Agri-retailers play an important role in helping agriculture defend its practices.

Google “GMOs” or “pesticides” and odds are good that your top hits will be a confusing mix of scientific data, activist rhetoric, anxiety-ridden reporting and misinformation.

It’s the latter that has agricultural producers and agri-retailers most concerned; the more consumers believe common misconceptions about modern farming methods, the less “social license” farmers have to do their work, and the harder the industry at large must work to gain public trust.

But a new “agvocacy” movement has arisen in Canada that aims to tell positive stories about the agriculture industry – and encourage producers to tell their own stories.

Agri-retailers have a key role to play in countering negative narratives with positive messages about farming. Far from being passive observers, agri-retailers are at the front lines of the ongoing fight for the social license to farm.

Society’s Permission to Operate

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture defines social license as “the ongoing level of acceptance, approval and trust of consumers regarding how food is produced.”

According to Janice Tranberg, executive director at SaskCanola, the growing lack of public trust in agricultural production threatens the long-term sustainability of the industry – and “social license” is far more than a buzzword.

This January, SaskCanola released License to Farm on YouTube, a short documentary that takes on key “myths” often circulated about modern farming issues, including GMOs, chemical use on the farm and the so-called death of the family farm.  

“The response has been phenomenal,” says Tranberg. “In just better than a month we had 70,000 views from 150 countries around the world.”

Click here to watch the full License to Farm documentary online.

“There’s so much misinformation flying around out there,” she says. “One example is GMOs. These are products that have gone through strict reviews by Health Canada and other regulatory agencies. It’s frustrating when people find Facebook a more credible source than regulatory experts at Health Canada.”

Tranberg says the agvocacy movement aims to counteract the emotional thinking which can result in public opinion overruling scientific data about the safety of products and farming methods.

“Social media can provide people with information at the click of a button, but we don’t know what information is being shared,” she says.

Adding to the problem, Tranberg believes, is the fact that farmers’ voices are largely missing from public conversations about food safety and modern farming methods, even though they are usually considered more credible than their corporate counterparts in the agriculture industry.

To counteract this, Tranberg says farmers need to tell their stories, highlighting their responsible business practices to an audience that doesn’t always understand the issues.

“It’s not that “we’re” right and “you’re” wrong. It’s about the fact that we all eat food! We all need to share positive, personal stories about why we’re in this industry,” she says.

Agri-retailers also have an important role to play in helping positive stories circulate. Most of all, they have to help their customers defend themselves from claims that agricultural production is profit-driven at the expense of environmental stewardship, transparency and traceability.

“It’s not that ‘we’re’ right and ‘you’re’ wrong. It’s about the fact that we all eat food! We all need to share positive, personal stories about why we’re in this industry.” - Janice Tranberg

Traceability and Public Trust

Clare Kinlin, sales manager and 4R agri-retailer with MacEwen Agricentre, believes that in many cases, politics has taken over logical decision-making about how farms should operate in Canada – and consumers are driving the changes.

“One example is that companies are asking for sustainable products. They don’t really define what that is, but they’re asking for it. And our governments on the provincial side are asking growers to present records of where they’re using products, and demonstrate the need for using products,” he says.

“This is not science-driven – it’s emotionally- and society-driven.”

Agri-retailers are uniquely positioned to combat these negative narratives about farming, he says, through programs like the 4R Nutrient Stewardship program and others that emphasize efficient nutrient use and accountability.

Kinlin emphasizes that farmers are already doing a great job – many farmers he knows have been practicing nutrient stewardship since he’s been in business – but the 4R label is an opportunity to “brand” that achievement in an accessible way.

Agri-retailers are uniquely placed not only to encourage farmers to sign on to user-friendly programs like 4R Nutrient Stewardship, but to be outspoken in their communities about the good work farmers are doing.

But Kinlin believes they’re not doing enough.

“Agri-retailers do an awesome job of engaging ag people,” he says, “but they could do a better job of engaging outside agriculture.”

Dale McKay, general manager for Shur-Gro Farm Services, a Manitoba independent agri-retailer, agrees.

