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The long road to building public trust

Insights into research by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity

The long road to building public trust

Spring is the time of year on farms when everything in the world seems right. What a reality check then to read in early June that Canadians aren’t sure today’s agriculture qualifies as farming, and half of Canadian consumers are unsure whether the Canadian food system is headed in the right direction.

These are key findings from Canada’s inaugural public-trust survey on food and farming completed earlier this year by 2,510 respondents representative of the Canadian population.

The results were made public during the first-ever Public Trust Summit in Ottawa when the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CFI) was officially launched as a division of Farm and Food Care (F&FC) Canada. The second annual summit is already slated for Calgary in 2017.

Crystal Mackay Food and Far.jpg

F&FC Canada CEO Crystal Mackay is not deterred by the fact that half of Canadians are unsure of the industry’s direction since this implies they are willing to listen to what the food industry is doing to gain their trust. Already 30 per cent of Canadians believe the food system is on the right track. Only 21 per cent are sure it’s on the wrong track.

By comparison, a 2015 U.S. Center for Food Integrity survey found 40 per cent of Americans believe the U.S. food system is on the right track, 33 per cent are unsure and 27 per cent say it’s on the wrong track. The U.S centre has been researching and monitoring public trust in food and farming since 2007 and has been a great supporter of the Canadian industry’s effort to establish the Canadian CFI as an affiliate.

Mackay says Canada’s 2016 survey serves as a benchmark, a starting point that will be updated through annual surveys from now on to track the public’s trust of the food and farming industries.

The findings had a few surprises, even for Mackay, who as the former head of F&FC Ontario has been involved in monitoring consumer trends since 2001. This public-trust survey, however, digs deeper than previous research by seeking underlying beliefs and values that drive consumer behaviour. Eighty per cent of the questions are based on the U.S. public-trust model and 20 per cent on F&FC Ontario’s trend tacking model.

Mackay says the pleasant surprise was that 69 per cent of Canadians have a favourable impression of farmers, up from 61 per cent when the same question was asked in a 2012 survey, topping a list of other groups in society today, including medical professionals at 65 per cent, and friends and family at 62 per cent. Next in order came humane societies, researchers, teachers, and farmer associations that received a favourable rating from at least half of the respondents. Food retailers, government and food industry associations were all in the 30 per cent range.

Positive impressions of agriculture also rose, to a full 61 per cent of respondents, compared to 41 per cent back in 2006. That being the case, why are consumers unsure if today’s agriculture qualifies as farming?

“When we took a deeper dive into specific topics like the environment and animal welfare, we saw those warm feelings disappear. There is a disconnect between the public’s view of farmers as individuals and some farm practices and food-system issues that aren’t viewed as favourably,” says Mackay.

“The big unpleasant surprise was on the environment.” The summary results indicate that only 29 per cent of Canadians agree farmers are good stewards of the environment. Looking at the detailed breakout on that segment, Mackay finds that 64 per cent were unsure and seven per cent flat out disagree. There again, that 64 per cent unsure represents a huge opportunity to affect positive change, she adds.

Unfortunately, the effort beef producers have put into environmental initiatives over the last two decades weren’t reflected in these results.

Trend monitoring in past years indicates consumers don’t differentiate between farms. To the public, a farm is a farm.

“The important take-away message is that people don’t know about the amazing things we do, so we need to take our stories to the public in ways that reach millions,” Mackay says.

Beef producers will also be deeply disheartened to read that only 27 per cent of respondents recognized videos showing farm animals being mistreated do not represent normal farm practice. Again, the largest number, 57 per cent were unsure but 16 per cent were positive that these videos represent a typical day on the farm.

Extrapolating that 57 per cent across Canada’s population and we have 16 million people who are just not sure what to make of these videos when they appear.

“Animal welfare is a volatile subject area and the food-system concern that farms and ranches did the poorest in,” Mackay adds.

When asked to tick off which “life issues” keep them awake at night — the rising cost of food, health care or energy, the lagging Canadian economy, food safety or the humane treatment of animals — humane treatment was rated a full 10 percentage points higher than in 2012. Only the rising cost of food rated a greater increase in this section of the survey.

