Artwork by Elena Levy

 

 

The Producer-Consumer Relationship

 

The Food Secure Future Podcast brings together researchers and experts from the field to discuss how to feed the future in a way that is healthy, sustainable, and nutritious. Modern consumers are rebuilding their connection with food, which can prove difficult when an often lengthy supply chain separates them from the farms that produced it. How can farmers and consumers foster an open conversation around food, so that we can all play our part in consuming and producing responsibly?

 

Hosts: 

Dr. Evan Fraser, Director, Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph
Abdul-Rahim Abdulai, PhD student, Department of Geography, Environment & Geomatics, University of Guelph

 

Guests:

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, Director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University
Crystal Mackay, CEO, Loft 32

 

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Transcript

 

Evan  0:18  
Hi, my name is Evan Fraser, and I'm the director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph. This is part of a regular podcast series on how to feed the future in a way that is healthy, sustainable, and nutritious. With the global population predicted to exceed 9 billion by 2050, food production is predicted to need to increase by between 70 and 100%. Population growth and rising consumption of meat, dairy, eggs and fish are forcing the world to face the intersecting challenges of how to sustainably feed people, while also controlling the impact of food production on the planet, on people and on animals. However, some of agriculture's approaches including using genetically modified crops, pesticides, and other intensive practices are at the centre of some very serious controversies. The dumping of milk products in the euthanization of farm animals during the early months of the COVID-19 crisis further deepens these concerns that the public may have. Such issues threaten to pit producers against scientists, activists, consumers and the general public drawing public protests, backlashes and even shifting consumption patterns away from food products like animal meat or GMO foods. These issues are extremely concerning for producers and other people who work in the agricultural sector. So, Abdul, can you let us understand a bit more about the nature of these issues? 

Abdul-Rahim  1:35  
Thank you very much, Evan. My name is Abdul-Rahim Abdulai and I'm a PhD candidate at the Department of Geography, Environment, and Geomatics at the University of Guelph, and I am also a member of the Feeding 9 Billion research team. So in this episode, I'm going to help us discuss issues of trust and perceptions with regards to agriculture, and how this actually affects relationships within the industry. As Evan rightly mentioned, we do know that growing tensions  between producers and "the others" as we will put it, are at the core of the public image of agriculture. In 2018, a survey by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity revealed a decline in public trust in agriculture, with about 49% concerned about the humane treatment of farm animals; 54% were concerned about food safety issues; while about half had concerns about the effect of food production on climate change. These are issues worth exploring. And that is what we are going to do in this episode. 

In this episode, we talked to two experts to help us understand the growing tensions between producers and consumers and solve the tensions that are rising in the agri-food industry. First up, we caught up with Dr. Sylvain Charlebois a food professor from Dalhousie University. 

Dr. Charlebois  2:49  
Well, thank you for inviting me. 

Abdul-Rahim  2:51  
Just to start, our focus is trying to understand consumer-producer relationship, there's a lot of tensions in agriculture. I'd be happy if you could highlight some of these areas of tension in present time, and some of the emerging areas as well. 

Dr. Charlebois  3:05  
Well, obviously, these are two heavily distinctive dimensions. On the one side you have the consumer, or consumers, with great power, they influence the food system every single day. By the on the other hand, you have farmers who also see consumers as being a little bit unknowledgeable about agriculture in general. And, uh - But still, that connection, that exchange needs to occur, of course, there's an entire supply chain in between and makes things a little bit complicated. And so for farmers to connect with consumers on a regular basis, it's very difficult. So that's why there's a lot of misunderstanding. But also consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the power that they have through social media. But for the longest time and still, today, farmers themselves see themselves, or consider themselves as the best environmental stewards. That notion is being challenged more and more as a result of what I would call the protein war, especially proteins, uh - the livestock industry versus plant-based. And of course, that creates a lot of tension. And so what is being argued at times is often challenged by groups, by companies, so it's hard to know really what's actually happening. And consumers are stuck in that middle becoming very confused with what's going on with food systems in general. And it does create a lot of tension between consumers and farmers. 

Abdul-Rahim  4:34  
Thank you for this great answer and providing us with a good introduction to the issue. Just to expand on it, can you tell us more about consumer demands? What are consumers looking for? What are htey asking for from farmers?

Dr. Charlebois  4:44  
My starting point has always been the consumer. At the end of the day, they're the ones making the decision, and then they're the ones looking for specific products for a variety of reasons. And that's how products are marketed, that's how our economic system actually works, you need that exchange between supply and demand to occur. And that exchange can only happen unless there's value perceived by the consumer, at the end of the day. 

