Smart journalism helps shine light on food and farming

Bridging the gap between farmers and consumers has quickly become one of the most important mandates for agricultural communicators. Consumers are seeking more information about food production, have increased concerns about food safety and rising food costs, and an overwhelming majority feel they are not well informed about modern farming practices.

According to both the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute and U.S. Centre for Food Integrity, trust is now the defining issue for those involved in food production and supply. Consumer research on both sides of the border finds heightened interest in health, nutrition, food safety, sustainability, ethics, food security and reliability of supply.

While we may have more good food science available today than ever before, much of it is clouded by what you might call “alternative facts” or outright urban myths that get perpetuated through social media echo chambers.  And much is simply left unsaid as we assume the average consumer “won’t understand” what we’re talking about. In a digital world, every word counts. A single Tweet from a popular chef can change how thousands of people think about a food product. Thankfully, complex issues tend to bring out the very best in our brightest minds. There are many journalists and publications dedicating time and resources today in reporting on the issue of modern food production – from all perspectives.

Gord Gilmour, editor of The Manitoba Co-Operator, for example, has penned a terrific series of editorials to help shine some light and much-needed balance on the issue. In his latest titled ‘Mutual respect’, he writes: “So having the consumer understand you and your business is a double-edged sword. I personally still think it’s a worthwhile endeavour, but I don’t think it will be the simple, one-way or clean strategy many do. There is another area, however, where the agriculture sector is sorely lacking in both focus and effort — understanding their fellow citizens and their perspective. After all, if we expect them to understand us, should we not at least try to understand them?”

The venerable Salon.com has even weighed in with a recent article titled It’s time to put food policy back on the table.  The piece makes a bold claim about the current state of affairs for farmers and consumers alike: “In the past three years, farm income has declined steadily, plummeting 12 per cent just in the last year. But these crucial-but-endangered food producers were totally disappeared by the political cognoscenti. Actually, the farmer has long been forgotten in America’s presidential discussion. In a New York Times op-ed, Professor A. Hope Jahren reported on the discovery she made when reading through transcripts of past debates: “Farm policy hasn’t come up even once in a presidential debate for the past 16 years.”

A lack of attention to policy combined with lack of food literacy forms the perfect conditions for consumer confusion. Carolyn Cooper, editor of Food in Canada, told me in a recent conversation that “lack of food literacy and education is one of the most significant challenges in communicating information about food production, and along with telling your story, should be the aim of communications with consumers.”

She added that collaboration has become increasingly important in the food industry, and she suggested specifically that groups “collaborate on messaging to present an honest, farm-to-fork view of food production.”

It’s interesting times in agri-food when every challenge also poses a new opportunity for engagement. Thanks to journalists like Cooper and the publications they work for, we’re seeing some of the best coverage ever on this important topic.