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Public trust needs to be built, not lost [Stan Vander Waal]

APRIL 2017 | Much of the time, the public’s understanding about farming is based on click-bait articles on social media and attention-grabbing headlines. These stories are based on fear and reaction, often filled with misinformation, rather than coming from a place of truth.

One of the biggest trust issues around flower growing is over the use of neonicotinoid pesticides and the harm they might be doing to the bee population. Healthy bees are important for many crops and bee health is a complex issue. And while consumers may have scanned a few headlines, they might not have found the studies conducted in the Prairies that showed growth in bee populations even with extensive neonic use. In actual fact, there are a variety of bee health issues that the ag community is concerned about and working towards resolving – but how much does the public know about this?

If we turn the questions back to the consumer and ask how they obtained their information about agriculture, or ask why they make the food choices they make, they are often unsure of their answers.

There’s an opportunity here to put out information that actually informs rather than provokes. As producers, we need to tell our story before it is told for us. In this online world, where people’s perceptions have as much power as scientists’ facts, we must make connections before we are disconnected altogether.

We are missing out on a valuable opportunity to engage and interact with the people who are voting on decisions that will directly affect our industry and whose food spending is guided by the media.

We can’t do things like we used to – put our heads down and work hard and assume that the consumer is going to know that my flowers, my eggs, or my crops are all sustainably grown.

Connecting with consumers requires that I be willing to listen to their concerns and understand what is important to them. They are the ones who purchase the flowers that I grow, so I need to understand what they value.

Helping them understand what I do in my greenhouse to minimize pests, what I do to minimize pesticide use, and how we are investing in research to reduce the need for pesticides are all part of connecting with the consumer. As people become engaged, they become our advocates.

Agriculture-led work such as the public trust initiative through the efforts of the BC Agriculture Council (BCAC) will empower farmers to share their production practices, look for ways to adapt to changing consumer priorities, and speak with confidence and tell their stories without worrying about being misinterpreted.

We are not alone in this journey. Farmers may have the most to lose (and win), but our partners throughout the food chain and all levels of government are in this as well. By standing together and supporting each other, our message will be stronger and we can build a foundation for public trust that cannot be shaken.

Fifty years ago, you could say everyone knew a farmer and, to some degree, was involved in farming.

Sadly, that’s no longer the case. Few people know a farmer who can help them understand the changing face of farming. The distance between the consumer and the grower widens.

Food is the most intimate commodity we buy, and consumers want to hear exciting stories about new, young farmers, technology on the farms, drones, robots, advanced systems of communication, and tools for traceability and food security. Canadian farmers produce some of the safest, highest-quality, widest choice foods (and flowers) in the world. And according to The Economist, Canada ranks third among 25 countries on The Food Sustainability Index ranking.

When farmers are engaged with the public working to “do the right things,” it saves the government time and money by creating less need for regulations. Most commodity-led codes of practice are voluntary and often involve more than what is required in regulation. Engaging farmers in developing codes of practice gives opportunity for continual improvement.

We are doing very well as farmers and the public trust is there, but there is the possibility of it being eroded. When we are open to discussion with the public and offer a window into our farming practices, they will trust that we have their well-being and the health of the environment at the core of everything we do.

It’s time now to feed the hunger for information.

Stan Vander Waal is a Chilliwack flower grower (Rainbow Greenhouses) and the chair of the BC Agriculture Council.

OPINION

Headlines

Vol.103 Issue 4
APRIL 2017

CLBC April 2017 cover CLBC April 2017