Does activism have to be a four-letter-word?

First: a disclaimer. I completely agree that the Health Canada front-of-package labeling regulations, as written, are not what I want, as a consumer and as a farmer. I also completely agree that if, as individuals and as groups, people share a view they should absolutely speak up and voice their concerns, especially during the comment period afforded by our regulatory system.

Some might be somewhat offended, then, that my initial reaction to the Hands Off My Plate website and coordinated effort to comment on the front-of-package labelling was less than a ringing endorsement.

I’ll explain.

I have two main concerns: the anonymity of the website and lack of citations on “shareables.” When the website launched, I immediately wanted to know who was behind it and who I could contact for a discussion. While I could roughly discern where the movement was coming from based on the first few people who started sharing the ready-made graphics and put two-and-two together as to who it was, the first push was completely anonymous. I even asked “who is behind this?” on Facebook, and got a “PM me for details.” Not exactly transparent.

The second point is perhaps more troublesome. While I absolutely understand that many within agriculture are sick and tired of fear-mongering memes and outlandish GMO-corn-glows-in-the-dark nonsense, putting together non-cited Health Canada approved/non-approved graphics, essentially achieves the same thing, in the eyes of the “opposition” (for the sake of argument, those that are opposed to animal agriculture).

Many will applaud the fight fire with fire tactics, but it’s made me incredibly uncomfortable. Why? Because it erodes the trust and credibility we have with our customers (or would like to have).

I am incredibly proud to raise lambs as a protein option as part of a healthy diet. I want consumers to have sound, dietary information readily available to them so they can make the best choices for themselves and their family. I want food labels that are factual, science-based, helpful, and safety-based — not used as marketing tools.

For all of these reasons, I think the Health Canada front-of-package labeling rules, as stated, need work. But we also need to be real, here. Too much sugar, fat, and salt in a daily diet is not good, and if you’re looking to limit these, you need to be able to tally up the totals. So-called “processed foods” are not all evil (even milk is fortified with vitamins during processing!). Some foods that are “natural” and good for us may be high in fat and sugar. In my mind, our nutritional label addresses this — we don’t need front-of-package warnings on yogurt (but we could stand to dial down the sugar, guys). 

But I’m getting off track.

We tend to use this word with negative connotations, but let’s call the Hands Off My Plate movement what it is: it’s activism.

This push is a special interest group banding together to defend its interest against regulatory changes it views as a threat to its business.

A coordinated social media campaign, a website stocked with ready-made (non-cited) memes, links to a petition, and no names attached to it? Imagine if Hands Off My Plate was pushing lab-made “meat” and nut juice in the same format. Collectively, we’d lose our minds.

Does calling this activism make Hands Off My Plate inherently “bad”? Of course not. Whether or not activism is “bad” usually has more to do with where you sit on the issue. Most in agriculture likely see it as a great thing. And that’s OK. I just want to see activism that maintains the public’s trust of farmers and farming, and doesn’t stoop to the tactics of some less savoury activist groups.

I’m glad to see that science-backed, fully-cited infographics now are top of the list on the Hands Off My Plate “shareables” (see graphic above). Are they less impactful? Maybe. Fear and anger are powerful drivers. But I think these can be used in addition to an individual farmer’s story and experience to connect with our customers and call out this labeling change as flawed and in need of fixing.

We should absolutely be speaking up and having our views and requests heard and respected in the regulatory process. There is a reason we have a democratic process for our elected officials, why we have step-by-step timelines for regulatory changes, and why we have a comment period. There’s nothing wrong with banding together with like-minded individuals and pushing for change that aligns with your values and furthers your business interests. Let’s just call it what it is — activism — embrace it, do it right, and move forward.

Did I get it right? Or am I way off base? I welcome your feedback at [email protected]

Want to read the actual regulation changes? Find them in the Gazette here.

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Lyndsey Smith

Lyndsey Smith is a field editor for RealAgriculture. A self-proclaimed agnerd, Lyndsey is passionate about all things farming but is especially thrilled by agronomy and livestock production.

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