He says the 4R program is just one brand agri-retailers can promote to their customers. Another is Sustain, a program developed by the U.S. agri-retail network United Suppliers, which trains agri-retailers in nutrient use efficiency and precision agriculture techniques while keeping the focus on productivity. Sustain has recently moved into parts of Canada.

McKay also recommends that agri-retailers participate in programming through Agriculture in the Classroom, a non-profit organization that partners with educational institutions to spread awareness about and appreciation for agriculture.

Still another tool that may be at agri-retailers’ disposal is the soon-to-be-released Know GMO documentary, a project led by Robert Saik, CEO of the Agri-Trend Group of Companies. The film aims to provide an “uplifting discussion about food” and the benefits of GMOs for global crop production.

Along with many other Canadian agri-retailers, McKay’s company helped fund Know GMO, and plans to use the finished film as a resource in-house and to spread positive messages about agriculture in the community at large.

McKay has sympathy for farmers trying to do their work under intense public scrutiny that is not always friendly.

“They try pretty hard to do the best they can. They eat the food too. If you’ve ever spent much time with farmers, you know their land is pretty precious to them,” he says.

The Challenge: Getting the Public on Board

So how can producers and agri-retailers regain public trust in their work? This question is deeply important to Ray Redfern, president and CEO at Redfern Farm Services in western Manitoba.

He says growing public interest in agricultural production should be viewed by agri-retailers as a positive opportunity rather than a problem.

“The social license provided by the consumer is a real and very important component to the future of agriculture,” says Redfern. “The public, in the position of the largest stakeholder, has a right to expect to be served by an industry they can trust to serve their interests – which are simply to have foodstuffs that are completely safe, nutritious, abundant, consistently available and economical.”

Redfern experienced what he calls a “watershed” moment three and a half years ago when he signed on to the provincial council with the Manitoba Institute of Agrologists, a regulatory body that sets standards for professional agrologists in the province and makes decisions in the best interests of the public.

“I realized that I’d taken on this role not to protect agriculture, but to protect the public,” he says. “We’re not lobbyists. We’re measuring and managing those who practice to ensure they’re walking the talk.”

“Some of our industry think that we need to find a way to get past the public because they’ll never understand the issues, but the reality is that over the next decade we’re going to need more and more reasons to have the public onside,” he says.

How can agri-retailers do that?

First, by helping farmers find the right tools – and the confidence – to speak to the issues. “We need to help farmers to find access to information, to be able to speak about it, or identify the things they do well already and put them into terms the public understands,” Redfern says.

Second, agri-retailers should be constantly engaged in educating themselves and their teams so that they can speak about the issues at a moment’s notice. Redfern’s company also donated to the Know GMO project. “We simply felt this was the right thing to do – to support an initiative to develop a comprehensive communication activity using the most relevant medium to the consumer,” he says.

“But also, we shouldn’t be avoiding the opportunity of speaking to our urban counterparts at the curling rink or service clubs,” he says.

“There’s every reason for us to believe that our right to practice is based on the good will of the public at large, and we need to embrace that instead of running from it.” - Ray Redfern

Lack of public trust in farmers is driven, Kinlin believes, by popular media messages that pit a nostalgic view of “ma and pa” family farms against corporate farming conglomerates. But the reality is quite different.

“There are a whole bunch of farmers living in rural Ontario who are phenomenal for our communities, who invest back into the communities,” he says. “We see that within our community, but the people in downtown Toronto and Ottawa don’t see it.”

Agri-retailers can also become involved in projects aimed at educating the world on agricultural realities “outside of our own back door,” Redfern says. He is head of the Marquis Project, an NGO that aims to “help educate Manitobans as to the nature of economic, political and social issues involved at both the local and global levels” and participates in sustainability initiatives in developing countries around the globe.

In the final analysis, the social license to farm can be seen as a challenge to the ag industry – one agri-retailers can rise to meet or choose to ignore. But public trust is a precious commodity, and the ag industry has everything to gain from putting the story of Canadian agriculture in positive terms.

“There’s every reason for us to believe that our right to practice is based on the good will of the public at large,” says Redfern. “We need to embrace that instead of running from it.”

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