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Response to ag report misses the mark

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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, titled Modern Agriculture and Agricultural Awareness Focus Groups, was delivered to the department in April, but never publicized. It now sits quietly tucked away in its online archives -- perhaps for good reason.

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

You would think a government's agriculture department would be focused primarily on feeding that country's people. According to this report, "AAFC's mandate is to work with farmers and food producers to support the growth and development of the agriculture and agri-food sector by means of policies, programs, research and technology that help producers and food manufacturers succeed in the domestic and global markets."

Toward that end, AAFC awarded a contract worth just under $100,000 to have consultants gauge public perceptions of the industry to help develop a communications strategy emphasizing the sector's importance to the Canadian economy.

"A key priority for AAFC is to communicate the role and importance of the agricultural sector in the lives of Canadians," the report says, noting the sector contributes $100 billion annually to this country's GDP. Canada is the fifth-largest agriculture and agri-food exporter in the world. The sector generates $44 billion in exports and employs 2.1 million Canadians.

The concern is, people don't seem to appreciate that or the fact the sector represents much more than what is grown on the farm.

One question this brings to mind is why this is a government priority. Does it do the same for other industries?

The consultants reported that Canadians are indeed 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."

And there is a sense that all is not well.

"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, citing "alarmist documentaries and media reports" as the culprits.

What misperceptions are they 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 keeping food production in pace with global population growth.

Other than perhaps genetically modified organisms, many in agriculture share the same concerns. Are they confused too?

Another "misperception" the authors cite is the belief among many consumers Canada lacks food self-sufficiency, or is at risk of losing it. "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.

Well, based on the food people actually eat, they aren't far off. 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 produce types 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.

• In the last half of the 20th century, Ontario paved over 49 per cent its prime farmland to accommodate expansion of the Toronto area.

Canada is undeniably a net exporter of agricultural goods measured in dollars, but consumers look at the food going into their grocery carts. By that measure, Canadian agriculture isn't all that significant.

The challenge for AAFC is to demonstrate how the contents of that grocery cart would change if agriculture in Canada disappeared.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2014 B5

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