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Agriculture needs to be understood, and then celebrated

Federal leaders are being tongue lashed in some media and farm circles for doing little more than mouth platitudes for Canada’s Ag Day, which was “celebrated” February 23.

Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and opposition leader Erin O’Toole drew criticism from one business columnist for heaping praise and respect on farmers, instead of pointing out the economic value of agri-food to Canadians. 

The figures are impressive. Agriculture and food makes up seven per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP). It’s responsible for billions of dollars of trade and 12 per cent of all jobs – including jobs that go unfilled because people don’t understand the sector’s many opportunities, and because they shun hard work.

It’s also thought that federal leaders should have pointed out how the agri-food sector is tech savvy. Indeed it is; as a group, farmers are among the most active users of technology.

But is that what the electorate wants to hear?

I doubt it. I think it wants to hear the same things that the politicians are being chastised for saying, and Trudeau and O’Toole know it.

Here’s why. As the local food movement continues to grow, “big” is not what people think of regarding agriculture and food. Commodity groups know that. You don’t hear them boast about the size of their industry. Rather, you hear them say things like farmers are your neighbours, that the food they produce is safe and wholesome, and that families are behind almost everything that makes its way to your plate.

They say that because it’s true, and that’s what people want to hear. Although technology is absolutely essential for the kind of food production that feeds millions, it sounds cold. It doesn’t leave consumers with a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Neither do impressive statistics about agri-food’s significant contribution to the economy.

Now, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know about them and have at least an understanding of how the many moving parts of the agri-food sector come together to keep us nourished and functioning.

We should, but we don’t. And that’s where agricultural education and agricultural literacy come in.

On Monday, the federal government ponied up $1.6 million over two years to kick off Agriculture Literacy Month. Specifically, the month is earmarked for agricultural education in classrooms across the country.

Business columnists focussed on the bottom line will likely never write about this. But the classroom is where future consumers will start learning about the vast agri-food sector. And once they start buying food on their own, they’ll be savvy enough to make informed choices.

In other words, they’ll be agriculturally literate. They’ll have the capacity to, for example, have a perspective on local food and on global exports, both of which are essential for a healthy, productive agri-food system.

And what better place to get started on the drive towards an agriculturally literate society than school?

There will never be enough money for such an effort. Break down this latest government investment over two years, across the entire country, and it becomes clear much more is needed.

But maybe it’s the best Ottawa figures it can do right now.

And I suppose business writers will hold their nose at federal Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau’s upbeat quote connected to her department’s support for Agriculture Literacy Month.

“It is absolutely essential that young Canadians understand where their food comes from,” she said. “They must know what farmers’ work consists of and how hard they work to take care of their animals and our environment…to provide us with high-quality food. I encourage our young people to take an interest in the many job opportunities available to them on farms and in mechanics, electronics and engineering, science, animal and plant health and much more!”

Maybe it’s “small” talk to some. But I think it’s right on. Educate young Canadians about agriculture so they mature into knowledgeable consumers. That will enhance the depth and meaning of an agriculture celebration.

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