Be Wary of People Preying on Fear

By Matt McIntosh, Farm & Food Care

No, this isn't how a GMO is made (and no, there are no commercially available GMO tomatoes, anyway)

No, this isn’t how a GMO is made (and no, there are no commercially available GMO tomatoes, anyway)

Do you see pictures like this from time to time? If so, do society a service and call rubbish.

Contrary to what such images imply, our food didn’t drop out of the comic book universe. It may have been produced in part with science — and some pretty incredible science at that — but such science hardly looks as controversial as sticking a tomato with a needle of malignant looking kool-aid.

I don’t know who takes the time to make these images, but the purpose behind doing so is, without a shadow of doubt, to misinform and frighten. I’d like to think that the designers genuinely don’t understand the science against which they rail, but it is perfectly plausible, of course, that they are well aware of how misleading such visual creations can be.

These pictures reduce food science technology to a level akin with antagonists from the Resident Evil franchise – you know, the Umbrella Corporation’s cronies and their zombie-spawning pharmaceuticals.

Assuming, then, that there is some kind of article or information accompanying the picture, can a person trust it? Likely not.

Here’s a typical example of something I see on an all-to-frequent basis. It’s titled “FDA finally admits 70 per cent of chicken contains arsenic,” and there are some major issues right from the start.

First, the article appears on what is, essentially, a blog site and not a legitimate news source. Second, the article features an image of a chicken being injected with some kind of tan liquid — a practice which exists solely in the mind of the image creator. Third, the very title of the article implies a distinct slant on the part of the author which, coincidently, seems to be a New York media production company with some very strong views on many science-y things.

Upon reading, we learn that a treatment for chickens produced by Pfizer – one of those pharmaceutical companies – is leaving traces of inorganic arsenic in the livers of chickens; the Food and Drug Administration in the United States has, as it says, “finally admitted” to the problem, and somehow manages to simultaneously condemn water companies by saying “the level of inorganic arsenic found in the chicken livers is equivalent to the amount of inorganic arsenic found in an eight-ounce glass of drinking water.”

The easy (and wrong) conclusion? Americans must be ingesting dangerous levels of arsenic whenever they eat chicken or drink water.

Of course, this conclusion is completely contrary to what the Food and Drug Administration said on the issue – there’s really nothing wrong with chicken, or water for that matter – but that’s almost beside the point. With so many things initially wrong with the piece – multiple misleading and fabricated pictures, a clear slant in the title, and an unaccredited information source – a person should, theoretically, never even get as far as the first paragraph.

If that were the case, though, I wouldn’t be writing this.

People read, and people listen. And not just disconnected, uneducated folks either — articles and images like this do nothing but perpetuate ignorance. Stemming the spread of this type of visual drivel comes down, at least in part, to critical thinking.

We live in a fast-paced world, and often don’t have the time or mental energy to research every issue in depth. Images of syringes sticking food products, though, should be an automatic red flag declaring “approach with caution.” They are ridiculous pictures, these things, and people employing them as fact should not be trusted.

Teach Me How to Agriculture

By Toni Anne Sarlo, Farm & Food Care

I never had a doubt in my mind that farming was hard work, but that was about the extent of my agricultural knowledge before joining the team at Farm & Food Care.

Toni Anne SarloI don’t want to say that I was ignorant —  let’s go with uninformed. I have lived my entire life in Toronto, or the Greater Toronto Area, and the closest I came to a farm was our annual family visit to Chudleigh’s Apple Farm. Granted, I do love fresh, crisp apples when they are in season, but it didn’t exactly show me what farming entails.

I think I speak on behalf of most city folk when I say that we are not educated about farming truths, enlightened about its multi-layered issues/workings, taught about the challenges or exposed to the lifestyle. Living in the city, we are not aware of the path our food has travelled to get to us. 

