Farmers using social media to educate Canadians. But who’s listening?
For years, Canadian farmers have taken to
social media to share touching stories and countless messages about life on the farm. Some call it “agvocacy.” But Canada’s new food guide, amongst other policy decisions, is evidence the rural-urban divide has never been greater.
Social media messages posted by farmers and farming groups are sometimes met with strong responses. Their stories are often overshadowed by similarly powerful messages from animal rights and environmental activists. And, these groups have proven themselves to be savvy communicators in the now decades-long debate on genetically-modified organisms. Even if the science supports the theory that GMOs are safe, doubts linger. A recent study suggested the less people knew about GMOs, the more likely they were to be against them. The public discourse on GMOs is now highly polarized, which has not served communities well. The same observation can apply to the issue of pesticides. Farmers have been caught in a space between science and farm-illiterate citizen groups. Despite their passion for the land and nature, many farmers have come out of these deliberations discouraged and emotionally wounded.
For a long time, farming has been one of the most trusted professions in Canada. But it is unclear whether Canadians are willing to listen to farmers anymore. The profession is trusted, but not respected and many farmers are starting to realize this. Less than 2% of the Canadian population lives on a farm, and the majority of Canadians have never even visited one. It is a dimension of their lives they barely understand, but will support to a certain degree. If food is affordable and convenient, urbanites are all-in to support farmers.
Agricultural trade groups are active and committed, but their message can only go so far. Individual farmers have also connected with city folk. Beyond visits to farmers’ markets, u-picks, and the impromptu encounters at various fairs, opportunities for discussion and interaction between urban dwellers and farmers are infrequent. On social media, farmers’ messages rarely reach beyond their own farming circles, rebounding as if in an echo chamber. In the western world, farmers are enthusiastic about social media’s potential to strengthen outreach efforts and influence policy, but countless studies suggest such an approach has little effect. The relationship between virtual advocacy and real, political and ideological change is speculative at best.
The GMO debate was apparently just the beginning. Canada’s new food guide was really an affront to what Canadian agriculture is all about. The food elites presented an ideal diet to Canadians the connection between what is prescribed in the guide and what farmers can deliver is far from clear. Supported by nutritional science, the guide no doubt offers a target we should aim for. But, many farmers are wondering how Canada’s agricultural policy will help our country achieve its dietary goals.
At least some communication strategies do appear to be more effective. Farmers’ groups who partner with chefs, restaurant chains, grocers and celebrities tend to garner more success in delivering their message. A myriad of initiatives throughout the country have been successful in connecting agriculture with cities. The plant-based narrative, on the other hand, is gaining traction, simply because its tone and nuances are in tune with what most urbanites can appreciate. If farmers and trade groups want a fighting chance, partnership is one path they should pursue.
Regrettably, agriculture remains a poorly understood concept for many of us. Because of the rural-urban divide that is profoundly changing food politics in Canada, our policies lack depth and pragmatism. Excluding lobby groups from a scientific process is one thing, but excluding them altogether from a democratic process will only make things worse for everyone in the end.