Not too many people farm in Canada, yet everyone needs to eat. And these days, you don’t have to look very hard to find a conversation about food or farming. Almost everyone has an opinion on at least one of those topics, and whether or not the opinion is well-informed seems to be of little consequence.
Conversations about food and how it is produced are fraught with a complex list of terms and buzzwords. Sustainability, social license, local, welfare-friendly, antibiotic-free, corporate farming, stewardship, back-to-the-land, free range, Big Farms, labelling, public trust, Big Pharma, certified, natural, eco-friendly, organic, genetically modified, free-from-added… the list goes on. And on. Restaurants and retailers employ no shortage of marketing schemes to promote their products as superior, and in my opinion, sometimes exploit consumers’ lack of understanding or underlying guilt in order to sell food.
In the past, Canadian farmers had an implicit “social license to operate,” meaning the public trusted farmers to produce food without asking too many questions. Perhaps stakeholders and consumers placed their trust in farmers because more people had stronger connections to rural roots and they had an intrinsic understanding of agriculture. Now, thanks to advertising and media as well as a large volume of information available on-line, much of which is unscientific and even downright false, it seems as though the public trust in Canada’s food production systems need to be maintained, and in some cases, earned back.
The concept that farmers need to maintain or work to earn a social license to operate really used to (pardon the agricultural pun here) get my goat. Who do these people think they are, telling me what to do, how to make my living and how best to care for my land and water? Don’t consumers understand how hard farmers work? Doesn’t the public get that we are doing everything in our power to produce safe, high quality food to feed their families while hardly making our own ends meet? Don’t they realize the challenge farmers have to produce more food with fewer resources?
The reality is, most consumers don’t understand modern agricultural production practises because only 2% of Canada’s population is actually tied to the agricultural sector. That leaves 98% of our country’s people whose main interaction with food is through purchasing it at the grocery store, where confusing campaigns, guilt, and buyer’s remorse thrive. No doubt consumers have questions.
But what’s a farmer to do?
It’s hard to expect consumers with no agricultural context to understand what farmers do, unless we explain it to them in a concise and respectful manner. We should not just wait until there is a crisis to address, we need to start initiating regular, everyday conversations with regular, everyday consumers. Start a conversation at the rink, in our schools, at a restaurant, during music lessons, in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, in a grocery store, and with our non-farming friends and family. These visits won’t be loud and they might not make any headlines, but these conversations are the ones that count. Rather than defend our production practises, we need to explain them, and share the benefits that they offer the environment, our animals, our land, and our water.
When it comes to social license, some would argue that the consumer with their almighty dollar is in the driver’s seat. But farmers shouldn’t be content to ride shotgun. Farmers can and should start navigating the road to respectful and productive conversations about food with the public. There is simply too much as stake and we can’t afford to lose our social license to operate.