We follow what’s trending, not always what’s right. Is it hormone free? Is it organic? Does it have GMOs? These are questions with preferred responses suggested by the media or marketing professionals. Our decisions are influenced by advertisers far too often, it’s true.

I recently started working in agriculture, and it has changed my life.  My former perspective of the agricultural industry and its complexity could not have been more wrong. I used to be skeptical about farming practises and was deterred by negative publicity often associated with farming, but I no longer have that impression. I am conscious about the intricacies of farming and am able to make decisions based on my own experience. 

I have been given the opportunity to visit varying farm types.  Subsequently, I have toured, observed and spoken to farmers and family members while in their element. These are the people with real knowledge who live and breathe farming in all capacities. They know firsthand what the daily challenges are and what techniques are best utilized to improve sustainability. Agriculture is forever changing and progressing, and embracing innovation.

Conversations with farmers and those who represent the farming community have opened my eyes to a culture that I was only vaguely aware of previously.  The passion and heart that drives this industry is overwhelming and exciting.  I have learned that it’s so important to dig for the facts, and one of the best ways is to go directly to the source. 

What I’ve learned, is that there is no black and white, rather a large grey canvas for us to draw our own conclusions. The difference for me, now, is that I feel more informed as a consumer and can avoid blindly following trends.  I have developed a new found enthusiasm and appreciation for farming, and look forward to learning more.

Leaving the Barn Door Open 24/7

By Kelly Daynard, Farm & Food Care

At the turn of the 20th century, farmers made up 60 percent of the Canadian population. Today, that number has dropped to less than two percent.

This move from farms into towns and cities has led to a growing disconnect between rural and urban areas, with Canadians now often three or four generations removed from any ancestors that farmed. The agricultural industry knows from polling data that non farming Canadians want to know more about food and farming – they just often don’t know where to source accurate information. And that’s why a growing number of Canadian farmers are increasing their communications efforts – many are turning to social media to share their stories.

The issue isn’t unique to Canada or North America, though. 

Stefan Teepker

German farmer Stefan Teepker and his daughter Marit in front of the windows in the new viewing gallery he’s built on the side of his chicken barn

Stefan Teepker is a chicken, grain, and hog farmer in Northern Germany. He recently opened his farm to delegates at the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ congress (an event that’s held in a different country each year).

The 35-year-old farms in cooperation with his brother Matthias, and he’s also the honourary chairman of the “Young DLG” – a division of the German Agricultural Society for farmers aged 35 and under. Teepker is increasingly concerned about the misconceptions that exist about modern farming practices and he’s determined to do his part to change that.

“There are big discussions happening about animal welfare in this country. We have to be able to show how we produce the majority of the meat. We have to start the discussion,” he said to the visiting journalists.

For many years, he’s visited a local school twice a year, talking to students about his farm and farm animals. Those students, in turn, visit his farm as part of a forest walk program, where they’re excited to see the animals that he’s talked about.

To expand his efforts, he’s just finished building a unique viewing gallery onto the side of one of his chicken barns. He paid for the 25,000 Euro project (about $36,000 CAD) almost entirely on his own with only a 1,000 Euro grant from a farm organization.

Stefan Teepker

Anyone passing by this German chicken farm is welcome to stop in and see the birds. This viewing gallery, built on the side of the barn, is open 24 hours a day.

Their farm is near a busy highway and popular hiking and biking path. With the grand opening last week, the gallery will be open 24-hours a day. One criticism he’s heard is that farmers only show the nicest photos of their barns and animals. With the new viewing gallery, he says he’ll be able to say “come when you want.” Passersby will be able to stop in at any time to see, for themselves what’s happening and what the birds are doing.

Signage will explain the age of the chickens, what they eat and drink, how the ventilation works, where they were hatched, when and where they’ll go to market and more.

Teepker said that some farmers think the signs should be more technical, focusing on bird genetics and such. But he knows firsthand that consumers are interested in going back to the basics. The most common question he’s asked? “Where are the cages?” To which he explains that broiler chickens are always raised in a free run (floor system) barn – just like here in Canada.

