It’s better to talk about the shared values that you have with a consumer than to start spouting facts.
“We are not going to advertise our way to public trust,” Crystal Mackay of Guelph-based Farm and Food Care told an audience of ranchers, food executives and beef industry officials at the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef last month.
“This is built on doing the right thing first and communicating it second. This is also a business issue. It doesn’t matter how efficient and modern and innovative you are or how much you invest in animal health, biosecurity and traceability if your next-door neighbour doesn’t give you permission to grow cattle.”
The skepticism that many Canadians have about how their food is produced shouldn’t surprise anyone in agriculture as this same trend has long been happening in other countries, said Mackay, who grew up on a beef operation.
According to a recent survey, 93 per cent of Canadians know very little or nothing about farming, she said. This should be viewed as an opportunity to talk to consumers, but it requires all members of the supply chain to come together as a team to communicate with the public, she added.
One of the newest players on the team is the Centre for Food Integrity, which opened in June. On its website, the centre says it wants to foster “a balanced public discussion about food and agriculture,” but Mackay said one of its main functions is to find out what Canadians think.
For example, one recent survey found about half of Canadians are not sure whether the food system is headed in the right direction or not. Mackay sees this as good news rather than bad.
“I’m an optimist. I’m thinking that’s a great opportunity to have a conversation with people,” she said.
The centre also found keeping healthy food affordable is important to Canadians, especially Albertans, and about 61 per cent of consumers have a positive impression of Canadian agriculture.
“But 61 per cent won’t get you into vet school,” said Mackay. “We still have work to do, but it’s definitely a positive trend line for us in Canada.”
Consumers are confused about hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, and genetic modification.
“If you’re a member of the public, they’re all just one nasty mess of unnatural something and consumers feel equally concerned and have questions about all of them,” she said.
But she also pointed to the huge backlash to Earls Restaurants’ short-lived decision to source its beef from a U.S. supplier of Certified Humane brand meat.
The ag industry shouldn’t get too worked up about criticism of its practices, but instead welcome the fact that “our country is hungry for a conversation about our food.”
“Embrace skepticism and embrace choice,” she said. “Isn’t choice awesome? The fact that people can criticize you with their mouth full is awesome.”
And when faced with criticism, resist the urge to rely on experts spouting facts. Connecting with consumers on shared values is five times more important than the facts, she said.
Start the conversation with consumers by talking about shared values, such as respect for the environment. (Mackay noted recent surveys place farmers near the top of the list for credible information on the environment, even above David Suzuki.)
“Breaking stereotypes and connecting to people is key,” she said. “If I had to give everyone one word of advice, it would be to connect as people first.
“You’re committed to the food industry and you’re passionate about it. Figure out what that story is, and start with your heart.”