I tell my University of Guelph agricultural communications students that conflict drives the news. And having touched down in 2012, it’s pretty easy to find conflict in agriculture and food. Some of it simmers in social undercurrents, in what we’ve come to accept as cultural norms. Other examples of conflict have indeed surfaced, but seem just as chronic.

We waste a lot of food.

Take the fact that while hundreds of thousands of people go to bed hungry, North American society has become quite comfortable throwing out food. Guelph’s George Morris Centre estimates we throw away 40 per cent of our food every year, worth about $27 billion.

Conflict also exists in the fact we are one of the world’s most affluent societies, yet in Ontario, 400,000 people use food banks. The Ontario Association of Food Banks delivers more than eight million pounds of food to food banks and their hunger relief programs across the province, including breakfast clubs, school meal programs, soup and community kitchens, emergency shelters, seniors’ centres and youth groups across Ontario. It’s become a huge social network.

And there’s conflict in the fact that even though we’re better educated than ever, we’re putting untold pressure on our health-care system by making poor food choices. Nova Scotia has predicted that without change, in 10 to 15 years health care will consume 100 per cent of its provincial program spending budget. Other provinces feel similar pressure.

None of this conflict is the agriculture sector’s fault. But interestingly, people still look to it for answers. They’ve embraced Hippocrates’ advice: let food be thy medicine.

And perhaps that would be more likely if people gravitated towards healthier food choices in the same way they’ve embraced local food. A new Bank of Montreal consumer poll showed 94 per cent of Canadians believe it is important to support local farmers and buy local on a regular basis. Respondents said when they go for local food, 70 per cent or more choose poultry and vegetables first, followed by beef, fruit and cheese.

To me, those sound like pretty healthy choices.

Of course, the way food is prepared has a lot to do with its impact on health. But at least the raw commodities have the potential to get people off to a good start.

More hopeful signs are on the horizon. John Kelly, vice-president of the Erie Innovation and Commercializationin farmland-rich Norfolk County, says southern Ontario’s large population is expanding its preferences for local food. Some companies in food service and

retail are focusing on local food as a merchandising strategy. He believes demand is clearly on the rise, as is the opportunity for increased supply of primary and processed food products from the region.

If we want access to local food, farmers need to be profitable. For a long time, pork producers in particular were suffering. The Canadian government even had a program to help them get out of pig farming. But that’s turning around, thanks in part to research and genetics.

Jim Long, president of purebred pork breeding giant Genesus Inc., says the best farmers are cutting their costs and increasing their profitability by investing in pigs that produce bigger litters. Incredibly, he says, he’s seen customers jump four pigs per sow per year by changing genetics. To the public, this will look like business as usual. To farmers, the difference is huge.

In 2012, farmers will continue working through conflicts with weather, prices, politics and everything else that makes food production challenging and fascinating. Let’s wish them a Happy New Year. A lot is riding on their success.

This column appeared in the Guelph Mercury January 2, 2012. The photo here is from planetgreen.discovery.com.