Guests at the viewing gallery will also be able to buy fresh meat and eggs (provided by neighbouring farmers), from a special vending machine.

When asked whether he’s concerned about farm security as a result of the increased attention and visitors, Stefan was definite in his “no”. While he has installed security cameras, he says that they’re only meant to protect the birds and doesn’t expect problems.

He’s also created a Facebook page for the farm where he engages regularly with his 2,000 (and growing) followers. Through updates, he introduces his farm staff, talks about environmental initiatives on the farm (including solar panels and a biogas plant) and answers questions about his pigs and chickens. He also posts regular videos – the top one has 180,000 views to date.

And, new this year, the farm is sponsoring local soccer teams as another way of engaging with his community.

Are his efforts making a difference? Teepker thinks so – but emphasizes that there’s always more that can and should be done. “You see a mind shift when people come to see the farm for themselves. They don’t know what they will see if the doors are closed – so we’re opening the doors.”

Listening and Learning Across the Table

matt in GlencoeBy Matt McIntosh, Farm & Food Care

I had a mutually-educational supper with a friend recently.

It was a pre-planned date where I, being rewarded with barbecue and malted barley, gave a 101 on Canadian food and farming — a subject of great passion for me and great interest to my friend, though one she admitted to knowing very little about.

We hit on several common topics over the course of the evening: pesticides, GMOs, and the odd anecdote from my farm-kid childhood, just to name a few. But it was our discussions around “corporate agriculture” and what the ideal farm should be that stuck out the most. Indeed, I was somewhat surprised to discover that my view of the “ideal” farm was actually quite similar to hers.

I was however astounded to learn that my friend, whether she realized it or not, saw modern Canadian farms not as independent family-run businesses, but mere corporate franchises. In her mind, the modern farm was under the thumb of — and even directly controlled by — large agro-chemical corporations.

These ideas manifested themselves shortly after I described my family and our farm. After mentioning that we grow some GMO crops, my friend asked if we actually owned the land where we plant our crops. I said that we absolutely did, though we also rent land from neighbouring farmers. She then asked if we owned our own equipment, to which I explained that we did, though some farmers find it economical to hire others to plant, spray, or harvest.

Those questions were not asked just so she could learn about business structures, however. They were asked because she didn’t know how deep into my family’s livelihood the proverbial corporate tentacle reached. Without necessarily being conscious of the fact, she was questioning our sovereignty over our own business.

The fact that farms are independent businesses is a given to me, but it wasn’t to my friend.

Untrue as it is, the idea that farmers are under the thumb of large corporations is certainly not new. Many times I’ve responded to people asking if we are forced to use specific products, if we lived in fear of lawsuits, and other similar questions, but never had I encountered the idea that our land could be literally taken from us with such ease.

In this case, I realized that in order to connect with my friend starting with shared values was not enough. I had to one more step back and describe that the vast majority of Canadian farms (97%, in fact) actually are family businesses run by independent entrepreneurs who make decisions based on personal values, business goals, and what works best on their land.

With this in mind, I asked my friend what Canadian farming should be, and for comparison, followed her answer with my own conception of the ideal.

To paraphrase, my friend suggested Canadian agriculture should be comprised of more and smaller farms that are environmentally conscious and operate independently of large corporations. This was excellent to hear because I whole-heartedly agree with all her points, and better yet, I can say with certainty that much of what she idealized already exists.

DSC_0009I told her about Ontario’s long-running Environmental Farm Plan program, the seemingly-infinite number of crop varieties available to growers, some neat innovations I come across as a farm writer, and how an independent lifestyle is one of the most attractive characteristics of a farming career. 

Considering my friend has never been to a farm like my family’s — and the fact that, like the rest of us, she is continually bombarded by anti-modernity propaganda — it’s only logical that knowledge gaps exist. That was, after all, the entire point of our dinner date. Regardless of how close to the ideal we think modern agriculture is, though, we both discovered our idea of what was “right” was more similar than originally anticipated.

