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Sylvain CharleboisThe public uses social media every day to express concerns about farming practices. And it’s getting worse.

Farmers are criticized for a variety of reasons – for example their environmental stewardship and their ethical behaviour in how they treat livestock.

In survey after survey, Canadians generally say they trust farmers, regardless of headlines, social media attacks or passing consumer trends. But trustworthiness may no longer be enough for farmers. The public expects more.

Farmers are arguably the best environmental stewards in our economy and they know it. With livestock, it makes little sense to accuse farmers for not treating animals appropriately when their livelihood relies on the health of their animals. Accusations are often senseless and completely uninformed. Still, assaults on farmers continue.

It’s not like farmers have taken consumer trust for granted. For years, farmers have been self-advocating, as well as educating the public at markets, trade shows and in the media. Many pro-farming groups have been amazingly active.

But evidence suggesting these groups are listened to by the broader public is scarce.

Organized, well-funded groups condemning farming practices on social media are winning the consumer trust battle. While Canadians overwhelmingly trust farmers, they remain split on whether practices on farms are ethical or environmentally sound.

Environmentalists and animal activists are taking advantage of this uncertainty on the part of many Canadians. Some groups are even trespassing, visiting farms to claim justice for animals. Some groups that believe producing meat requires murder are ready to do anything to influence public opinion.

Over 20 incidents across the country have been reported in the last 12 months, including in British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick. These impromptu visits pose a risk to the animals, which is why some provinces are adopting stricter rules and harsher penalties for trespassers.

It’s a mess. The rural-urban divide is creating a widespread trust issue.

Trust, at its core is far more complex than the rational assessment of consumer perceptions, measured in surveys, for example. Our perceptions are influenced by many elements of our lives. And for most of us, farming is an abstract concept.

The rural-urban divide widens as a result of our collective failure to fully respect and appreciate differing perspectives. The increasing lack of respect for farmers is fuelled by consumers’ unfamiliarity with the rural economy. At the heart of the trend, however, lies the concept of trust. The trustworthiness of farmers will always be limited by the physical and rational separation of consumers and agriculture. Agriculture is one element of complex globalized food chains that few consumers understand.

Food paradoxes between trust and information have sparked a lot of discussion over the years. While most Canadians are unable to explain what a GMO (genetically modified organism) is, the majority don’t trust bio-technologies. In the same way, many Canadians believe supply management and our quota system serves our economy well yet can’t explain how it works.

Of course, similar analogies can be made about other aspects of our lives, like cars or aircraft. But this is food, which Canadians buy and consume every day.

Over the years, we’ve seen an accumulation of issues that make consumers second guess almost everything. Food safety incidents, price-fixing scandals, food fraud and mislabelling, trans fats … the list goes on.

With food, uneducated cynicism leveraged by organized anti-farming advocacy is winning over logic. Along the way, our food systems are victimizing, starting with farmers. It’s been ugly.

Consumers who trust farmers are willing to accept vulnerability, which is a central part of the concept of trust. Activists, on the other hand, will capitalize on vulnerability and on the fact that food systems lack transparency. Furthermore, conflicts between retailers, processors and farmers in a highly divided food industry give activists a greater chance of making consumers feel uneasy about the food system.

Delivering information about agriculture, farmers and farming practices can go a long way to closing the gap. The keys are transparency and education. Valuing the economics of our food systems and building a case for why food is safe and affordable in Canada will be vital. We could produce food on a much smaller scale and eliminate livestock from our diets. But for most Canadians, this isn’t financially viable and is an affront to their culinary culture.

Trust is a two-way street. To be listened to, Canadian farmers will also need to listen to consumers. After all, social media has made consumers the CEOs of the entire food chain – as they should be.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Sylvain is a Troy Media contributor. Why aren’t you?

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