What’s the value of public opinion?

That’s a question I find myself asking more often these days. In a democracy, public opinion should matter and politicians and policy makers should have a strong understanding of the people’s will when making public policy.

But should they give the people what they want?

Today we have no shortage of public opinion. But whether it has any value or should inspire any action is a big question.

So, what does all this mean from a food and agriculture perspective? In recent weeks, Angus Reid has asked Canadians about their perceptions of everything from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food to Canadian farm and food production systems like supply management.

More than half of Canadians believe beef in this country is supply managed.

The first poll on GMOs looked at Canadians’ knowledge of the technology and whether food containing GMOs should be labelled. When the opinions of 1,500 Canadians were tallied up, 83 percent of Canadians said at least some GMOs should have mandatory labelling, but they really didn’t know what types of GMOs should be subject to a labelling policy.  Further, 84 percent of people questioned in the survey admitted that they know little or nothing about GMOs in food and don’t understand the technology.

On the heels of these insights emerged another Angus Reid poll on supply management in Canada. This was no doubt inspired by North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiations and the need to understand Canadians’ attitudes toward the production system which controls egg, milk and poultry production, and the goal to match supply with demand for these food staples.

The results painted another picture of confusion and misunderstanding with 52 percent of those surveyed believing the Canadian beef industry is supply managed. Here again Angus Reid noted the troubling lack of ag and food knowledge: only four percent of those surveyed indicated they had a strong understanding of supply management and how it worked.

Out of all this we’ve learned that Canadians don’t know much about GMOs or supply management. Do these perceptions really matter? The hard truth is that when negative perceptions of food and ag technology become people’s reality, farming and food can get a lot tougher – it becomes much easier to legislate restrictive laws and regulations, especially if vote-hungry politicians pander to misinformed public sentiment. It’s also easier to make deals during trade negotiations when the public doesn’t understand the benefits of a system like supply management.

Another product of misinformation is increased fear of our food and how it’s produced. Unfortunately, there are opportunistic food processors and retailers who will choose to pursue profit while tearing down the integrity of our production system. A&W and its efforts to promote, and cash in on, unfounded fear of hormones in beef is just one example.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to leave out the role played by politicians. It has certainly become more difficult for our public service policy makers to push back against the ever-increasing politicization of the public service over the past 30 years. Political parties now have a much greater ability to shape policy from the top down, making the public service an implementer of rules and regulations rather than a thoughtful developer and inventor of policy that supports the technology and innovation required by the farm and food industry.

For Canadian farmers and industry representatives, the real value in these polls is understanding the challenge that lies ahead in fostering an engaged and informed public that understands where their food comes from, how it’s produced and the regulatory rigour that we commit to food production in this country.

These polls also confirm that the battle for an informed public must be fought from the ground up. Efforts to promote understanding, create transparency and educate must travel along the value chain, wind through the public service and reach the halls of political power. Then of course there’s the challenge of communicating with consumers while activists and fear entrepreneurs erect minefields of misinformation.

Public opinion polls must stiffen our resolve. That’s the reality for food and agriculture.

4 thoughts on “Building Canadian food and farming attitudes from the ground up

  1. So with all the access to information at our fingertips, people know less than ever before. Im not saying modern technology is bad, but it is not doing much in terms of educating the public to a higher knowledge.

    Less involvement from governments with regard to all aspects of food would be better for all.

  2. Excellent analysis of the current state of the “Food market” Bern. Science requires education and as formidable as the education challenge is, we need to respond. Information in the school system is critical moving forward.

  3. Bernard, this is a great article, thanks for writing it. I definitely agree with your statement that “The hard truth is that when negative perceptions of food and ag technology become people’s reality, farming and food can get a lot tougher.”

    Should public opinion — as it relates to agriculture or food — offer any value or should it inspire any action? That’s a discussion which has been going on for generations. My grandfather’s generation had to deal with public opinion around spraying a lead arsenic on apples as a pesticide. My father’s generation had to deal with public opinion on DDT and its use in food production. Looking back at how manufacturers, governments, politicians, Ag groups, farmers, scientists, advocates and activists dealt with public opinion in those situations is very interesting. Personally I feel that all the talk back then from manufacturers (and even governments) about “fallacies”, “uninformed public”, “no scientific proof”, and “unfounded fears” only cemented negative perceptions of food and ag technology as the global body of knowledge around science and the environment evolved.

    Framing public education as a “battle” which needs to be “fought” seems to be a step backwards into my grandfather’s generation. Fostering engaged, informed, 2-way conversations between the public AND Canadian Farmers over dinner seems to be a more modern approach.

    I am happy to learn about where every bit of my food comes from and how it’s produced; however, know that if you’re setting the bar that high, I’ll be expecting the same of Canadian Farmers and industry representatives. Last year when I asked a few neighbours and friends what happened to their cash crops, few could tell me anything more than what elevator they dropped it off . Heck, two farmers couldn’t even tell me in certain terms if the inputs THEY GREW were most likely to be fed to people, fed to animals, processed into non-food products or any combination there-of.

    Is it fair to expect my family to understand who grew my food and how it was produced if the farmers who grow the inputs are not expected to understand who (if anyone) will be eating what they grow and how it will be processed?

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