It was a good conversation, and to her credit, my friend was already quite knowledgeable on some subjects, and shared that knowledge with me. Where she knew little, though, the only real thing lacking was context, and that reminded me not to take the independent business aspect of farming for granted.

Answering Consumers’ Tough Questions

By Ian McKillop, Chair of Farm & Food Care Canada

Did you know that only 30% of Canadians believe that the Canadian food system is heading in the right direction? And that 93% of Canadians know little or nothing about Canadian farming practices? These findings, from recent research done by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, are alarming and should be of concern to everyone involved in the food system in Canada – from farmers, to processors, to retailers.

What can we do about it and how can we get our message out?  The good news is that while many Canadians know little about farming, over 60% indicated that they would like to know more. As farmers and the food industry, we have a huge opportunity to engage with Canadians and build trust in our food system.

Read more about the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity here

The task of getting our message out is extremely difficult. No one industry or organization can do the work that needs to be done; it has to be a collaborative effort. There are many excellent Canadian initiatives underway — each with a slightly different focus and mandate but each providing important tools to promote Canadian food, farmers, and agriculture.   

Farm & Food Care, Agriculture More than Ever, and Agriculture in the Classroom,  along with countless commodity specific programs all at various stages of their growth, are doing tremendous work in being agricultural advocates. 

Sign up for the Farm & Food Care Newsletter here

A few weeks ago I was honoured to become chair of Farm & Food Care Canada.  For those who haven’t heard of this organization, it’s a framework of farmers, food companies, input suppliers, and associations created in 2011 with a mandate to provide credible information about food and farming in this country. 

Where do consumers get their information? Source: Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, 2016

Where do consumers get their information? Source: Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, 2016

Farm & Food Care Canada is also home to the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI). The CCFI will be another source of credible information on food and farming related issues — information and research that has been compiled by trusted professionals within the Canadian and U.S. food industries.

One of the key elements related to the structure of Farm & Food Care Canada is the collaborative approach that it brings to the table. The ability to collaborate and work together with the groups mentioned above — and others — is unique and gives us a great opportunity to connect with consumers.

As we move forward, it is critical that all of us involved in the Canadian food industry (yes, that includes farmers) must put our personal agendas and biases aside and work together to get the good news story out about Canada’s food system.  If we don’t tell our story, who is going to talk to the 60% of Canadians that want to know more about farming?

Over the last few years, we have seen some common farm practices — practices that we as farmers think are normal — come into the spotlight.  As a result, some poultry and hog farmers are facing the fact that they’ll have to adopt new, costly housing methods for their livestock and some crop farmers will have to adopt alternative methods to protect the seeds they plant.

I can’t help but think that if there was a framework such as Farm & Food Care Canada 25 years ago, and if the average Canadian consumer had better access to accurate information, then maybe some of the challenges we face today could have been overcome. 

The work ahead is huge and we will not have success overnight.  However, the ground work that we lay together as a united agriculture and food industry today will help to ensure that the Canadian food system is trusted, healthy, sustainable, and robust for years to come. 

An Open Letter and Invitation to Rachel Parent

By Lauren Benoit

Dear Rachel Parent,

My name is Lauren Benoit. I’m 21 years old and I have been following your story and your crusade against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for quite some time. You are a remarkably talented and accomplished young lady. I applaud your quest to provide people with more information about where their food comes from.

As both a farmer and someone who aspires to a career in science, I couldn’t agree more that the public deserves accurate reliable information about the products on grocery store shelves. Truthfully, the only place we disagree on is what actually qualifies as good information.

