Planting the seeds for broader understanding of food’s origins

In the retail food business, customers have plenty of questions about how their food is produced. The answers often surprise them

By Jackie Fraser
Small business owner

FERGUS, Ont. Mar. 17, 2017 /Troy Media/ – “Are there any BMOs in this?” my dear customer asks.

It takes me a moment to realize she’s not asking about the bank. Sigh. Where do I start with this one?

My husband and I own a fresh food retail store and catering company in Fergus, Ont. He’s the chef and I’m the farm girl. I can tell our customers how their food got to the store and my husband can tell them what to do with it once it leaves the store. We take as much pride in the information we provide as we do with the products we carry.

I was raised on a dairy farm and worked in market gardening and the produce business as a teen. I studied agriculture at the University of Guelph, and my career prior to launching our small business included public consultation and agricultural communications. Now in the retail food business, I am uniquely positioned to inform my customers about how their food is produced.

Jackie Fraser, who with her husband, operates a local food/catering business in Ontario, believes interest groups are taking advantage of people ignorance about GMOs in their messaging

And we get a lot of questions about how our food is produced. I enjoy having one-on-one conversations about everything from certified organics to hormone and antibiotic use, as well as genetic engineering.

What I have learned in our nine years in business is that my customers don’t have the faintest idea about what genetic engineering is or why they’re supposed to avoid it. And why should they? They don’t have a degree in genetics or agriculture.

There are many things I know nothing about. Ever listened to two teachers speak to each other? I’m lost after about two minutes of endless acronyms. I have kids in school, I should know this stuff right?

No. As the saying goes, we don’t know what we don’t know.

However, interest groups are able to easily take advantage of this in their messaging. No need for detail, because who can understand that anyway? Just make it sound scary. It works.

When I’m asked about GMOs (genetically modified organisms), I begin by asking why they want to know. Responses generally fall into two categories – most stating they want to eat “natural” foods and a few saying they “don’t want Monsanto to get any of their money.”

To those in the latter category, I engage them in a discussion about how farmers decide what to grow based on their business, crop rotation and pest management strategies. There’s generally no winning over the hardcore anti-corporate crowd, but for the most part I feel these conversations are fruitful and my customers leave the store better informed.

To those seeking “natural” foods, the conversation is really interesting and I can speak to these folks for hours (when I can!). One-on-one, I have a terrific opportunity to discuss how a wide range of our food staples have been transformed over the centuries and the more recent past, a chance to explain what GMO actually refers to, and the potential genetic engineering has to feed a growing population using fewer resources. I often use the line “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” If they can’t appreciate the benefits of current GMO varieties, consider traits like drought resistance or nutritional improvements. I’m successful in getting my customers thinking at the very least.

The challenge is trying to help people understand a very complicated science in a complex industry. People are busy trying to understand what they need to know on a daily basis. They simply don’t have time to delve into the details of genetic engineering or agricultural challenges.

I’m very fortunate to be in a position to help, albeit one customer at a time!

Jackie Fraser was raised on a dairy farm, graduated with an agricultural degree from the University of Guelph, and now operates a local food/catering business in Fergus, Ont.

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