During February, Oprah Winfrey famously challenged her viewers to adopt a vegan diet (no animal products) for a week and took her cameras inside a Cargill meat processing facility. Cargill won kudos from around the industry for its transparency – and its ability to communicate a commitment to values shared by the livestock and meat industry and consumers, specifically the humane treatment of animals and a safe and abundant food supply.
With rising commodity and food prices, a growing awareness of world hunger, and an increasing desire among consumers to understand where their food comes from, agriculture is a top-of-mind issue for everyone, and not just for those of us in the industry. And, as shown in the Oprah example, our industry is often fighting the threat of consumer misperception, if not in other cases outright misinformation, or even “junk science” – fueled by a 24-7 media culture.
One key to continued innovation in agriculture – and expanding our capacity to feed the world – will be speaking out for modern agricultural practices and our stewardship of precious natural resources – most notably water.
Experts agree that to meet the needs of a growing population we will have to double global agricultural production in the next 40 years, and we will have to do it with less water than we have today. In fact, it’s estimated that within 15 years, depleted groundwater throughout the world could cause losses equal to the entire grain harvest in India and the United States combined. Fortunately, agricultural technology is providing a big part of the solution. These technologies include hybrids that better withstand drought, crop protection products that allow the adoption of moisture-retaining farming methods, and innovative irrigation, farm equipment and information management tools. We can meet the growing water challenge, but only if we keep the door to scientific innovation open.
Here in Canada, we are fortunate to have a strong Federal science-based regulatory system that ensures our food supply is both safe and abundant and supports scientific innovation. The science around biotechnology and pesticides is highly regulated and rigorously reviewed by Health Canada. Agriculture has demonstrated the powerful, positive impact it can have on community welfare and poverty reduction. Without the use of pesticides, for example, it is estimated that up to 40 percent of the world’s crops would be lost to insects, weeds and disease. Our industry must continue to work together to increase awareness for the benefits of modern agriculture – and ensure that political agendas do not replace science-based decision making.
According to results from a recent online study by Ipsos Reid, more than half – 57 percent – of Canadians surveyed have a positive impression of agriculture in this country, a figure that has risen 16 per cent since the survey was first conducted four years ago. We have been doing a good job connecting with consumers, but we can do more. One place to begin is by communicating the economic benefits of agriculture to Canadian society. For example, our agriculture and agri-food sector employs over 2 million individuals, representing almost 13% of Canadian active manpower and directly providing one in eight jobs. And, we must tell the story of modern agriculture in a thoughtful, compelling way. The old fashioned image of the farmer in overalls and a straw hat is long gone. Farmers today are university-educated, many with graduate degrees and MBAs. Whether running small family farms or multi-million dollar operations, we need to communicate that today’s farmers are well-informed businesspeople committed to providing Canadians with a safe and abundant food supply and ensuring our quality of life, while fighting global hunger.
This is an incredible moment in the history of food production. We have never had so much technology and knowledge to work with, and we have never had so much on the line. We can either put our heads in the sand and hope that other people will fix the challenges we’re facing – or we can take this opportunity to speak out for Canadian agriculture and help shape our own future.