I am firmly in the pro-GMO camp. Biotechnology is a valuable tool for farmers that allows us to grow the abundance of safe and affordable food that we are privileged to here in Canada. The use of GM technology has several benefits, including reducing the need for tillage (which can cause soil erosion) and reducing the amount of fossil fuel burned on farm (and thus GHG emissions). More recent genetically-modified innovations, such as non-browning apples or bruise-resistant potatoes, are new options to help significantly reduce food waste.

The National Academy of Science recently released a report supporting the safety of GMO foods and cited no risk to the environment or humans — the future of science and biotechnology is bright.

Right now, you are choosing to continue your anti-GMO crusade despite overwhelming evidence that your information is flawed. I don’t know if this is because you distrust the more than 270 scientific bodies standing behind the safety of GMOs or because of the financial gain and social status that you gain from it. Either way, I feel for you. The empire that you have built on pseudoscience and fear seems to be crumbling.

For someone at the age where they are just beginning a career, I could understand if you’re afraid of what this means for you. Being 19 years old is hard enough as it is, and you have a lot of added weight on your shoulders right now. You started Kids Right to Know when you were 11 years old. You’ve spent 8 years — almost half your life — working on this cause, and as we continue to learn about GM technology, the facts are not in your favour. 

Even though we disagree on a topic very near to both our hearts, I do respect your drive and, if armed with accurate information, I think you have potential to become one of the great scientific communicators of our generation. I truly hope that you will listen to the science before it is too late and we see what could have become a wonderful career communicating science-based information disintegrate.

I would very much like to meet you and hear more of your story, if you’d be willing to meet — the coffee’s on me.

Yours truly,

Lauren Benoit

Lauren BenoitLauren Benoit is a 2016 BSc. (Agr) graduate from the University of Guelph who was raised on a grain farm just outside of Kirkton, ON. Lauren is currently working in crop protection research and has plans to begin an MSc. Degree in weed science at the University of Guelph in January 2017.

You Heard Me: I Like GMOs

By Matt McIntosh, Farm and Food Care Ontario

Few issues get me fired up like biotechnology and GMOs (also known as genetically modified organisms). Biotech interests me scientifically, concerns me socially, and confounds me to no end. It’s a subject where speaking out in favour can land you in a minefield of hateful conversations, and a topic that remains hotly contested despite thirty years of discussion.

It is also, however, a subject which the scientific and agricultural community must resolutely continue discussing with the public. The catch is, it needs to be approached in a specific way — it needs to be approached with less science and more stories.

To be honest, and if you haven’t guessed already, I’m a bit of a biotech fan.

I love GMOsYes, you read that right: I LIKE GMOs.

I see biotechnology as one of a great many tools that societies around the world can use to overcome significant agricultural, economic, and environmental challenges. Is it the scientific be-all end-all? Of course not. Should it replace things like traditional breeding? Of course not. But when used in conjunction with the practices, varieties, and lessons acquired over thousands of years of agricultural history, I can’t help but be awestruck at the astounding potential this technology has.

Why, then, does the opposition to biotechnology seem more combustible than ever?  The answer, or part of the answer anyway, is simple enough – biotech supporters are great at explaining, but not-so-great at connecting.

Kevin Folta, 2016

Kevin Folta, 2016

“Biotech is a battle between fear and fact, between heart and head, and heart always wins,” says Dr. Kevin Folta, a prominent biotech proponent and professor who chairs the Horticultural Sciences department at the University of Florida.

“You can’t pound people with science and expect them to accept it. You have to show that you have interests in problems that align with theirs, and how your solutions are viable mechanisms to fix them.”

I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Folta speak at the Farm & Food Care Ontario conference this past April. I fully support his message that establishing shared values and actually speaking-out is absolutely critical if we want the public to understand and accept this incredible science.

The unfortunate bit is Folta’s sentiment is not new. Indeed, the idea of communication through shared values has been one of the central themes discussed within agriculture for years. As progressive as this industry can be, though, it’s a theme that agriculture as a whole has in many ways failed to address — much to our detriment.