But when they were asked to rank the importance of five principles of sustainable food and farming — affordable food, health of Canadians, safety of food, protecting the environment and the welfare of animals — rising costs and the lagging economy ranked ahead of food safety and the humane treatment of animals. Animal welfare scored only three per cent in this section.

Mackay says the message appears to be that Canadians feel that other elements are more important in terms of maintaining a sustainable food supply, but animal welfare is still important to them.

Concern about the rising cost of food jumped 12 per cent over the 2012 result, topping the list of general worries for consumers. When looked at by category, affordable food and food safety scored higher with foodies than with millennials and moms.

Like Americans, Canadians rated having enough food to feed people outside of their own countries as their lowest life issue concern.

Mackay says the rising concern over food costs was all the more surprising because statistics consistently show that Canada is right up there with the U.S. in having the most affordable food in the world. In this survey a mere 13 per cent of respondents agreed with this statement.

Therein lies the rub when talking with consumers about food and farming. Coming at them with statistics and science alone hasn’t helped build trust in the Canadian food system. They need to believe you care about providing the safest, most affordable food. Testing of the U.S. CFI’s consumer trust model in Canada confirmed that shared values have at least three times more weight with consumers than demonstrating skill and expertise or giving them technical and scientific information.

Mackay says that’s important for all sectors of the industry to remember as they think about what can be done to get a better report card in the future.

The Canadian CFI is a collaborative network of food-system sectors including farmers, agribusiness, food companies, retailers and restaurants across Canada, who recognize that building public trust in food and farming is a long-term commitment, not an event.

Where to from here?

One of the first major projects for F&FC Canada will be to optimize the search engine on its website. That’s the process of getting enough hits on the website and links from other websites to improve F&FC’s ranking in search results. The choice of words and tags is important because phrases such as “cage-free eggs” and “factory farms” aren’t terms used in agriculture, so credible sources don’t show up in the top hits when consumers search a subject using those kinds of words, Mackay explains.

She suggests that a good place for farmers, associations and companies to start is by reading the summary report on the public trust survey at to understand where the gaps are and gain insights on how to address them to do better next year.

Farm families may not have the time and resources to tackle this complex work on their own, but they definitely have an important role. Remember, 69 per cent of consumers view farmers favourably, likely because they feel that farmers share their values.

The first step is to connect with consumers by talking about those shared values. Start by thanking the person for their question and giving a reason why the concern is important to your family before jumping into the what, how and why you do what you do on your farm to address the concern. At the end of the discussion, provide some factual information or sources of credible information.

“Share values, then experiences, then context,” Mackay summarizes. “Building trust isn’t advocating like a cheerleader on farming and food. Instead, we are having authentic conversations, so that will include acknowledging areas where we could improve as well.”

F&FC Canada’s ag advocacy kit offers tips and resources on talking with people about food and farming. The Real Dirt on Farming booklet, virtual farm tours and Best Food Facts, also on the website,, pretty much cover the gamut on what a consumer would want to know.

Whether you are confident or doubtful about your ability to have a consumer-friendly conversation about food and farming, part of an action plan could be to make a charitable donation to F&FC Canada to help in its work narrowing the gap between the public and farmers.

Even though 93 three per cent of respondents said they know a little, very little, or nothing about Canadian farming practices in general, they have strong opinions about many food-system issues that tend to be technical and complex.

On the bright side, 60 per cent of respondents said they’d like to know more about farming practices. That’s unchanged from 2012, but a big jump from earlier trend monitoring when only 20 per cent said they’d like to learn more.

“Still 93 per cent is a heavy bar to lift,” Mackay says.

Response to the survey results during the Public Trust Summit was really encouraging in that people were thankful to finally have the Canadian perspective. Detailed breakdowns with analysis on each segment will be circulated as time goes on. In the meantime, F&FC Canada welcomes enquiries for more information and insights on public trust concepts as well as developing and implementing public trust-building strategies. Email [email protected] or call 855-200-1326.

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