Agriculture’s standing takes a blow in poll

The agriculture and food sector is proud of its many accomplishments; most lately, its track record of keeping people fed during the pandemic.

But it should be concerned about a new poll showing support for farmers has taken a hit – at a time when you would have reasonably expected pro-agriculture feelings among the public to grow.

The 2021 Grassroots “Greenhouse” report, the third annual snapshot of public opinion about Canadian agriculture and food from Grassroots Public Affairs, shows 91 per cent of Canadians are very or somewhat confident in food grown or produced domestically.

That’s good news.

But what follows that upbeat figure is alarming, and runs counter to the belief that Canadians have gained confidence in the agri-food sector during the pandemic.

First, Grassroots found that the percentage of Canadians who believe that agriculture and food is of “very large importance” to Canada’s national security and critical infrastructure has dropped to 44 per cent from 59 per cent a year ago.

This makes no sense. Food is and was one of the first basic needs we all fretted about during the pandemic. How poll respondents can think a stable food supply at the best of times, let alone at the worst of times, is not “of very large importance” is baffling.

Similarly, there’s been a dramatic plunge in the percentage of Canadians who believe that agriculture and food is of “very large importance” to Canada’s economic landscape, down to 43 per cent from 63 per cent a year ago.

That drop suggests members of the public are ignoring the politicians and agri-food leaders who repeatedly cite economic statistics credited to agriculture and food locally, provincially and nationally.

As well, belief in the sector’s vitality and the desirability of jobs in agriculture has dropped even further in the eyes of the public. Those who think agriculture and food will to grow in the future dropped seven per cent to 37 per cent. And those asked if they’d be willing to recommend a job or career in agriculture were less willing to do so than they were in 2019.

Now, that’s an odd question to begin with, considering that Canadians know little about jobs or careers in agriculture to begin with, and would hardly know what to recommend if asked. But I suspect what came to mind for poll respondents was jobs in meat packing plants and on farms with worker accommodations – vital positions that in some cases went poorly last year, with COVID-19 infections there making huge headlines.

That won’t help the chronically understaffed sector’s dire need to attract more workers. Nor will the finding that poll respondents’ declining belief (from 92 per cent in 2020 to that 86 per cent now) that the federal government should support the agriculture and food sector. Helping attract and keep workers is one way the government has tried to provide support. 

If you could take some positives from the Grassroots report, it was that Canadians see agriculture as having a positive impact on the environment. This continues a trend in which the country appears less influenced by activists’ scare tactics about genetically modified crops and any food not labelled organic. In this case, pro-agriculture advocacy seems to be working.

As well, poll respondents said they more positive about farming after having visited a farm. That’s encouraging for popular, successful programs such as breakfast on the farm, run during non-pandemic times by the sector’s advocates, such as Farm and Food Care.

However, 70 per cent of respondents said that have never visited an “operational or commercial farm,” the kind that produce most of our food. And it’s unlikely that figure will decrease significantly, given the new post-pandemic era of on-farm safety we’re likely to enter.

The sector needs to learn from its success with environmental messages and apply them elsewhere, to reverse some of these threatening trends. It’s taken a hit, and the areas where it needs to rebound are clear.

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