Personally, I can say I’ve bore witness to how effective a shared values approach can be (Farm & Food Care, my organization, has quite a few outreach initiatives). And really, if anti-GMO activists can successfully use this method – and they do – why can’t we?

For his part, I would suggest that nobody knows the highs and lows of public communication like Dr. Folta. His is a real roller-coaster tale.

During his presentation, and again in a follow-up email conversation, Folta explained that he, like many, had spent years reiterating the science behind biotechnology, but to no avail. In 2013, though, he started focusing on values and trust (what the Ancients called “pathos and ethos”), discussing how biotechnology impacts individual farmers, the goals of researchers, how communities cope and recover from diseases, and so on.

A change was noticeable almost immediately, and Folta began “changing hearts and minds” with much more success. Unfortunately for him, that success attracted the ire of characters with rather sinister intentions.

At that point, folks, the manure-slinging really started.

Through the American Freedom of Information Act, anti-biotech activists seized Folta’s email records (his research projects at the University of Florida make use of government funds, and thus he is publicly accountable). Using those records, a false narrative purporting him to be a payee and puppet of large agro-chemical companies was manufactured and spread from Vancouver to Pretoria. The incident forced Folta to defend his career, his science, his institution, and most significantly, his own credibility.

Kevin Folta speaks at the 2016 annual general meeting

Kevin Folta speaks at the 2016 annual general meeting

His name sufficiently tarred in the eyes of millions, Folta was worried his career was over.

Thankfully, the blatant lies were exposed soon thereafter, and he eventually rebounded both personally and in his career. Now, he actively discusses his passion through a number of different mediums, including a podcast (Talking Biotech), blog (kfolta.blogspot.ca), as a speaker, and as a contributor to www.GMOanswers.com – a public-facing site providing information, resources, and news on biotechnology.

On a personal level, Folta’s experience really hits home for me. It is a grand example of my significantly more minor-league experiences.  I myself have been called a “shill for big ag” while in university, working as a journalist, and even in social settings.

My experience isn’t unique either. Discussing GMOs anywhere can be both frustrating and stupefying. The willingness to over-simplify complex science into tweet-sized falsities, to blindly argue correlation automatically means causation, is astounding. Most notably of all, though, is the level of personal and sometimes even violent vitriol hurled between opponents. Just take two minutes and read the comments under a GMO-focused news article and you’ll see what I mean.

The whole business is a sickening state of affairs, and one that has consequences in ways most of us wouldn’t even consider. One that has stuck with me personally is how Folta’s unfortunate experience as a target of anti-GMO activism has turned people away from pursuing science.

“It breaks my heart,” says Folta with very visible emotion during his conference presentation. “I have potential students emailing me asking if their names would be included in public records if they work with me. They are not going into the field because they are afraid for their future. It’s absolutely devastating. “

Now, I may be a writer by trade, but I’m also a farm kid with career aspirations. I want to get back to my family’s farm. I cannot fathom being forced away from that goal by fear. The fact that fear keeps prospective scientists from pursuing their interests, from pursuing a career in which they see value for themselves and others, is abominable.

Amidst the negativity, though, it’s important to remember that recovery is possible, and that the public is actually open to what biotech supporters have to say. In fact, Folta specifically identified farmers as key players in the biotech debate. Farmers are, after all, the prime users of biotech crops, and the public wants to hear their stories. 

“Get your online real estate. Register your farm as a Twitter handle, start a blog and just share personal experiences,” says Folta. “People like me can be smeared to death (but) you’re immune from that. You’re the most competent and trusted, but we don’t talk to (the public). Right now the people that want to take out tools away are filling the void.”

Misinformation is a reality impossible to escape from, but laying down and letting misinformation macerate good, honest fact is an option no one can afford to take. As Folta’s experiences so blatantly illustrate, repeating the same-old communication strategies does not suffice. Saying nothing does not suffice. Speaking together and from the heart, however, has the potential to really tip the scales.

