Can Farmers Help Consumers Trust Agriculture?

St. Catharines, Ontario. Photo via Tim Hortons.

Canadians like farmers. There’s no better proof than Tim Hortons’ recent efforts to sell its Farmer’s Breakfast sandwich with a commercial featuring a farmer holding a trusty pitchfork.

Canada’s coffee and cultural giant doesn’t leave much to chance. The mountain of eggs, sausage, hash browns and cheese could have called Trucker’s Breakfast or Banker’s Breakfast, but when it came down to making Canadians feel good about reaching for a 500-calorie meal, farmers won the day.

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61% of Canadians have a “very or somewhat” positive impression of Canadian agriculture according to a new national survey released by Farm and Food Care (FFC) and the Canadian Centre For Food Integrity.

But before farmers get too full of themselves, they need to take a closer look at the Canadian Public Trust Research released last week, by the newly-minted Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, the research division of Farm & Food Care.

The survey polled more that 2500 Canadians. Overall, the impression of Canadian agriculture was quite strong, with 61% of those surveyed indicating they had a positive view of Canadian agriculture, the highest score the industry has ever received on this question since the first survey 10 years ago.

The story, however, is not so warm and fuzzy when you consider the answers to questions about specific farm practices. For example, 48% said they are personally concerned about the use of hormones in farm animals; 46% are concerned about the use of pesticides in crop production; 45% are concerned about drug residues in meat, milk and eggs; and 41% are concerned about eating food that comes from genetically engineered crops.

Perceptions of how farmers are managing the environment and their animals are also cause for alarm. Only 29% said they believed that farmers are good stewards of the land while even fewer — 27% —said they believed that videos of farm animals being treated poorly are not representative of normal livestock farming.

Farm & Food Care CEO Crystal MacKay said she was surprised to see “how much trust we’ve lost specifically around animal welfare…in the last four years” (since the last survey).

Exposés are likely “one piece of the puzzle. The other piece is when we ask people where they go for their information on animal welfare,” says Mackay. ‘Google’ and ‘online’ are the top two answers, followed by ‘family and friends’.

“When you Google some of the most popular topics on animal welfare, we’re not there,” says MacKay. “By ‘we’, I mean credible information about how we actually care for animals. All the critics are there. They are definitely owning the online conversation.”

Another challenge pointed out in the study is the lack of trust that millennials (those aged 18 to 34) have in the food system. In general, they tend to have less trust in traditional information sources. For millennials, “you have to prove it, they’re more evidence-based and more likely to believe an advocacy group than anybody that’s remotely profit driven,” notes MacKay.

“The reality of industry groups and food companies, even the government, being a trusted group for millennials at this point does not look good.”

MacKay believes the agriculture and food industry needs to do a better job of communicating with millennials. “They are the next generation that is going to be shaping policy, buying decisions and it’s really in our best interest to have a conversation with them.”

MacKay is convinced that agriculture and food can indeed win the battle to shape public perception. “The good news is the overall impression of farmers and the interest in knowing more about farming – that is a huge opportunity.”

In the survey, 60% of consumers said they would like to know more about farming They also rated farmers as the most favourable source of information on food and farming at 69%, ahead of doctors, nurses and medical professionals (65%); family and friends (62%); humane societies (59%); scientific or academic researchers (57%); dieticians (57%); teachers and schools (53%).

“Let’s have a conversation, let’s give (consumers) credible information,” says MacKay. “They’ve never been more hungry for credible information.”

Maybe it’s time for a countrywide farmer’s breakfast at Tim Hortons?

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