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Thursday, January 23, 2020
Their View / Opinion

Survey: Canadians less connected than ever to farmers

The new federal minister of agriculture and food is being handed perhaps the most paradoxical portfolio in the country.

Food is one of humans’ most basic needs, right up there with shelter and clothing. Yet in Canada – and, I suspect, most developed nations – most of us don’t have a clue how food is produced, and how it gets from the field to our table.

But there’s hope: many of us want to know more.

New research from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, documented in its 2019 Public Trust Research report released earlier this week, shows that 91 per cent of 2,200 Canadians surveyed claim to know nothing, very little or little about modern farming practices.

It’s those practices – particularly farmers’ use of technology – that has people on edge. 

They’re on edge … but they don’t know what about.

Anyone in the food sector who saw those results and didn’t react strongly is missing the severity of this point. It’s easily the most alarming statistic I’ve ever seen related to food production.

Normally, I’d wonder how groups like the food integrity centre could suggest trust can be built between the food sector and public that is so void of basic farming knowledge in the 21st century. 

But the key is this: the research also revealed that people are intrigued by food. They want to know, but they just aren’t seeing or hearing the messages. In fact, the centre’s survey showed that 60 per cent of respondents say they want to know more about where their food comes from and how it’s produced.

So, they’re not ready to throw in the towel. But given the new survey findings, their lack of understanding needs to be addressed yesterday. Today is already too late and tomorrow is out of the question. Not knowing about food is translating into fear, such as the general suspicion many people feel about genetically modified crops, one of modern farmers’ most significant ways of using technology in the field. And fearing your own food system is a lousy way to wake up in the morning – not only for consumers, but for farmers, too.

So there’s the challenge being laid before the new agriculture and food minister – try to restore faith in the system and in farmers’ use of modern practices. The overwhelming majority of those practices are meant to produce safe, wholesome food in a cost-effective manner.

That’s not to say the minister won’t be facing an avalanche of other extremely pressing issues, including poor harvests in many parts of the country, trade issues that are stifling incomes and now the railway strike that has stalled grain and oilseed movement. No wonder mental health issues are so prevalent among farmers.

But what kind of support can the agricultural industry expect the minister to get from other Members of Parliament if their constituents don’t understand farming? It’s going to take millions upon millions of dollars to help the industry through these extremely tough times. It’s also going to take huge sums to move the public perception needle even a hair.

Everyone will need to work together and commit resources to fixing the short-term and long-term problems. The knowledge Canadians crave about agriculture will be vital, so they’ll understanding what they’re supporting when they’re asked to step up to the plate. They can’t be blamed for not knowing what’s going on in modern farmers’ fields if no one tells them.

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