What does it take for farmers to earn public trust?

Whenever the buyer wavers because of uncertainty, Canadian food producers and processors hold their breath.

As a followup to the last column we ask the question: What does it take to earn public trust? A few initiatives are underway to answer that question and address the concerns that consumers have already expressed. It is not that the public does not mistrust farmers — they just don’t know them.

The rural road is long and certainly the one less travelled. As farmers in Canada we do have an advantage as our density in animals and humans is very low and our environmental footprint is light. That could keep us out of the spotlight but it does not take us out of the game when it comes to ensuring we have earned the public trust or have the social licence to operate.

As Canada remains commodity driven with very little understanding of the value in value added, especially in the West, it is hard to measure our success in transferring benefit back to the farm. During the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI) Forum on Canada’s Agri-Food Future, the reality check on Canadian exports read like an obituary: a lack of global offices in Canada, a total absence of global retailers pushing Canadian product and an increase in foreign ownership of our own food production and processing industries, no world class Agricultural University, complacency and a fear of investing in our own country. Glenn Hodgson, chief economist for the Conference Board of Canada, reflects on the food export side describing it as: “Canada’s subpar export performance.”

All this is happening at one level while in our communities one of the questions on the mind of our friends, the consumer, is simply: Is my food safe? Crystal Mackay, CEO of Farm & Food Care Canada describes public trust as: “A belief that activities are consistent with social expectations and the values of the community and other stakeholders.” Is the farming and more precisely the beef industry aligned on social expectations?

There are lingering thoughts that consumers express in areas such as human and animal welfare, food safety and personal health, additives, environmental stewardship and business ethics. Perhaps the most concerning at this point is also our ability to operate without interference in regards to the use of natural capital. This most certainly was front and centre at the (CAPI) forum. The question of how we produce more without depleting natural capital was prominent even with our low environmental impact. More importantly, pinpointing our responsible use of natural capital as a competitive advantage was very difficult. Despite the cry for agro-responsibility, very few products recognize or reflect natural capital enhancement in pricing.

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Whenever the buyer wavers because of uncertainty, Canadian food producers and processors hold their breath. What we have failed to achieve is full social licence to operate. Again, Mackay offers a clear definition: “The privilege of operating with minimal formalized restrictions based on maintaining public trust by doing what’s right.” And so we return full circle to the discussion of public trust.

At this point you may be asking yourself if this is a passing phase and if industry is going to go through the motions, only to have the line moved yet again. On the issue of trust, I think it is fair to say that it comes in alignment with core principles and beliefs and those beliefs are being fed and nurtured each and every day by persons outside of the agricultural realm. Social media and the tribal context in which we communicate reduces old systems to ruins in short order and the core of the buying decision is based on what a person believes, which is influenced by the information they have been exposed to. The point here is: we need to be transparent in our discussion and develop a trust relationship. And that means more than just talk — it must be a demonstrated trust.

Journalist Amanda Lang said it perfectly at the forum when she exclaimed that in agriculture we do not “talk enough about winning” and “that no one really tells this story.” The whole food value chain is a big story with great untapped potential, committed people and it needs to be taken seriously. We start by telling the story to our consuming public through AgMoreThanEver and The Real Dirt on Farming but what of a national movement to understand the value economics of trust? The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity will launch with a Public Trust Summit in May. Agriculture gets to weigh in on the concept of assurance and validations systems that deeply may impact farming and food processing.

Putting public trust on the plate in a bid to earn social licence does not mean we have to give up anything nor should it deliver directives that are so strong from government, retail or food companies that we are driven to the lowest common price just to achieve export volume. When growth in Canadian companies dwindles and exports fail that is not the failure of the farmer — it is a weakness in the system.

Our food-processing industry in Canada is really poised for potential growth and they need an enabling environment in which to succeed. Sylvie Cloutier, Canadian Council of Food Processors, has shared with me this example: the EU will not accept food products from GMO crops and we have to accept their definition of value. Our licence to operate in their market is based on their trust of our product and validated compliance with their needs.

Earning public trust has many layers and may need radical collaboration which is really a call to demonstrate our willingness to work together for the economic benefit of the entire food system — within and beyond the farm.

This article was originally published as, “Demonstrated trust,” in the March 2016 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

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Contact Brenda through her website: www.brendaschoepp.com. All Rights Reserved. Brenda Schoepp 2018

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