My dad often imparts the phrase “might as well do it now” whenever there’s a tough job to be done, with the understanding that procrastinating only makes the job more difficult. A lot of us, myself included in many ways, are way past due for taking our turn in the trenches.

Science needs good spokespeople and good stories — and agriculture the world over has both in spades.

Straight Talk: Let’s Get Real About Technology and our Food

It’s understandable that many consumers are curious about about how their food is grown. After all, we put food in our bodies, share it when celebrating or at times of mourning, and are responsible for what we serve to our precious children. At a time when anyone can broadcast their own personal message to millions of followers in seconds, there’s no shortage of opinions and advice on what you should and shouldn’t eat.

The tough part is, the science of health and wellness is far less sexy than many food bloggers and celebrity-du-jour personalities would have you believe. Unfortunately, the words “safe”, “affordable” and “abundant” don’t get the heart pumping like “toxic”, “Frankenfood”, and “genetically modified”. Teasing out fact from fiction about our food is not always easy or straight-forward.

This week, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report on the effects of genetically engineered (GE, sometimes also called GMO) crops on human health, the environment, and agriculture. The broad study combed through 900 studies and compared conventionally-bred crops to their GE counterparts.

Hear More: Click here to hear “Debunking Food Myths” with Yvette d’Entremont, the Sci Babe

The panel of scientists came up with a rather ho-hum conclusion: GE crops are pretty much just crops. One of the scientists involved in the study went on to say that GE is not “the panacea that some proponents claim, nor the dreaded monsters that others claim.”

Ultimately, the study confirms that crop varieties containing GE traits are safe for us to consume and safe for the environment. They’re also not a silver bullet to any one challenge in agriculture  — but anyone involved in farming recognizes there are always trade-offs when you’re working with Mother Nature.

The Academy of Sciences’ report also noted that the distinction between “genetically modified” and not is becoming less obvious, as technology, such as CRISPR, a gene-editing technique, creates new varieties of crop types indistinguishable from non-modified lines.

Will this Biotech 2.0 ease the fears and distrust many consumers have of technology in food production? That’s the big question that many in agriculture would love to see answered with a resounding yes.

Curious about how your food is grown? Follow this link to The Real Dirt on Farming

A Canadian Rancher’s Take on Earls’ Beef Campaign

Adrienne Ivey is a Canadian rancher, blogger, and mother. This post originally appeared on her blog The View from the Ranch Porch

Earls Kitchen and Bar has set the Canadian farming world all a-twitter.  The restaurant chain has recently launched a new marketing campaign promoting their latest development in beef  — “Certified Humane” raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones and steroids.

I don’t (didn’t) mind Earls as a dining option. Up until now, they sourced their beef for their 56 Canadian restaurants here, in Canada. They have great summertime patios, and they make fantastic Caesars. Their head office is in Vancouver, and their first ever location was started in 1982 in Edmonton, Alberta. Sounds good, right? Then suddenly their marketing took a turn that just doesn’t sit right with me.

EArl's ad

Earls Restaurant’s marketing campaign

Their first words of their sourcing strategy label their beef as “Certified Humane,” which struck immediate warning bells for me. As a beef producer, I have had the opportunity to visit and tour MANY cattle farms. I can say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the vast majority of Canadian Beef farms and ranches are raising their cattle in a humane way.

We are ranchers for a reason. We like working with animals every day. I have no issue with weeding out the “bad apples” that are bound to turn up in any industry, but these bad farmers are so uncommon, I cannot imagine the need to base your entire purchasing decision around them. I visited the label’s website and most specifically their producer page. On the page directed towards the farmers who would use their certification process, there was zero information on what they considered “humane”, zero mention of how becoming certified humane would benefit a farmer’s animals, zero mention of ways to make a farm more humane for its animals.