Now how you define that value proposition actually is changing, or is becoming more fragmented. And that's really what's going on right now, instead of seeing this highly homogeneous marketplace called "the consumer," you'll see, you're seeing more different sorts of consumers looking for different things for variety of different reasons that probably didn't exist before or did exist before but are more recognised by the market, like, for example, sustainability, like, for example, animal welfare. I mean, the economics of food have always been there, the price of food affordability, that's always been there, but underneath all that are really important consequential issues. So yeah, it's, it's getting more complicated, but the way I see it, it also creates gaps or opportunities as well. And so farmers have to take the time to consider and recognise these gaps in the marketplace, or else, it's only going to lead to discontent, confusion, and frankly, unhappiness for farmers. 

Abdul-Rahim  6:25  
So farmers need to listen to consumers else, they may find themselves in a situation where they are really unhappy. But that being said, What role does the consumer have to play? 

Dr. Charlebois  6:36  
I'm not sure if they actually have to play any role at all other than try to see - the proper information they need in order to make the decisions they have to make every single day. And every single day, every single meal is different too. Context is different. People travel, people are visiting friends/family, and from time to time you'll need to eat. So context is actually quite different. I would say really, at some point, you kind of have to wonder whether or not the middle field, processors, anything that actually requires processing, or that in between, between production and consumption, there needs to be some brokerage of information. In fact, I do speak a lot to processors in my career. And there's not a whole lot of that, because of course, they always sees themselves as being squeezed in the middle, they want to make sure that they provide an affordable product to grocers and consumers. But at the same time, they need to also try to get cheap inputs coming from farmers. 

A problem with that is of course, in the food industry, everyone squeezes the other, until the farmer who's a price taker, and the only thing the farmer can squeeze is nature itself to save money. And that's when things go wrong. And that's why I think there needs to be some brokering of information. But I'm not sure if farmers are in a better position because more and more farmers are seen as advocates, you know, and advocates don't tend to be trusted, as much as say a farmer, and that's the thing. Because there's there's a lot of information coming out of farming about pesticides, and different practices that people may not have been aware of that they don't like to hear. There are a lot of practices, people living in urban cities don't necessarily appreciate it. And so farmers will need to find a way to get a third party to get their message out. And that's, so when I talk about brokerage, that's what I mean by that. 

Abdul-Rahim  8:38  
So moving away from the consumer, and going back to the producer, we've mentioned issues around climate change. That's the big issue right now, everybody's talking about climate change. And we all know, do appreciate that there are certain farming practices that are contributing one way or other to some of these issues. Why are farmers sometimes resisting, like, the knowledge that comes out that are pointing fingers to farmers as one of the causes of this issue? 

Dr. Charlebois  9:06  
Well, so they're price takers. So they're arguably the most vulnerable stakeholder within the supply chain. So the last thing they want is something that will threaten their livelihood. Bad news is not something they enjoy, okay? And so if they're being asked to change practices, change things. It does take time. And don't forget, I mean, we lose, every year, we lose seven to 8% of farms again, every single year, no matter what. And so they've seen their neighbours disappear, they've seen families leave rural Canada. And so and I'm talking about Canada here, so it's easy understand why they feel so horrible. And that's why maybe they're not willing to listen. My concern is that at some point, they're going to have to, or else they will eventually disappear. I've met, in the last 12 months, I've met probably over 2000 cattle producers across the prairies and speaking to them, and I can feel that it's been difficult, you know.They feel that A&W should be out of business because they betrayed, A&W betrayed cattle producers. And because they actually adopted Beyond Meat. This is how extreme it's been. 

Abdul-Rahim  10:28  
Looking ahead, in more general terms, how do you see the future of food in relation to some of these tensions? Where are we heading to?

Dr. Charlebois  10:36  
If handled well, I actually do see potential, I actually do see these tensions as a good thing, because it will lead to recognising gaps. And that leads to innovation, innovative products, innovative ways, and that leads to growth, economic growth. We need more new blood, we need more ways of looking at food. So I'm thankful for what's happening now. But it's not going to be easy either. The journey is not going to be easy for many, many groups, what I would say, I would say to them embrace change. 

Abdul-Rahim  11:13  
So the tensions actually provide opportunities for innovation. So to end with the consumers, again, what specific strategies should consumers be looking up to, in terms of helping reduce or diffuse these tensions we are seeing?

