Farmers get some PR pointers

This is a longer version of a post I put up last week – and this article is also printed in the Ontario Farmer this week.
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An episode of Oprah. A film called Food Inc. A hard-hitting Time magazine cover story. A series in the Toronto Star.

The last year was not a good one for agriculture on the public relations front, but a Guelph agri-food consultant still believes the industry is on the right track. And he offered some tips to help address the growing public perception issue as he spoke to a meeting of the Guelph Partnership for Innovation last week.

“2009 was a terrible year for negat ive coverage about agriculture,” said Rob Hannam, President of Synthesis Agri- Food Consulting. “Sensationalism sells and it’s easy to make food production and processing shocking to people who have no idea how food is actually produced.”

According to an Ipsos Reid survey completed last year for the Ontario Farm Animal Council, 52 per cent of non-farming adults have a positive overall impression of Canadian agriculture. Just over half of respondents indicated they knew nothing or very little about farming, but 62 per cent of those individuals indicated they were open to learning more.

There are some key questions that consumers are increasingly asking when making their food consumption choices, said Hannam, which all relate to food production and health.

“How was my food produced? There are many different options available to consumers to allow them choice,” said Hannam. “This includes organic, biodynamic, free range, fair trade, sustainably produced, naturally produced and more.”

Another common question relates to the origins of food. Ontarians are lucky to have a great selection of locally produced foods, said Hannam, as well as programs like Foodland Ontario and Local Food Plus to help promote them and help consumers identify what they’re buying.

What’s in my food? is another key question and marketers are responding with many different identifiers, such as grain-fed, natural sweeteners, no preservatives, antibiotic free, heirloom and others. The final question, according to Hannam, is linked to health and consumers questioning whether their food choices can make them healthier. He cited Omega-3 eggs and DHA-enriched milk as two popular examples of food choices with health benefits.

The criticism many have for agriculture is often based on misinformation about the changes the industry has undergone in the last 50 years, Hannam stated. Production has increased, farms have gotten bigger and only about two percent of Canada’s population is still actively involved in agriculture. Many consumers are also frustrated with trying to balance the perceived high cost of healthy food and the need to eat a nutritious diet with the plethora of unhealthy food ingredients and food products on the market.

In light of all of this, is modern agriculture on the right track? Yes, according to Hannam, but there’s more that both consumers and the agri-food sector should be doing to battle the misconceptions and bad PR surrounding food and farming.

For agriculture, he recommended:

* Adopt new technology like traceability and biotechnology as a way to continually advance the sector.

* Embrace and share agriculture’s sustainability story. The many things that farmers do to take care of the land, air and water is a good news story.

* Self-monitor. Don’t automatically dismiss criticism but instead, evaluate and use it to keep raising the bar to make the industry better.

* Offer choice. Responding to consumer demand for food product choices can be a great market opportunity.

* Explain, explain, explain. Use emotion to connect with consumers and communicate beyond the science, which is agriculture’s traditional approach.

For consumers, he suggests:

* Food is not one size fits all. Different consumers have different needs and farmers produce to meet those needs.

* If you want it, ask for it. Farmers and food companies will respond to consumer demand.

* Vote with your food dollars to influence and shape the market.

* Support local food whenever possible and recognize how lucky we are to have such a wide range of Ontario-grown products to choose from. But we can’t produce everything here so don’t turn your back on global foods.

* Make informed food choices based on all -not just some -information. For every source of sensationalism about agriculture, there’s also one based on facts and proven science.

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