So what was the producer page for? Sales. It was touted as a way to sell more product. End of story. Andrew Campbell wrote an article for Real Agriculture about what exactly certified humane means… not much. To top this one off, Canada already has steps to make sure our animals are raised humanely. The Canadian Beef Code of Practices is something each and every one of us take pride in, something we follow because it is the right thing to do, not because we get paid more money for it.

So there’s that. I moved on a few words to “without the use of antibiotics”. This is perhaps the most terrifying marketing catch phrase in my mind. Why? Because this directly impacts animal welfare. I fully believe that healthy animals begin with prevention. The old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is completely true. The problem is that all sickness cannot be eradicated with prevention alone. Just like people, animals get sick sometimes — it’s a fact of life.

Finally, to the point of “no added hormones or steroids”. This I have spoken about many times. With the use of proven  safe methods, including hormones, Canadian farmers are now able produce MORE beef (32% more), while using significantly fewer resources (24% less land and 29% less breeding stock), and creating a significantly SMALLER environmental footprint (producing 15% less greenhouse gasses). I wrote about this HERE. Can we produce beef without hormone implants? Sure. But why choose to do less with more if it is a proven, safe, efficient method? To learn more about hormone use in beef read here or here.

To read the rest of this blog entry, which includes a discussion on Earls sourcing beef from outside of the country, click here.

Guest Blog: What a Dietetic Intern Learned at a Farm Conference

By Anna Van Osch, Dietetic Intern, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

Last week, I had the privilege of attending Farm & Food Care Ontario’s Annual Conference and Speaker series. Like everyone else in the room, I was there to learn more about the state of our food system, how to sustain it and what can be done to ensure consumer trust in it. Unlike most people in the audience though, I am not a farmer and have no direct link to the agriculture sector. I am a dietetic intern, working to gain experience so I can write my exam to become a registered dietitian (RD). I usually spend my days in hospitals, with family health teams or other healthcare facilities, so being surrounded by food producers was a change of scenery.

Michael Von MassowDr. Michael von Massow (pictured), with the University of Guelph, quickly made me realize why I was there.

Whether a producer, consumer or somewhere in-between, we all make choices every day that impact our food system. As consumers we have started paying more attention to our food system and asking tougher questions about how the food on our plates is produced.

Interacting with patients (a.k.a. food consumers) on a daily basis I get asked questions like: What’s the difference between conventional, organic and grass fed dairy; what effect will GMO foods or steroids have on my kids; and, why should I buy local?

There is a knowledge gap that exists regarding how we think food is produced and how food is actually produced. Sitting in a room full of farmers whose livelihood depends on having the most up to date knowledge and intimate understanding of farming practises, it may be hard to fathom that millions of Canadians don’t truly understand how their dinner makes it from the field to their fork.

Neither party is at fault for the miscommunication, rather it is a misunderstanding borne of different experiences. Farmers are experts in their field and therefore while they are trying to detail the benefits of antibiotic use in their livestock, some consumers don’t even know what that chicken’s life on the farm actually looks like.  As von Massow said “we’re trying to have a nuanced discussion… we have to start with the basics.”

Be it social media, activist groups, or friends, being aware of where consumers are getting their information can help producers to effectively share their knowledge. Von Massow encouraged producers to look for opportunities to engage with consumers and build a positive relationship so consumers feel comfortable coming to the experts (farmers!) when they have questions. Rather than an “us” and “them” mentality, we have to look for opportunities to engage with the other and listen to their concerns. At this point, I wanted to tell everyone in the room to “talk with me!”

The food production questions RDs are asked every day show that consumers are looking for information about their food system. The danger of the knowledge gap is that even without all the information, consumers can still form opinions. RDs are already providing evidence-based information about the health effects of food. So why not make all our jobs easier by providing RDs with the correct information about farming practises, so we can confidently answer questions about how food production methods impact our health? As von Massow said “a conversation can’t be two monologues,” so let’s close that knowledge gap by opening up the conversation between consumers, producers, and RDs, too.