There’s a new documentary making the rounds on agriculture-related social media channels. License to Farm is a 30-minute film produced in Saskatchewan with the goal of encouraging farmers to speak up in defense of their “social license” (i.e. a level of public trust that allows them to operate relatively independent of government oversight).
It’s an important issue: as the percentage of the population with direct ties to agriculture declines and consumer concerns about food increases, communication between producers and consumers is essential. Equally important is the accuracy and tone of that conversation. This is where I have concerns.
First, several speakers present the false impression that there are two options for agriculture: a “modern” agriculture that uses GMOs and pesticides, and “turning back the clock” to a previous era (which is directly or indirectly associated with organic farming). I’ve addressed this myth and the harm it does to both the farm community and consumer perception before, so I’m not going to re-visit it in depth here.
If the goal is to build relationships of mutual trust and respect between farmers and consumers, it has to be a two-way street. We know that to the general public, farmers remain among the most highly-respected professionals. This is a distinct advantage (and one that the biotech industry is eager to exploit, by the way). But farmers’ perceptions of consumers will also have a big impact on communications. Farmers who want to bridge the so-called “rural-urban divide” need to be careful that their attitudes and language do not reinforce the division.
This is where License to Farm falls short. Intentionally or not, it seems designed to perpetuate an “us vs. them” approach to the issues. To illustrate the point, I made two lists: the first is of the words used in association with farmers, farm practices, and food. Compare this to the second list of words used to describe consumers and consumer concerns. The words in each list appear more or less in the order they are mentioned in the film, and I also tried to keep track of the frequency of common words. The lists are not exhaustive, but the results are startling:
License To Farm’s Words About…
|Farms, Farming, and Food||Consumers and Consumer Attitudes|
|vast, complex enterprise||customers|
|cutting edge technology (3 times)||public fears|
|“ one of strictest in the world” [regulatory system]||far removed [from agriculture]|
|values||“conceptions stuck in 40s and 50s”|
|[farmers] produce safe food||confused, bewildered|
|[need for, reality of] choice||illegitimate fears|
|specific and necessary use of pesticides||“romanticized ideal”|
|revolutionary technology||anti-farm movement|
|sophisticated||not scientifically based (twice or more)|
|safe food (at least 12 times)||no basis in fact|
|environmentalist||concern (4 times or more)|
|most concerned about pesticides||“activists allege”|
|protect the environment||misunderstanding (at least 3 times)|
|sustainable (at least twice)||dumb|
|family-owned and operated||fear-mongering|
|efficient, efficiency||illogical (twice or more)|
|“doing best job we can”||counterproductive|
|healthy food (at least 5 times)||worried|
|innovation||beliefs (twice or more)|
|love [for farming] (at least twice)||perceptions (twice or more)|
|credible||myths (at least 4 times)|
|trusted (3 times or more)||fear (3 times or more)|
|improve the environment||suspicious|
|need to speak up (3 times or more)||naturalistic fallacy|
|need to tell their story (2 times or more)||misinformed|
|good stewardship||need education|
|consumer concerns not scientific|
As others have pointed out, some critique is a good thing. Not all consumer concerns are completely valid. At the same time, critiques need to be balanced. Words matter, and when the words used to describe one party are exclusively positive while the words used to describe the other party are almost entirely negative in their connotation, balance is hard to find and conversation becomes difficult.
Social license needs to be earned, not demanded or expected. It’s also easier to get respect when respect is given. Framing “social license” as purely a public relations challenge to convince ignorant consumers that everything every farmer does is perfect is a disservice to everyone involved. (For a great exploration of this concept, check out John Phipps’ “Accountable Ag” blog post!)
Our diverse agricultural community has the capacity, the opportunity, and the responsibility to meet a diversity of consumer demands. (Within reason, of course – no one should expect locally-grown bananas at Canadian farmers’ markets!*) Farmers can do that while working to continuously improve their impact on the world. It’s going to take a collaborative approach, and it means treating consumers as allies, not enemies.
That’s a story worth telling.
* After I published this post, a Twitter follower pointed out that it is indeed possible to find locally-grown bananas at a Canadian farmers’ market. Proof-positive that innovative Canadian farmers are prepared to meet practically every consumer demand – and that farmers like me should never dismiss a consumer demand as “unreasonable” without knowing all the facts!