Farmers and consumers on collision course
By James Pascual
RIDGETOWN A self-proclaimed environmentalist and Alberta crop farmer warns farmers that issues like pollution, endangered species and neonicotinoids are not going to go away as people increasingly want a say in how to deal with them.
“Theres going to be more people influencing agriculture than what we were used to,” John Kolk told an audience at last months Southwest Agricultural Conference in Ridgetown. “Its not just going to be the regulators.”
That might give pause for those demanding “science-based” solutions. “Just the facts wont work,” Kolk said. “Values weigh five times more than facts in consumer decision making.”
An alarming thought but if thats the case, farmers are in for a rough ride. After all, values are often emotion driven, can be wrong and counterproductive for everyone. A value such as the precautionary principle always argues that proof of safety must first be guaranteed before an action is considered. That principle would prevent anyone from taking the ebola medicine that was developed last year when several cases from West Africa migrated to the United States. But if you had ebola, wouldnt you think the risks of taking a new medicine by far outweigh the certainty of death if you dont take the medicine?
But the future is not doom and gloom, argued Kolk, who farms 4,000 acres near Lethbridge, Alberta. “People eat. There will continue to be a need to produce food. How we do it and how we talk about it is going to change.”
Science-based decisions are good but not enough, he said. “Science can do it, but society will decide if you can do it. Not being an expert does not preclude having strong opinions.”
Sounds like a pep talk to brace oneself for a series of frustrations when the door opens and everyone with a cause enters the room. Some might argue the room is already filled with too many opinions.
To their credit, farmers still have a better reputation than doctors. But Kolk pointed out that corporate farms are not always so high on the credibility list and some people dont understand that many family farms are incorporated for liability reasons.
There is a growing distrust of large corporations, he said. Not just the multinational feed, seed and chemical companies, but farmers themselves victims of their success. Too big to be trusted.
“In 2013, there were 200,000 farmers with net sales of $55 billion. That puts us in big business,” he said. There is also a disconnect between average farm assets and the rest of society. “Average farm assets are $2 million and average farm debt is $400,000.”
Kolk did not believe agriculture is in a crisis of public opinion but little flags of public opinion are flying on some issues. “There are little indications, the phosphorus management stuff that is coming up, the neonicotinoids.”
Telling a positive story is part of the solution, he said. It is one way to combat the negative imaging by animal activists. The same farm can reveal two entirely different stories. One person may see a corporate factory farm. Another person sees a family farm with four kids and two dogs, growing crops and raising hogs.
Just as a dog owner picks up after his dog for the neighbours to see, “we let them know we pick up (the manure) and put it where it is supposed to be,” he said.
Everything farmers do is being watched, Kolk has frequently pointed out. “There is nothing we do today that cant be exposed and unravelled by a kid with a cellphone.”
Positive stories include environmental progress. Kolk pointed to his grandfather in the 1950s who used twice as much irrigated water each year to grow 50 bushels per acre of barley, compared to Kolks yields now in excess of 100 bu/ac.
Farmers have a lot of changing expectations to deal with, including climate change, whether you believe in it or not, as well as food safety and resource management, he said. The measure of success might not be in how well one knows the facts but in how theyre communicated.
According to Kolk, success will more likely be determined by how well farmers and the industry reassure the city folk that they are dealing with the issues while looking out for the consumer.
With files from Simon Crouch