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Is science finally winning over food buyers?

What constitutes “natural” food is always a little fuzzy.

It’s typically defined by what isn’t in it, rather than what is. Consumers want their food produced with very little, if anything, that most would consider unnatural.

That includes the likes of hormones, pesticides, antibiotics and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

And that frustrates farmers, who maintain that whatever they use to help them grow food is federally approved as safe. But consumers are afraid that anything unnatural has dire consequences to themselves and to the environment, and are typically more swayed by emotion and anti-technology rhetoric than facts.

But in the spring, Grassroots Public Affairs polled consumers and found the edginess towards additives and crop protection was lessening… not by much, but enough to raise eyebrows and at least suggest that science and its consistent message may be chipping away at the suspicion and negativity.

Grassroots, which has conducted a public perception survey about food production for the past three years, found Canadians continue to have an overwhelming distaste for what it considers “additives” (they’re more like tools than additives, but that’s a semantics argument, unrelated to the emotion that Grassroots was trying to capture).

Anyway, pollsters found the negative perception of hormones dropped to 53 per cent, from 61 per cent in 2019. That was the biggest difference among the “additives” highlighted in the survey.

Unfavourable views of pesticides have inched lower, to 81 per cent, from 83 per cent. Not much change there, but to the crop protection industry, it’s better than a spike upwards.

A question is how much of this change can be attributed to the pandemic. Is science in general considered to be less of a villain than in the recent past? Science often gets blamed for atrocities real and imagined. But let’s remember it’s researchers and scientists who were and are central to starting to control the COVID-19 pandemic.

We accept science when it’s related to health, but not when it’s used to produce food. Yet food production has hurdles of its own to clear, particularly in countries where starvation remains a daily problem. Natural approaches to food production are tough on a continent-wide scale where pests, disease and other predators are relentless. That problem is universal, and a key reason why farmers use crop protection and animal health products.

Farmers also use technology to help keep their costs down, and in turn, keep the cost of food down. When food prices increase, as they continue to do, it’s not because farmers are getting rich… they get very little of the food dollar, with most of it going towards processing and manufacturing.   

Grassroots found that those who visit a farm change their opinion about it. They’re more likely to see the use of “additives” more favourably. I was surprised that the poll revealed one in three Canadians have actually visited a farm – I thought it would be much lower.

But I’ll also be curious to see if that number moves. Many Canadians, especially those who live in urban areas, will not likely get the chance to visit a farm, although the reaction to such visits should stimulate the agri-food industry to try to make it happen more often.  

Overall, the new figures shown by Grassroots should be an incentive to the industry to keep its foot on the gas. And hopefully this sends a message to scientists and researchers who try to communicate with the public that their messages, persistence and patience may be getting through.

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