We eat and drink our environment

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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October 27, 2004: Last month, fresh sushi was banned in Ontario – maybe. Health officials have formalized rules which require the fish to be frozen first. There’s a three-month stay on enforcement. Politicians were quick to respond with talk of a review. The official rationale for the new regulation? -- freezing raw fish is an effective way to remove parasites.

Also last month, General Mills, the second largest cereal producer in the U.S., announced its imminent conversion of all its breakfast cereals to whole grain. Twenty-nine cereals will feature new recipes and packaging as they join Cheerios and Wheaties in the healthier eating aisle. The official rationale for the nutritional makeover? -- the “Whole Grain” label on every box will make it easier for consumers to eat healthy food.

These stories took me back to the seminar series sponsored last winter by the Christian Farmers Federation on the theme: “Out of an Abundance of Caution.” We say, “Food is safe for health, farming systems are safe for the environment” and then we load on the regulations, cook up new recipes and retarget the message. At the end of a day of exploring the growing vigilance permeating the food chain, we asked seminar participants: What is driving us to become so cautious?

Throughout the seminar series a total of 370 reasons for caution were recorded. Grouping them resulted in a number of themes for both society and farmers.

Society has become cautious because consumer attitudes and characteristic have changed, society is losing its ability to take risks, the media has emphasized perception rather than fact, trust throughout the food chain has eroded and governments have lost credibility.

According to participants, consumers have become more health conscious, are better educated on the connection between food and health, are more likely to make decisions based on emotions and have become detached from the source of their food. This disconnect between consumers and producers is generating a fear of the unknown (30 %). Society, in general, has become risk-averse in response to globalization, to awareness created by the discovery in Canada of SARS, Avian flu and mad cow disease, to technology such as transgenic modification and in response to the threat of terrorism (29 %). The media blows concerns about the food chain out of proportion through sensationalism and emphasizing the risks, while not bothering with sound comparative facts (22 %). A lack of trust and fear of the unknown was blamed on the anonymity and the lack of relationships between the participants in the food chain (14 %). Government credibility was described as non-existent because they had, for too long, emphasized cheap food (5 %.

Farmers are adopting more cautious approaches on their own farms because of market signals, their own desire to be responsible, fear of liability, the pressure of regulations and a sincere desire to reassure consumers. One of the breakout groups wrote: “We are no longer innocent until proven guilty.”

Participants themselves have become more cautious and support various assurance schemes to protect market shares and slim margins, have an edge in the marketplace, be part of “new and improved” products, access premiums, open export markets and meet and exceed standards. They recognized that the concentration of market clout by a few transnational corporations creates competition and access issues that keep them scrambling to keep up with the pace of change (30 %). Participants want to be good stewards. They want to be recognized as proactive, responsible, caring, constantly improving, professional, science-based, accountable, committed to sustainable agriculture and be able to take pride in their production (22 %). Others felt forced into cautious activities to meet regulations, document their due diligence, create traceability and get the few who are careless to meet standards (20 %). One breakout group wrote “have to go along to get along.” A number have changed practices out of fear of litigation and nervousness about some of the recent experiences in the Canadian food system such as the discovery of mad cow disease and Avian flu (18 %). Others are participating in documented assurance programs to emphasize the need to maintain consumer confidence in farm practices and products (11 %).

Our growing sense of caution is a response to a simple fact: the human footprint in our environment is growing. We eat and drink our environment.



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