Canadian Consumers Respecting Farmers: Think Again

I’m gearing up for harvest. In spring, I try to envision every scenario that needs to be addressed. Come the fall, it’s the same thing in reverse. Now that the crop is almost upon us, I’d better be ready once the crop is ready. Despite the lower commodity prices of the last few months, there is a world out there looking to get fed.

Food demand continues to increase on a global basis. Do a simple Google search on food demand and you will find a plethora of agencies talking about how we need to boost agricultural productivity to satisfy that demand. Needless to say, that reality is somewhat opaque when farmers think about satisfying that burgeoning food demand. Commodity agriculture is difficult to translate into actually grocery store food demand. However, as farmers, I’m sure most of us have wondered if we could realize some of those grocery store profits by getting closer to the consumer’s dinner plate. It’s a huge challenge, often fraught with many management challenges.

Keep in mind over the 33 years of writing this column consumer behavior on food choices has changed greatly. For instance, Canadians eat a lot more chicken, much more than they did 33 years ago when they ate more pork and beef. Canadians eat more bananas than they do apples and there has been a move away from sugar. Of course, we also know that Canadians eat more food “out” than they have ever did before. It’s a changing food marketplace, which is almost impossible for farmers to fathom.

Despite the complex nature of our food marketplace, farmers still want the consumer to know that we are good stewards of the environment and should be trusted to provide safe affordable food. In fact, farmers have consumer’s back, but for this, would appreciate their respect. Over my career, this is where I think problems arise. I’ve always maintained Canadian consumers would sell out farmers for 25 cents. Cheap food seemingly always wins.

I won’t move on that even after 33 years. However, per usual, there is increasingly so much in between as food gets ever cheaper. I was at a presentation tonight where I learned that climate change is increasingly a big criterion for many Canadian consumers when making their grocery store choices. In other words, which food choice leaves the least carbon footprint? 33 years ago when I started writing this column nobody would have ever thought about that.

The “carbon foot print” food criteria is growing, but is also surely based on the “cheap” default. I have always maintained that food in our society has become ubiquitous. As it has become this way, the consumer market place grows more complex and “Big Grocery” is only too ready with their marketing to take advantage of this. Farmers are often left, trying to explain to consumers that they are the good guys.

I had one good challenge on my food ubiquitous argument. I was asked how much I have travelled in this country. I immediately knew what they were referring to. I’ve never been to the Canadian Arctic. Like most Canadians I’ve never experienced the high grocery prices in the high arctic or the food “insecurity” there is there. With the effects of climate change altering traditional hunting patterns in the high Arctic, high food prices are a real issue. Food is not ubiquitous there.

It’s also not ubiquitous in the third world. As all of you know I travel to Bangladesh often. In that country, food is either fresh, or it will make you sick. There is no food safety system. However in Canada, it’s a world away from that. Getting the consumer to understand the Canadian farmer continues to challenge farm groups across the country.

I’ve never been a big proponent of co-opting the Canadian consumer into some type of education campaign to learn more about Canadian agriculture. Simply put, Canadian consumers have their own problems and food generally speaking isn’t one of them. Farm sectors especially close to the consumer’s dinner table like pork, beef, chicken and horticulture should do their due diligence, then walk away. Focus on building more intensive domestic processing for the food commodities we produce. The consumer will ultimately benefit.

This past week, Tim Hortons announced they were discontinuing the sale of their Beyond Meat burgers outside of Ontario and BC. You could almost hear the cheers among many Canadian livestock producers. Needless to say, Canadian consumers go to Tim Hortons for coffee and donuts. Buying high priced processed food at Tims wasn’t working for them. The food market place is that fickle. For Canadian farmers hoping the consumer might grant them more respect, think again. Consumers do what they want. We need to respect whatever that is.