food practices and their impacts, as well as credible national metrics that measure and demonstrate performance.’
"This is the route to attain the sector’s ‘social licence’ to operate, express Canada’s food brand, and improve productivity across the food system."
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator and editorial director for Farm Business Communications. She can be reached at email@example.com or 204-792-4382.