Climate change is the top food and farming topic Canadians are discussing online: Study

Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI) measured online chatter for two years


Climate change is all the buzz online, according to a new study that examined what hot-button agricultural issues Canadians are talking about.

“Public Opinion: a study of Canadian conversations online on food and farming,” led by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI), measured the discussions related to food and farming of 254,900 Canadians (a representative sample) for two years on social media, from January 2017 to January 2019.

The study, conducted by Tactix, assessed platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Redditt, using an artificial intelligence tool to analyze public social media, with no personalized data attached to the findings. According to CCFI, the AI research tool crawls across several social media platforms and scientifically measures public sentiment, avoiding introducing biases by not asking questions.

Key conversations Canadians discussed online included:

  • Climate change as it relates to food production: 2.5 million people
  • Genetically modified foods: 2.1 million people
  • Organic food and farming: 2 million people
  • Pesticides: 1.08 million people
  • Innovation in agriculture: 1 million people
  • Hormones: 953,000
  • Antibiotics: 737,000

As a benchmark of comparison for other big national issues, approximately 10.5 million Canadians were actively discussing NAFTA and 8 million people were discussing cannabis over the same time period.

“The climate change finding surprised us because when we ask Canadians about it, people don’t rank it highly: about half say they’re very concerned. But when we look at what people were actively discussing at that time, climate change was quite high,” says Ashley Bruner, research coordinator at CCFI. “The role of media came into play there, as the UN released a report on climate change [in October 2018], so that drove some of the conversations.”

CCFI also assessed the extent to which Canadians supported “free-from” foods. The study found the number of Canadians actively discussing a desire for foods free from hormones, pesticides and antibiotics is relatively low (10,000 people). When Canadians discuss these topics, support for “x-free” outweighs negative comments.

“In the news and just anecdotally, there is a lot of marketing about free-from [foods]. So when we looked at those hot-button issues, we were surprised to see that not a lot of people were actually discussing whether they support or are opposed to food being labelled free from something,” says Bruner.

GMO-free was the greatest conversation when it came to food being labelled free-from, with seven times as many Canadians discussing support for GMO-free foods.

Overall, the conversation around GMOs peaked in November 2018 when a national documentary on GMOs aired. Monthly engagement went from a base rate of 60,000 Canadians, up to 560,000 discussing GMOs. Among the 2.1 million people talking about GMOs over the two-year study period, six in 10 feel GMO food “is bad,” according to the study.

Bruner says one key take away for the food industry is that media and current events matter and they have the power to drastically magnify issues among Canadians. “Keep in mind that these conversations are happening and these key lightning points are occurring. We need to be constantly monitoring and engaging with Canadians on these issues.”