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.
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.