Public Trust in Agriculture and Freedom to Operate

ANALYSIS - Trust is low in the Canadian food system, and this is giving consumers a previously unheard-of degree of input into on-farm and other food system practices, writes Treena Hein.
calendar icon 13 July 2016
clock icon 8 minute read

Findings on public trust in farming and food production were presented at the inaugural ‘Public Trust in Agriculture Summit,’ held in June in Ottawa and intended to “encourage continuous collaborative discussions amongst farm and food system leaders, while developing concrete actions for earning public trust.”

The research was conducted by the new Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI), a division of Farm & Food Care Canada (a charitable organisation with a vision to earn public trust in food and farming) and a new affiliate of the well-established US-based Center for Food Integrity.

Membership of both the US and Canadian CFIs spans the entire food system - in Canada, founding members include Dow AgroSciences, John Deere Canada and Tim Hortons, perhaps the county’s most popular quick service restaurant chain.

"93 per cent of Canadians know little or nothing about farming."

To many, the CCFI research results are shocking. Its brand new poll of over 2,500 Canadians found that a whopping 93 per cent know little or nothing about farming.

Exactly 50 per cent are unsure about whether the food system is going in the right direction and 21 per cent believe it’s on the wrong track. Said another way, less than a third of Canadians believe their country’s food system is going in the right direction.

But once reminded of some facts, it’s not hard to understand why the trust of many Canadians in farming and food production has been degraded.

A widespread listeriosis outbreak in 2008 linked to cold cuts produced in a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto, Ontario resulted in 22 deaths (and listeria-related product recalls again occurred in May).

The BSE crisis, along with bird and swine flu outbreaks, frayed nerves to the breaking point. Several very serious instances of animal cruelty on poultry, dairy and swine farms have been caught on tape in recent years, shaking many Canadians to the core.

Then there are the numerous ongoing media reports and weighty books published over the last decade, all touting conflicting claims about the health benefits, lack of benefits and even detriments of a large host of important food items, from eggs, soy products and coffee to whole grains, fats and more.

Social licence

But what’s more serious – and especially relevant to farmers – is that because a significant degree of trust in the food system has been lost, consumers (as well as retailers and restaurant chains responding to consumers) are now in a position where they are all but dictating on-farm practices.

For farmers, many believe it’s now no longer only a quest to regain public trust in agriculture, but to keep their ‘social licence’ – their very ability to dictate their own farming practices and have the general public believe them competent to look after animals, crops and the land – a ‘freedom to operate’ if you will.

Cage-free eggs are a big consumer demand at the moment

CCFI has found, for example, that only 29 per cent of Canadians believe Canadian farmers are good stewards of the environment. And almost three-quarters believe videos of farm animals being treated poorly are “representative of normal livestock farming.”

A stunning example of consumers dictating on-farm practices is the move towards cage-free hen housing (see stories here and here).

Whilst Eggs Farmers of Canada has committed to having all Canadian hens in enriched or cage-free housing by 2036, this point in time falls far behind demands from restaurants and all major retailers.

The new draft Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Layers was released for public comment in June. It is interesting to note that this draft set of voluntary guidelines for Canadian egg producers does not promote cage-free over other types of housing but does include new recommendations for more room in caged housing. Whether the final document will put any particular emphasis on cage-free housing is yet to be seen.

In pork farming, strong pressure from consumers and animal rights groups to abolish gestation crates in North America has also caused change.

In Canada, McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and Tim Hortons have all committed to only sourcing humane meat, and retailers Walmart Canada, Loblaws and Costco Canada have pledged within the next decade to only purchase pork from operations that do not use gestation crates.

Whilst many consumers and animal rights groups were pleased two years ago that the updated pig Code of Practice banned new construction of gestation crates so small that sows are unable to turn around, it allows the use of existing confining gestation crates to continue.

In Canada, popular fast food chain A&W is seeking to respond to consumer concern (or some would say, to create consumer concern) over many farming practices. It is differentiating itself from competitors by serving eggs from hens housed in enriched cages and beef from cows only given antibiotics when medically necessary.

A&W is also adding to the increasing pressure on Canadian chicken farmers to raise poultry without the use of prophylactic antibiotics by being the first and only national fast food restaurant to serve this type of chicken. All chicken and egg farmers across Canada have already voluntarily stopped the preventative use of ‘Category 1’ antibiotics and are working to further reduce the use of others.

Demand for more GMO-free product availability and labelling is also growing in North America. For example, despite multiple court cases, Canada has approved a genetically-modified salmon called AquAdvantage that was also approved in US about seven months ago. The Canadian House of Commons Agriculture Committee is currently studying the labelling of this fish and other GMO foods (with no GMO labelling required in Canada at this point).

In a strange twist showing the power of conflicting consumer pressures, Earls Restaurant chain in Western Canada recently announced it would only serve ‘Certified Humane’ meat (a US-based programme) in an attempt to attract consumers concerned about animal welfare.

Earl's Restaurants move to Certfied Humane beef was canned after it emerged the beef would no longer be local within Canada - an example of two conflicting consumer demands

However, angry consumers and farmers in Western Canada who felt Earl’s was turning its back on Canadian agriculture caused the company to quickly backpedal. Within a week, it pledged to go back to using Canadian beef, with a goal of finding Canadian cattle farmers who farm to “equivalent” Certified Humane standards.

On the poultry front, Freson Bros. (the largest independent grocery retailer in Alberta) just recently began offering only Alberta-raised chicken, adding to other products it offers that are sourced within that province.

Taking stock

We all understand that once trust has been lost in any arena, it’s hard to build it up again. On that note, many presenters at the Summit pointed out that re-gaining trust must be a concerted effort involving everyone – the CCFI, Farm & Food Care, food processing and farming associations, private companies and individuals involved anywhere in Canada’s food system.

The CCFI does not shy away from pointing out that economic success depends on these efforts.

It states that: “consumer alienation from agriculture and the food system [is being] expressed through concerns about nutrition, food safety, affordability, environmental sustainability, animal well-being and other issues.

"Some argue that maintaining public trust is a worthy goal, but not relevant to success in business. This outdated notion fails to recognise the financial benefit of maintaining trust of stakeholders who can determine the level of social license or social control an organisation enjoys.”

For its part, the CCFI will continue to research consumer opinions, questions and concerns. Its ‘Public Trust Research’ will continue to benchmark consumer attitudes about food and agriculture against US and Canadian data gathered since 2001. In addition, CCFI will develop and highlight best practices, models and messages that build trust, and hold future Summits.

Farm & Food Care is working on five action points. CEO Crystal Mackay pointed out at the Summit that results for Google searches must be improved, in terms of offering Canadians more balanced and accurate information about food and farming. (She noted for example, that the top ten ranked results for a Google search of ‘cage free’ turned up only animal rights websites and one Wikipedia entry.

Secondly, Farm and Food Care is going to invest in new online content, such as expanding its Virtual Farm tours to Virtual Farm and Food Tours. In addition, it will continue working to reach Canadian food sector leaders such as ‘foodies’ and bloggers, support new research and continue to build networks and momentum.

Although the situation is serious, there is hope in CCFI’s research that show 60 per cent of Canadians would like to know more about farming practices. And with hard work and time, perhaps the 50 per cent of Canadians who are unsure about whether the food system is going in the right direction, and 21 per cent believe it’s on the wrong track, can be convinced otherwise.

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