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Charlebois: Why consumer trust is no longer enough

With the rise of social media, the general public has used virtual forums available to them to express concerns about farming practices. We see it every day. Farmers are criticized for a variety of reasons. Our farmers’ environmental stewardship or ethical behaviour in how they treat livestock have been questioned countless times. And it’s only getting worse. But in survey after survey, we see Canadians trusting farmers, regardless of headlines or passing consumer trends. But we have now reached a point where trustworthiness may no longer be enough for farmers. The public is now expecting more.

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Farmers are arguably the best environmental stewards we have in our economy, and they know it. With livestock, it makes little sense to accuse farmers for not treating animals appropriately when their sheer livelihood relies on the health of their farm animals. Accusations are often senseless and completely uninformed. Still, assaults on farmers continue. It’s not like farmers have taken consumer trust for granted. For years, farmers have been self-advocating as well as educating the public at markets, trade shows, and in the media. Many pro-farming groups have been amazingly active. But evidence suggesting these groups are listened to by the broader public is scarce.

Organized, well-funded groups condemning farming practices on social media are now winning the consumer trust battle. While Canadians overwhelmingly trust farmers, they remain split on whether practices on farms are ethical or environmentally sound. Environmentalists and animal activists are taking advantage of this uncertainty on the part of many Canadians. Some groups are even trespassing and will visit farms to claim justice for animals. The groups that believe meat is murder are ready to do anything to influence public opinion. Over 20 incidents across the country have been reported in the last 12 months, including some in British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick. These impromptu visits pose a risk to the animals themselves, which is why some provinces are now adopting stricter rules and harsher penalties for trespassers.

It’s a mess. Our rural and urban divide is causing the trust issue to become widespread. Trust, at its core, is a social phenomenon and is far more complex than the rational assessment of consumer perceptions, measured in surveys, for example. Our perceptions are influenced by many elements of our daily lives. And for most of us, farming is an abstract concept. As our rural and urban divide increases, so is our collective failure to fully respect and appreciate differing points of view. The increasing lack of respect for farmers is fueled by consumers’ unfamiliarity with our rural economy. At the heart of the trend, however, lies the concept of trust. The trustworthiness of farmers will always be limited by the physical and rational separation of consumers and agriculture. For all intents and purposes, agriculture is one element of complex globalized food chains that few consumers understand.

Food paradoxes between trust and information have channelled a lot of discussion over the years. Some examples. While most Canadians are unable to explain what a GMO is, the majority don’t trust biotechnologies. The same goes for supply management. Many Canadians believe supply management and our quota system serves our economy well yet cannot explain how the system works. Of course, similar analogies can be made about other aspects of our lives, like cars, or aircraft. But this is food, products Canadians buy and consume everyday. Over the years, we have seen an accumulation of issues which have made consumers second-guess almost everything. Food safety incidents, price-fixing scandals, food fraud and mislabelling, trans fats, the list goes on. With food, uneducated cynicism leveraged by organized anti-farming advocacy is winning over logic and is victimizing our food systems along the way, starting with farmers. It’s been ugly.

Consumers who trust farmers are willing to accept vulnerability, which is a central part of the concept of trust. Activists, on the other hand, will capitalize on vulnerability and on the fact that food systems lack transparency. Furthermore, conflicts between retailers, processors and farmers in a highly divided food industry are giving activists a greater chance of success in making consumers feel uneasy about our food system’s prospects.

By spreading information about agriculture, about farmers and farming practices, this can go a long way. The key moving forward is to foster transparency and education. Valuing the economics of our food systems and building a case for why food is safe and affordable in our country will be vital. We could produce our food on a much smaller scale and eliminate livestock from our diets. But for most Canadians, this would not only be financially unviable, it would be an affront to their own culinary culture.

And lastly, trust is a two-way street. To be listened to, Canadian farmers will also need to listen to consumers. They are after all, by way of social media, the new CEOs of our entire food chain are consumers, as they should be.

About the author


Sylvain Charlebois is a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.



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