To Every Stephen, Justin and Tom: The Top 10 Things to Know About Agriculture

With one of the longest federal election campaigns in our history in front of us, it’s reasonable to expect all sectors, including agriculture, will get an unusual amount of attention.

Right now, as that campaign revs up, those who want to lead our country are still getting their sea legs.

To help, here are some agri-food morsels for candidates at all levels to chew on in advance of the October 19 vote.

1. Almost all farms are family farms. Many of your constituents mistakenly think huge corporations are running agriculture. They’re not. The public is confused about this, because comparatively few companies make vital inputs such as seed and feed. Those are the corporations. But farms themselves are run by families. The products that come off those farms are rightly heralded as local food, and it’s a selling point for agriculture.

2. Farming is important to the economy. Agriculture generates billions of dollars in sales and exports. It’s steady, and it doesn’t have highs and lows like some other sectors. In fact, it’s often credited with having saved Ontario from sinking too far into the doldrums when the rest of the economy staggered. Investing in farming is good business economically and politically, and seldom draws the ire of taxpayers. People like farmers!

3. Farmers support research, and need it. Farmers see the gains that have been made by public investments in developing new crop varieties and food products and by improving livestock health, at research-intensive universities committed to the sector, such as the University of Guelph. Provincial and federal support for research is vital.

4. Farmers must have elbow room. How can you grow food if you are tied up in red tape and legislation? Farmers need leaders’ cooperation at all levels, to help the public get the message that the availability of homegrown food is worth the occasional inconvenience of a tractor on the road, or waft of manure up the nose. It’s part of what’s called a social license. Farmers get the green light from their neighbours and from society to responsibly produce food, and society gets fed.

5. Agriculture is part of the big picture. Although farming is highly regional, that’s no excuse to set it aside in large-scale economic action plans. It is intrinsic to much of this country’s well-being, and to the better health of its citizens. Farmers produce extremely healthy food; it’s what we do to it (and to ourselves) after it leaves the farm by adding copious quantities of sugar, salt and fat to it that contributes to health problems.

6. Farmers have families, too. Those who try to portray farmers as environmental villains conveniently dismiss this. But why would farmers put their own families in harm’s way by practicing poor environmental standards? Many farms have their own environmental farm plans. They are responsible environmentalists. If they aren’t, if they don’t look after their own land and livestock, they won’t stay in business.

7. Not all is well. Farmers produce an abundance of food, but still we see headlines about food bank use at record levels. Poverty is a real problem, but it’s caused by many factors, not just the price of food. Although some people genuinely find food prices prohibitive and limiting, this year Canadians experienced Food Freedom Day by February 6, and spend just a little over 10 per cent of their entire disposable income on food.

8. People like farmers. In trustworthiness polls, farmers traditionally finish near the top, up there with first responders. Can you up your cause by having a farm photo op? It’s pretty much a campaign requirement. It’s also a chance for you to learn the truth abut GMOs, animal welfare, nutrient management and a host of other topics that are important to one of our country’s leading industries, and largely misunderstood.

9. Policies must be research based. Food and food production can be emotional issues. And while solutions to urban constituents’ problems with such production may be political in part, they must be science based as well. We need to nurture a culture that is not governed by which way the wind blows or who has more money for shock ads…but rather, by research that examines all sides and then acts in society’s best interests.

10. Misunderstanding prevails. Agri-food education is not a high enough priority in Canada, which is one reason self-interest groups can get away with smearing conventional farming. Agri-food awareness groups need your support to help the public make sound decisions – just like the ones you’ll make when you are elected.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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