Consumers are farmers’ customers…eventually. But in between the farmer and the consumer is an entire supply chain, from processor, to transporter, to wholesaler and retailer, each taking their pound of flesh. Yet, if consumers demand certain items, production systems or products, it’s largely farmers, not the entire supply chain, that must adapt and shoulder much of the cost to delivering on these demands. It’s also farmers, then, that take the most risk in losing access to ways and means of producing food and food ingredients.
When consumers’ tastes change, when their value systems shift or their fortunes reverse, we see evidence of it at the grocery store. Wealthy baby boomers want health in a package, ready-made or half-way prepared. They want perceived nutritional benefits above and beyond basic food, and they’ve got the funds to support it.
Young families and urban dwellers have a new interest in food production — as evidenced by the push for backyard chicken flocks, the rise of community supported agriculture and the cropping up of organic everything.
Consumer segments are free to demand whatever it is they wish, giving farmers the choice to adapt and deliver on the demand, or stay the course and service the more general markets.
Do farmers have the same right to NOT deliver on these demands, though? If how you operate your farm business is a personal choice, it’s within farmers’ rights to access technology, to have the freedom to operate efficiently and use products already regulated and deemed safe for use and consumption. It would seem that our regulatory process in Canada is no longer enough for the discerning consumer.
Does this mean that the days of farmers operating under so-called “social license” are numbered?
Farmers are part of a supply chain and choose to be so — if consumers are the customer, the customer is always right, right? The flip side, however, is that all of us need farmers to create the raw product of our food system, but not all of us are putting increasingly stringent demands on how that food is produced. Farmers need to be profitable to continue their commitment to the career, full stop. And we know that consumer trends are not based on science or efficiency, they’re based on perception, belief systems and wants.
If enough consumers want products that flow from a very specific production system, they’ll get it — that’s supply and demand. But if enough consumers want products banned or technology eliminated from alternative production systems, is that acceptable? If consumers can choose organic food or conventional, shouldn’t farmers be able to choose the same?
The technology farmers use — especially when it concerns pesticides or biotechnology — is only accessible because it has gone through an extensive regulatory process. You can “believe” one production system is safer and better and tastier, but our regulatory process deems them equivalent, in terms of safety. So, then, if consumers have a beef with a product or technology, why can they simply ignore or circumvent the regulatory process and have it banned anyway?
In an environment of increasing pressure to ban that which offends (even if it’s only one part of the food production puzzle), “consumer demands” has become the trump card for every reason for change, regardless of how unreasonable or seemingly simplistic the change may seem (a ban or removal of access to a technology does not occur in a vacuum). The reach of that change is increasingly leaking outside of a certified production system and into farming at large.
Have we allowed consumer sentiment — based on belief, feelings and an ideal, not science, economics or production realities — too much weight? At what point do farmers stand up and say, “You have your choice of production system, but my choice is valid, too.”
At what point do farmers need to enshrine their right to access and use technology? Or are we already there?