Dr. Charlebois  11:30  
Engagement is certainly one big one. I mean, you want to, it's great that you consume, you make choices. But engaging is actually even better, as you kind of take ownership of your own, of your own supply chain I guess. And when I say, what I mean by engagement is, is, for example, on the practical side, you cook. And if you cook, then you start, you start to better understand what food is all about in your own kitchen, your own little world. And you actually can work your way back as you buy products, because you'll start asking questions, because you'll see the food in your kitchen is behaving differently, or you'll actually want the different taste, or you're wondering why these parts taste the way they taste. So you're,  you go back to the grocery store or wherever you actually bought your product, becoming more knowledgeable, and that really creates an engaged, well-informed connection for you. So that's that's one thing. The other thing of course is that political engagement is also very fruitful for consumers. So practical, political, both. 

Abdul-Rahim  12:42  
So on the part of the consumers, practical and political engagement are key to helping diffuse the tensions. Thank you very much Dr. Sylvain, for providing us with your valuable contribution in this episode. 

So, Evan, as we have heard, our farmers are increasingly being questioned for a variety of reasons, including protecting the environment and caring for animals. And these have implications for trust in the system. Consumers are gaining power, especially with the use of the media. We have now reached a point where trustworthiness may no longer be enough for farmers. The public is expecting more from farmers. 

Evan  12:54  
Abdul, it's true that the public and consumers now need more from farmers, and farmers need to ensure that the public trusts them, but worries about things like animal welfare and pesticides, GMOs may deepen the distrust. Can you explain to us what farmers are doing and how they're responding to the situation?

Abdul-Rahim  13:38  
So in the first part, we're told that consumers have a role to play in diffusing the tensions, through practical and political engagement. But for this to be possible, there needs to be trust. So what role will trust play, and how are farmers actually working to create this trust in the system? To help us discuss these issues is the CEO of an agriculture-focused communication company based in Guelph? 

Crystal  14:03  
Hi, my name is Crystal Mackay. I'm the CEO of Loft 32. We're a small communications firm that I created this past year to elevate the conversations about food and farming to help connect the dots between farmers all the way through to consumers. 

Abdul-Rahim  14:19  
Thank you very much, Krista, for joining us in this episode. To begin tell learn about trust and its role in decreasing tensions in agriculture. 

Crystal  14:30  
Trust is the currency of the future. So if we lose trust in our food and the people who produce it, then we are not in a good spot. It's a very important currency for the future. 

Abdul-Rahim  14:45  
And are also told that trust in the supply chain, for producer-consumer relationships in particular, have been under threat in the last couple of years. Why is trust under threat right now?

Crystal  14:57  
So the data actually shows trust in farmers and food is pretty consistent. So I would say the attention around the need to build trust in food and farming has increased, but the actual consumers have not lost confidence in our food. As a matter of fact, it's growing. So I believe our sector and the people who work in agriculture have recognised trust is an important part of our business. We need to invest in it, and we need to continue to earn it. It's not something to be taken for granted. 

Abdul-Rahim  15:27  
Why is it important for producers, or agriculture in particular, to keep like a good public image. 

Crystal  15:33  
So farmers are in the business of feeding people, and which is, you know, Maslow's hierarchy of needs a very important piece of our society is feeding our country. And so farmers have started to recognise that just producing food isn't enough, we need to be transparent and share our story behind why we produce our food. 

Abdul-Rahim  15:53  
And that's part of the work you do, in terms of helping organisations communicate, trying to work in ways that they can actually show what they do. So I'm just wondering if you can touch a little bit on what does your organisation do, in practice? 

Crystal  16:08  
So part of it is increasing awareness, a lot of farmers choose to farm because they they aren't communicators, you know, they love animals or their land. So this is a new business reality. And we see a number of farmers particularly really taking up the challenge of social media, for example, in sharing their story. So I've always said farmers do a great job of producing food, but a lousy job of telling people about it. So part of our work is we have a team of speakers from across Canada that will go to events where a lot of farmers might be attending and talk about why sharing our story is important and why public trust is important for their business and how nobody's better to talk about farming than a farmer, right? So the credibility and the trust and the importance. 

Abdul-Rahim  16:49  
So from interacting with farmers and interacting with the industry, and seeing what people do out there, can you touch a little bit on what are some of the strategies right now by farmers in Ontario, or even elsewhere in Canada or globally, are actually adopting that try to build trust?

