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.
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.