By Tom Collins
OTTAWA — New social media research shows that the agricultural community might not have a good grasp about how the general public feels about farming.
The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI) used a newly-developed artificial intelligence tool that followed social media pages — such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube — of 254,000 Canadians over a 24-month period. Those were public pages, so no one knew they were being monitored.
From those two years, the AI tool was able to determine how many times certain topics were discussed and extrapolate it over the Canadian population. The research showed the top issues discussed were the new NAFTA deal (10.5-million Canadians) and cannabis (8-million Canadians).
There are a few benefits to this type of monitoring: One gets a truer sense of what Canadians on social media are talking about since the conversations are unprompted, and it doesn’t put a bias into a survey question. For example, instead of asking “is glyphosate bad?” the tool follows all the social media conversations about glyphosate and gives an overview of how the average Canadian is thinking.
However, it seems as if the agricultural community has been missing the boat on some of the conversations. The most discussed ag-related topic was genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), with about 2.1-million Canadians discussing GMOs in the 24-month period.
The study found that about 100,000 Canadians were talking about GMOs each month, but that number jumped to about 550,000 Canadians in November, 2018. This coincided with the release of Modified, a documentary on why GMO foods do not have package labelling in Canada or the U.S.
“I will be the first to plead ignorance on this. This was not on our radar but the data shows that it was for many Canadians,” said Ashley Bruner, research co-ordinator with the CCFI. “It was a bit of a missed opportunity there” to tell agriculture’s side of GMOs.
The study also showed that those on the agricultural side wanting to spread the word may be in the wrong conversation, said Bruner. For example, one million Canadians talked about animal welfare over the two-year study. When broken down into specific terms, there might be tens of thousands of people talking about “gestation stalls,” the technical term for an enclosure to house a sow during pregnancy. However, more than 250,000 Canadians were having another conversation about “pig crates.”
Farm advocates want to be in on the pig crates conversation, said Bruner. “We have to be really aware of the fact that we might not even be in the right conversation.”
The study also found that half of Canadians are opposed to the idea that pesticides improve the environment, make food affordable and have health benefits.
This report also highlighted the missed opportunities, said Bruner. Previous surveys have shown that cost of food is the most important aspect of the food system, but this study showed that Canadians don’t see the connection between lower food costs and GMOs, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics.
Bruner later told Farmers Forum that research has shown that the average Canadian is more likely to listen if they believe they share the same values as the speaker. That means the agricultural community should grab a page from the animal activists’ playbook by becoming more emotional and telling personal stories.
“We have activists and the mom bloggers, and their reach is very, very wide, so we need to match that with those exact tactics in our messaging,” she said. She also encouraged the agricultural industry to expand the social media groups so they’re not just following other ag-related people. “We’re kind of insulated in our world and the people we follow on Twitter and the news we follow. When you think about the average Canadian, we are not it.”
Farmers also need to take the lead as CCFI research shows that most Canadians feel that farmers are the most trusted group when talking about agricultural topics.
Most farm groups have a social media presence, but they are focused on informing their own stakeholders, not the general public. Being on social media isn’t expensive as social media web sites are free to join, but being effective on social media can take time and money, said CCFI president Crystal Mackay. The CCFI is supported by donors which includes farmers, farm businesses and farm organizations. In 2017, Tim Hortons was the largest donor at more than $100,000.
Farm groups say they rely on Farm & Food Care Ontario to get the message out to the consumer.
Farm and Food Care executive director Kelly Daynard said the organization has a team of three that share social media responsibilities and it has a part-time social media employee who will become full time in May.
But it’s critical that farmers get their stories out too, she said. “The challenge is getting outside your own tribe when you’re on social media.”