Crystal  17:09  
There's so many great things. Starting with individual farmers, I would say social media has become a great platform to share with people beyond the farm gate. So you know, we see farmers, Farmer Tim is an example with a great Facebook page following. Sandy Brock has a great blog, and social media presence. Andrew Campbell, fresh air farmer, he started a social media campaign called Farm 365, which was posting a picture of his farm every day, for a year, which is amazing. So social media is absolutely where I see the most action. More traditionally, I would say and very, very valuable is farms opening their barn doors. So having open farm days, breakfast on the farm, inviting classrooms out, or dietitians, reporters, to say you know what, we have nothing to hide. If you want to see how we grow your food, please come and have a conversation. And there's absolutely no better place to have it than actually on the farm.

Abdul-Rahim  18:09  
How do we actually create a harmonious environment between producers and consumers? 

Crystal  18:14  
I think a good place to start is with food itself. You know, we all eat, we're all humans, right? So we have a lot more in common than we have separately. And unfortunately, media and some special interest groups play up the differences and, you know, the negative criticisms. Where whenever I've brought people together to have conversations around food and farming, it's actually, we have a lot of things in common. So we want safe, healthy, affordable food grown in Canada, we want to care for our environment, we want to care for animals. So literally creating forums and being part of forums with everybody in the food system, from farmers through groceries and restaurants, as well as people who eat, which is everybody, and hopefully to come together and recognise where we have things in common. 

Abdul-Rahim  19:01  
So that being said, if we're given an opportunity to talk to the general public, in terms of how to live in a more harmonized environment, where producers are happy with consumers, consumers are happy with producers, and where we try to bridge out the conflicts that you are seeing in the agri-food system. What would be your final message to the general public? 

Crystal  19:26  
I would say be curious, be curious about your food, ask questions, and think critically about your sources. So when your Google searching or looking for someone to talk to ask questions about your food, make sure it's a credible expert and you know, I'm biased as we all have our biases, but I think farmers are the best people to talk to about how our food is grown. People literally in the field working 365 days a year to make it happen. So for everybody, it's something you put in your body. It's something you feed your families, so just take a few minutes and be curious about your food. Ask questions and ask credible sources. 

Abdul-Rahim  20:04  
So my last question is, we've seen a demographic that is actually just exposed to the internet that have different demands now. How can the youth actually navigate this tension?

Crystal  20:17  
So, yeah, the disconnect between farm and youth is huge, bigger than it's ever been. And but I am heartened in that I see more interest in our young people. And it starts around climate change or animal welfare to say no, I want to know more, I want to, I want to feel good about the food I eat. And so this concept about being curious asking people who actually work in agriculture or farmers themselves, the credible sources, I would continue to emphasise that. And I would also say, to our farm community, you have kids as well. So peer to peer conversation. So you know, bridging rural and urban bridging farm to non farm to say, hey, you're 15, I'm 15. We're both passionate about the environment, let's have a conversation. And also, I would say, you know, get out of town, you know, to take a drive take the opportunity to go to a local fair, or you know, one of these farm events where you can actually see real cows and there's real corn in the field and find out where your food comes from directly. 

And my final point would be if you can't get to see a real firm appreciating that's not possible for everyone, you can go online, you know, we have the magic of internet, you can go to farm food 360 dot ca to see virtual farm tours. And if you're looking for a credible expert, you can go to best food facts dot org. It's all University experts who can answer any of your questions on food and farming. 

Abdul-Rahim  21:42  
Well, we couldn't have asked for better engagement with this topic. Thank you very much, Crystal, for your time, and your input to helping us understand the issues around tensions between consumers and producers within the agricultural landscape. So from our discussions, we can deduce that there are legitimate concerns from both producers and consumers. They're equally promising effort, but more needs to be done on both ends. Trust is a two way street. Canadian farmers will also need to listen to consumers and vice versa.

Evan  22:19  
Thanks very much, Abdul. It sounds like a key to moving forward is to foster transparency education in and about the food system. And for consumers like all of us and young people, we have to be open to learning about agriculture and food. It's probably that social media is extremely important, but we must make more effort to engage with our food, either through cooking, farm visits, agricultural courses, or any means that brings us closer to the industry.

You have been listening to the Feeding 9 Billion podcast. To learn more about food security or to incorporate food security into your classroom, please visit our website at Feeding 9 billion dot com. This podcast is supported in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canada Research Chair program.