Public has its role to play in evolving food attitudes

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One of the things I love about my job is the opportunity to hear smart people say interesting things that prompt me to view an issue through a different lens.

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One of the things I love about my job is the opportunity to hear smart people say interesting things that prompt me to view an issue through a different lens.

I suspect the 500 delegates attending the GrowCanada conference earlier this month felt the same after listening to the lineup of big-picture thinkers over two days.

One day Ertharin Cousin, a leading expert on global food security, said the food system is broken. On the next, we heard Jack Bobo, another influential food system advocate, ask “when hasn’t it been broken?”

While the two framed the issue differently, their key message was similar: we have the means to ensure every person on this planet has a nutritious diet. At issue is whether we have the will and how we will manage the compromises needed to make it happen.

Bobo, director of global food and water policy at The Nature Conservancy (Global) and Nature United (Canada), and author of the book Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices, wants to reframe the conversations we have around food to be less confrontational.

“I used to tell people that my personal mission was to de-escalate the tension in our food system so that we could all get about our business of saving the planet in our own way,” Bobo said.

He offered some sage advice to all who eat, produce, process, market and write about food and agriculture.

For starters, when talking about the future of food, it’s time to shift the focus from either-or scenarios or debating which system is best. It’s not a competition.

“You may have heard that millennials have the highest rate of acceptance of plant-based foods,” Bobo said. “They also eat meat at the highest rates… that one doesn’t make as many headlines.”

“If you just hear the first one, it makes it feel like plant-based foods are sort of somehow in opposition to other foods and that consumers are pushing for one or the other,” he noted.

The reality is that global demand for protein could rise between 50 per cent and 100 per cent by 2050 as population grows and people’s incomes improve. “We actually need alternatives to come in and help to meet some of these future needs.”

Secondly, different sectors would learn more from each other if they stopped trying to discredit each other.

“Part of what I’ve come to realize is that organic farmers are solving problems in ways that the larger growers probably aren’t. And things like cover crops may have may not have come to the fore had not some organic farmer believed in her heart it was the right thing to do. Then Big Data came along and proved it right.

“This transfer of information from one part of the system to another, I think is part of its strength,” Bobo said.

Thirdly, the language used to describe innovations in agriculture and food matters. For example, terms such as “synthetic meat” don’t resonate well with consumers, “clean meat” implies that animal protein sources are dirty or unethical, and “natural” loses its warm, fuzzy appeal in the context of naturally occurring foodborne illnesses.

“Consumers have never cared more nor known less how their food is produced. They want their food purchases to reflect the values they hold,” he said. “We need to understand that. But if they don’t understand the agricultural system, the things they ask for may not deliver the benefits they want.

“How do we reframe this conversation so that the innovations that you’re applying in the fields are things that people are excited about?” he said, noting there is a difference between “beating people up” with science and leading them to knowledge. “People like to learn things. They don’t like to be told things.”

Bobo acknowledged it’s a communication challenge, but emphasized earning consumers’ trust is essential. “Science tells us what we can do. But ultimately, it’s the public that tells us what we should do.”

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at lrance@farmmedia.com

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