The agricultural industry is used to weathering storms – literally and figuratively – yet a rising challenge is threatening to undermine its collective effort to provide a safe and healthy food supply for a growing global population: the erosion of public trust.
“Farmers face such obvious external challenges as trade barriers, climate change, unpredictable weather patterns and commodity price fluctuations,” says Jon Sweat, VP business management, Agricultural Solutions, BASF Canada. “But the bigger challenge, in my view, is consumers’ lack of understanding of modern farming practices.”
Research conducted by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI) in 2019 shows that only one in three Canadian consumers believes Canada’s food system is headed in the right direction. For Mr. Sweat, this diminishing public trust is rooted in “confusion and misunderstanding that are due to a gap in the agricultural value chain.”
Products coming from the farm typically enter a value chain that brings the food closer to consumers. That’s when labelling and special interest advocacy come into play, and topics – such as organic versus conventional or GMOs – are often misrepresented, says Mr. Sweat. “Over 90 per cent of survey respondents say they are personally concerned about misleading food labels and information about their food.”
For example, a “GMO-free” label may be affixed to a product made of ingredients that don’t come from crops with potential for genetic modification, he explains. What’s more, the fact that GMOs are an important modern farming tool is often left out of the discussion.
Since misleading information damages trust, Mr. Sweat calls for an agricultural value chain that is “aligned and transparent.”
John Jamieson, CEO of the CCFI, agrees. “We need to do a better job being transparent and working together as opposed to one company or one sector telling a story that undermines another.”
It helps to understand that everyone is on the same page when it comes to underlying values, explains Mr. Jamieson. “Everyone wants to have a good quality of life, and access to healthy food is part of that. That’s something all Canadians, including farmers and people working in the food system, agree on.”
Consumer outreach can help to illustrate how farmers and their partners work to ensure a sustainable food production, explains Mr. Jamieson. “Like any industry, agriculture has to pursue a path of continuous improvement, and, most of the time, this can be achieved through advancements in science and technology.”
Farmers face such obvious external challenges as trade barriers, climate change, unpredictable weather patterns and commodity price fluctuations. But the bigger challenge, in my view, is consumers’ lack of understanding of modern farming practices.— Jon Sweat, VP Business Management, Agricultural Solutions, BASF Canada
For insights into modern farming practices, Mr. Sweat gives the example of canola – a Canadian crop that was developed for Canada and contributes $27-billion to the economy every year.
“At BASF, we are the market leader in canola,” he says. “Important areas of research and development for our canola hybrids, the InVigor franchise, include pod shatter reduction, disease resistance and the way InVigor canola is packaged, which is designed to make it easier for growers to achieve ideal plant populations and increase the consistency and performance of their canola crop.”
When canola plants mature, their pods open to release the seeds, says Mr. Sweat. “We found a way to keep the seed pods closed, even in cases when the harvest is delayed or the wind is blowing. When the seeds stay in the plant, that helps to prevent yield loss for canola farmers.”
In the area of disease resistance, BASF is addressing clubroot, a “devastating disease that stays in the soil for many years,” says Mr. Sweat. Clubroot pathogens – as well as primary disease symptoms – occur underground, restricting the flow of water and nutrients and causing stunting and potentially premature death of the plant. Since cultural practices and chemical treatments to control the disease are limited, breeding resistant cultivars is a promising alternative.
“We developed canola that can be grown on acres that have clubroot in the soil,” says Mr. Sweat. “This technology is helping to advance cropping patterns, where farmers can grow crops on land where this was previously challenging due to disease pressure or other factors.”
Scientific developments – including crop protection, GMOs, plant breeding and gene editing techniques – are the result of rigorous research and development as well as subject to regulatory review, says Mr. Sweat. “By helping to reduce pest and insect infection and crop loss, these critical tools allow farmers to put a plentiful and safe food supply on the table.”
Another farming innovation is the xarvio Field Manager solution, which uses state-of-the-art crop modelling and satellite imagery to predict the best time and place to spray crops to prevent disease, he says. “It allows farmers to be more precise, saving money and reducing environmental impact.”
Precision tools – and modern agricultural practices – significantly enhance farmers’ ability to navigate both traditional and new challenges, says Mr. Jamieson. He sees consumer awareness as a foundation for a fact-based public debate, which can also help to ensure that farmers continue to have access to innovation.
“It is important to understand that science matters and that Canadians can trust our regulatory processes to keep our food safe, today and in the future,” says Mr. Jamieson. As the fifth largest exporter of agricultural and agri-food products in the world, Canada is also making a substantial contribution to global food security, he adds. “This is something we can all be proud of.”
Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.