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Joining the conversation

While beef producers are on the front line of issues such as antibiotic use and greenhouse gases, their voices still aren’t being heard

Crystal Mackay was surprised to learn that a national event with beef on the menu didn’t have any beef producers at the table.

Food Day Canada was created in 2003 to give Canadian beef a boost, and it’s now held annually on the first Saturday in August. Chefs across the country from small restaurants to high-end establishments create special menus as part of the celebration, giving Canadian beef a starring role. However, Canadian beef producers generally aren’t aware of the event and haven’t had a presence.

Mackay, the CEO of Loft32 and a well-known speaker on food systems and public trust, started volunteering with this event to promote it to farmers and ranchers.

Crystal Mackay.
photo: Supplied

“Chefs are really excited to profile all Canadian ingredients, which of course, Canadian beef is a rock star, and farmers and ranchers are not a part of this,” she says. “The foodie conversation is huge. There are millions of conversations happening about food every day, and farmers, chances are good they’re not part of it.”

Too often, Canadian beef producers have come up against this challenge; they’re not driving the narrative about their own industry. Their story isn’t being heard, and critics are taking centre stage when it comes to public discourse about beef production and agriculture as a whole. Public trust is arguably one of the industry’s greatest issues, especially with regard to misconceptions on nutrition and the environmental impact of raising beef.

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In 2019, the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI) released a study on public trust of Canada’s food systems, using the social media conversations of almost 255,000 Canadians throughout a two-year period on several food and agricultural practices and technologies. This study found that Canadians see farmers and ranchers as the primary stakeholders when it comes to genetically modified organisms, hormones, antibiotics and pesticides.

“Farmers are associated with these technologies more than any other member of the value chain, proving that farmers are the front line and wear the issue when it comes to public opinion,” the research summary states.

However, the voice of Canadian farmers and ranchers isn’t louder than those currently shaping the conversation on food.

“I would say that the biggest issue at the moment is marketing that has really almost spearheaded media picking up on what companies are doing,” says Jill Harvie, former manager of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association’s public and stakeholder engagement team.

As retailers introduced plant-based products, their marketing efforts drew significant media coverage that might not have otherwise captured such public attention. “Those made headlines, and then it went into a deeper conversation of plant versus animal,” says Harvie.

Jill Harvie.
photo: Supplied

The nature of the supply chain also makes it difficult for producers to be heard. “Unless you’re selling it from your farm store or marketing locally, we are removed from being able to have that first interaction with a consumer,” says Harvie.

Although programs such as the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) are working to more effectively communicate the industry’s story with consumers and build partnerships across the beef supply chain, challenges remain around building public trust.

“Building trust isn’t just giving consumers more science, more research or more information,” according to the CCFI’s website. “Our research shows it’s about demonstrating that you share their values when it comes to topics they care about most, like safe food, quality nutrition, outstanding animal care and environmental stewardship.”

Mackay, who was previously the CCFI’s CEO, references the scientifically proven model for earning trust in food production.

“Connecting with shared values is three to five times more important than facts,” she says, citing peer-reviewed research published in the United States in 2009 and replicated by the CCFI. In order to successfully connect on shared values from trusted sources, transparency is key.

“The framework for building trust starts with doing the right thing, then the middle pillar is trusted assurance systems and regulations and then the third pillar is communications,” she says. “All of that needs to be grounded in transparency and research with a commitment to continuous improvement.”

Although the Canadian beef industry has worked hard to build the first two pillars of trust, the third pillar is cause for concern; if no one knows about these positive efforts, there’s room for critics to take over the story.

“We are committed to doing the right thing, we do have amazing assurance programs and we’re within regulatory compliance. Now we need to step up on the communications and actually share that with people,” says Mackay.

While Mackay believes Canada’s food sector still needs to step up on transparency, she notes that compared to the rest of the world, Canada is at the top for transparency in agriculture and food systems.

“There’s many, many efforts across the country that have been encouraging and welcoming farmers and giving opportunities to share our stories,” she says. “We definitely should be proud of the fact that Canada is absolutely most progressive in terms of our attitude towards transparency.”

Regardless of this approach, CCFI data showed that when the public was asked how each part of the supply chain was doing on transparency, only 34 per cent of Canadians thought farmers were doing well with transparency, with the ratings even lower for retail and food service.

“Despite our — for the most part — positive attitude and willingness to share and try to tell the farm story, it absolutely isn’t being heard yet by our target audience,” says Mackay.

Seeking powerful partnerships

Working with partners outside of agriculture is crucial to strengthening beef’s message. “Whether it be Ducks Unlimited Canada, WWF down in the U.S. or Nature Conservancy Canada, having them share the good work that they’ve been doing in collaboration with industry, we are able to then tap into their viewers,” says Harvie.

The McDonald’s sustainability commercials created in partnership with the CRSB, which were seen by tens of thousands of Canadians, are particularly successful examples of how partnerships can provide a larger platform.

“That is marketing we would never be able to afford. So it is so critical that we continue to engage companies like McDonalds and others to share the good work that we’re doing.”

These partnerships drive the continued success of the CRSB and its Verified Sustainable Beef label, with new retailers and processors announcing their commitment to serve beef certified with this framework. Behind this momentum is the number of beef producers becoming certified with Verified Beef Production Plus.

A recent initiative also receiving considerable attention is “Guardians of the Grasslands,” a short documentary on the role that cattle play in conserving the Canadian Great Plains grasslands. The film, shot at the Waldron Ranch Grazing Co-operative near Longview, Alta., was produced by Story Brokers Media House, in partnership with Ducks Unlimited Canada, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and the CCA’s public and stakeholder engagement team.

