March 5, 2009
The Real Dirt on Farming I
The pros and cons of how Canada's agricultural commodity groups communicate with the Canadian public.
In early February 2009, I was asked to speak at the Annual Policy Conference of the Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) in Ottawa.
DFC likely carries the strongest voice of any agricultural commodity group in the country and so it was an honour to be invited.
Having covered the food system in depth for over three years, I was asked to share my observations of the changing perspectives on food and agriculture by the general public.
In the spirit of Deconstructing Dinner, my talk focused on the deconstructing of an industry and government funded publication produced in 2006 titled "The Real Dirt on Farming". The glossy magazine-style publication continues to be distributed en masse as a tool designed to dispel the perceived myths surrounding the food system among urban Canadians. As is suggestive by the content of the publication, it appears that Canada's agricultural sectors are concerned about the growing consumer interest in organic food, small-scale agriculture, animal welfare, and food safety among others.
The lead organization behind the publication is the Ontario Farm Animal Council (OFAC). Funding and editorial support came from virtually every commodity group in the country (beef, chickens, canola, eggs, pork, soybeans, etc.).
The Dairy Farmers of Canada were one of the groups providing this support.
The following is a series of excerpts from my talk on February 5, 2009.
"So that brings me to the public perceptions of farming and food. It's clear there's a lot of confusion out there as to where our food comes from and how it's grown. But at the same time, there is a growing urban population in this country who are becoming pretty knowledgeable about farming and food. They may not understand soil, or weather, or what a cow looks like when it's ill, but they do see the big picture - the relationships between food and everything else."
Onto the screen flashed an image of the cover of The Real Dirt on Farming.
"Now here was one of the most aggressive efforts by the various sectors in Canadian agriculture to respond to this confusion, and, in some cases, what was perceived as confusion. And I think the idea behind this [publication] is great, it's clear that all sectors recognize the need to communicate with the public... and that's what we need, more dialogue. But there's another side to this publication that I have to be critical of because there's much within this publication that lends itself to being an instrument of war against the consumer. And so I want to deconstruct a few sections of this publication and share with you how I believe some Canadians would react to the statements found within this publication. I hope by taking this publication apart, that some thought will be provoked around whether the general public's perceptions about farming should be challenged or embraced (or maybe a little bit of both)."
The slides continued with actual excerpts taken directly from The Real Dirt on Farming (as seen in italics).
"Can we return to smaller, more traditional farms? No, not unless many Canadians are prepared to leave cities to go back to the farm, work long hours and pay much more for food. With only two per cent feeding the rest of us, it's impossible to go back to many small farms"
"Now regardless to what extent small farms can play a role in providing Canadians with food, there is one thing that's certain... the answer to that question could be yes, and I'll share examples of why in just a moment. As for Canadians being "prepared to leave cities", I happen to know of a growing population of young people in this country who did not grow up on farms, and who are eager to become small-scale organic farmers."
"What are "natural" or "organic" foods? All unprocessed food is natural. The question is how it's produced."
"Now this is good, this is a wonderful example of confusion that exists among the public, but I would say the efforts in this guide are only going to create even more confusion. For one, there are many Canadians who do not believe that all unprocessed food is natural and here in this publication is a shining example of why."
"Research continues into improving animals with biotechnology but isn't on the market just yet. For example, work is underway on an Enviropig, which has transferred a gene from a mouse into a pig's salivary gland to allow the pig to digest more phosphorous and eliminate the need for supplements."
The paragraph did not require much more explanation!
A continued deconstructing of The Real Dirt on Farming as was done at the 2009 conference of The Dairy Farmers of Canada will continue as part of next week's column.
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