National beef strategy focuses on consumers

Consumer confidence was listed as a priority in the new national beef strategy, released in the beginning of January. The industry has very high expectations for this strategy and is making consumer interests prominent. Here’s why. Despite the increase in demand for meat protein, consumers are very confused. They’re misled and are exposed to anti-beef attitudes. Although this has little relevance to food hot off the grill, it’s this kind of junk marketing and science that chips away at some consumers’ faith.

Consumer demand and knowledge is key to driving the industry. Photo credit www.canadiancattlemen.ca

Consumer demand and knowledge is key to driving the industry. Photo credit www.canadiancattlemen.ca

Canadian beef supplies are tight, and producers know they need to catch up. The sector is still rebounding and rebuilding from the mad cow scare, and very little new land is opening up on which to graze cattle, or grow feed for them. The national strategy aims to help fix those woes. The country’s five main beef organizations say Canadian beef farmers will get their share of the growing and affluent global market for meat protein only by working together. The sector must work as a national industry.

No one — feed producer, feedlot operator, processor, whatever — is an island in this market. If the sector can’t increase demand, production efficiency and carcass value, while figuring out ways to compete with other countries who have cheaper costs of production, it will linger behind them. Bridging the fierce independence of farming with the need for co-operation has long been a challenge for other commodities. It’s the beef sector’s turn at bat.

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Remembering farmers’ commitment to feeding us

Holidays are over, and food was a special part of them. We should commend those who grow food for us, or raise it. We need to remember farmers and their commitment to feeding us, rather than dumping on them. Some people believe farmers are getting too big and “corporate,” based on what anti-livestock and anti-technology activists say. But that’s not true. Mechanization and technology does keeping reaching new heights, but that’s to take some of the load off farmers.

Researchers at the University of Guelph and elsewhere are helping create affordable technology to help keep production costs and food prices in check. It’s part of a drive toward precision farming, where little on the farm is left to chance or waste. For livestock, this includes breeding top animals with the best genetics for immunity, resulting in less veterinary care. For crops, researchers are finding ways to add traits that make plants more robust. Technology has always been an integral part of agriculture, and consumers need to hear more about farming from farmers.

Despite farmers’ significance to society, they are not as powerful a lobby group as they once were. That was underlined recently when activists won what’s become an unfortunate battleground involving pollinators and pesticides. Farmers need to control their own agendas, and need to speak out. One group I don’t have to convince to speak out is my agricultural communications students. They wrote a series of articles for farms.com over the holidays; check them out on the company’s website, or here, on my course syllabus.

Speaking up for agriculture is becoming more and more important. Photo credit www.shapard.com

Speaking up for agriculture is becoming more and more important. Photo credit www.shapard.com

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Society, farming falling out of step

Dave McClure once noted consumers don’t care about your solutions, they care about their problems. Thinking about the coming year, I wonder if that approach would work for the agri-food sector. The first step is to figure out who your consumer is; this could be consumers or the next person in the value chain, like the person who buys their crops or livestock, is their customer.

Ultimately consumers buy or use what farmers produce, regardless of value added by others, and have influence on the way producers farm. So what do consumers want? Supply isn’t an issue for Canadians, nor is affordability, generally speaking. Compared to many countries, food in Canada is relatively affordable. But consumers do have some problems, both of which farmers are able to help with. Food waste has become a $31-billion a year problem, with up to 40 per cent of all food wasted. That’s 40 per cent of what farmers grow and 40 per cent of what consumers buy. Another is confusion. Consumers have high regard for farmers, but I sense they’re starting to lose a bit of faith, confused by activists’ message about farming.

Food waste is one problem that Canadian consumers and farmers face. Photo credit www.mcleans.com

Food waste is one problem that Canadian consumers and farmers face. Photo credit www.mcleans.com

The agri-food community would seem wholesome indeed if it launched a campaign to help consumers with food waste. Explaining ways to reduce food waste at home is not complicated, and farmers could help. Toeing the line is not an option. The pollinator brouhaha in Ontario shows society and farming are falling out of step. And that’s a problem for both. Agriculture can help people with their problems, and needs a new approach to keep consumers’ faith.

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