While filmmakers Sarah Wray and Ben Wilson were working on a project for Canada Beef in spring 2019, they crossed paths with Kristine Tapley and Mickenzie Plemel-Stronks of Ducks Unlimited Canada. Both Tapley and Plemel-Stronks are passionate about their work with beef producers in conserving native prairie. This inspired Wray and Wilson to tell the story of the Canadian Great Plains grasslands, one of the most endangered ecosystems on earth, shot against the backdrop of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

The film has elicted a positive response since its premiere in Calgary, with numerous screenings requested across Canada and the U.S.

“There have just been so many people reaching out to us,” says Harvie. “It’s been phenomenal, so I think the momentum is there and we can continuously work together. Together we will go farther.”

Reaching people through social media

While producers are often encouraged to share their story through social media, it’s easy to be distracted by online critics who spread false claims about agriculture. By responding to a potentially damaging post, we may inadvertently give it a larger platform.

“In our defensiveness we almost amplify the message and make it bigger by re-sharing videos or re-sharing posts that are really negative,” says Harvie.

She has spoken with several social media influencers in agriculture about posting new content instead.

“Put something out that’s positive but then highlighting what was inaccurate in what you saw, because at the end of the day we do have to speak up for ourselves, but…if we just sound always defensive the experts say that’s really going to be detrimental and erode our public trust.”

Beef Advocacy Canada’s Content Corral is a great tool for finding positive content and accurate facts to share on social media.

“We have content creators from across the country, our provincial communications people as well as our team and Canada Beef and others put content up there, and when they share it from Content Corral, it’ll actually come in as an original post,” says Harvie. She also recommends creating quality video content on good news stories, as video often generates the most traction, and reaching out to friendly local media about events and positive stories.

Many find social media to be an echo chamber, as many networks are made up of like-minded people from a similar background. The challenge is to reach beyond your network and share content with the intended target audience — the consumer.

“I encourage people to think about what they have in common with people outside of the beef industry,” says Mackay, who encourages producers to share their story within existing conversations. This can also be done in person by attending events or joining groups related to that shared interest.

“For example, you may love wildlife — if you have a lot of grasslands, you’ve spent a lot of time being an active environmentalist, literally, so start looking for social channels with #climatechange, #wildlife, #environment, which is not #ag. It’s people that are interested in environment, climate, wildlife, preservation.”

Creating personal connections

Producers can actively seek opportunities to connect with individuals, as there’s power in those face-to-face moments of understanding. Harvie learned this when she reached out to a dietician who was speaking at a conference on ethical eating and invited her for coffee.

“I made a friend out of it. That first meeting, I did not tell her anything really about my farming operation or my viewpoint on ethical eating or labelling or any of that. I just listened, and I wanted to know what it’s like to be a dietician,” says Harvie, who found this to be a valuable learning experience. “Even though there were parts of what she talked about that I knew, in fact, wasn’t the case — it may have been misinformation — I felt that would be better for another day.”

After meeting a second time, Harvie invited the dietician to visit her ranch, where they spent the afternoon touring around as she shared her everyday experiences.

“It was amazing how the conversation that we had a few months ago at the coffee shop, I didn’t have to go back and defend each and every one of those. She knew that she trusted me, and so now if she has a question about grain-fed beef, she’s probably going to give me a call or send me an email instead of looking on Google.”

Harvie recommends this approach for thoughtfully engaging with individuals who share a common interest in food and have the right motivations.

“We really need to understand each other’s role in it, because she has expertise in nutrition, but I have expertise in production. I think we have so much to share with each other,” she says.

The importance of listening when engaging with others cannot be overstated.

“If we’re going to elevate the conversations around food and farming, we need to elevate our people. We need to give people that are in the industry more tools to empower them, give them more confidence and more tools to be better prepared to have these discussions,” says Mackay.

The first step is to encourage listening. Mackay gives the example of attending a community barbeque that serves beef and plant-based burgers.

“You don’t stand on a milk crate and give a lecture about why ranching is good. You sit down and you have conversations with people.”

Building on current efforts

Focusing on individual efforts to start conversations and share positive stories is an important step, says Mackay.

“Anybody that’s working somewhere in the beef sector can all step up and take a turn sharing some good information about what we’re trying to do and why and share it with heart,” she says. “That on its own is great grassroots work and will make a difference, one conversation at a time.”

While she praises current efforts by national and provincial organizations, Mackay stresses the “need for some significant investment to really turn the volume up.” Industry organizations have limited funding and can only focus on so many areas.

“When (the CCFI) asked Canadians their overall impression of beef farming or how much they know about things like animal welfare or food safety or the environment, 50 to 60 per cent of Canadians are unsure. That is not a small number, and we’re not going to move that bar by just all of us sharing stuff on our social media.”

At the end of the day, Canadian beef producers have a product and a lifestyle to be proud of, and that’s a story worth telling. Despite messages to the contrary, demand for beef in Canada is on the rise, with special diets placing an emphasis on protein.

“The numbers (on plant-based products) are not lining up with the marketing hype,” says Mackay. “The average Canadian still wants to eat beef and they’re not sure what to think about farming, and they don’t want to feel guilty about it.”

Harvie stresses the importance of staying positive when promoting Canadian beef and not letting detractors pull attention from the industry’s good work.

“We continuously need to work on the proactive. The reactive will always be there, but proactive needs to be the emphasis, because if we can get ahead of some of these distractors, I think that’s going to be where we need to go,” she says. “We have a great product, we have people who love our product, and our industry needs to continuously grow.”

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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