Public discussion can be noisy and rancorous but there are many things on which most people agree – the need for clean air and water, a healthy environment and the ability to get a reasonable return from a marketplace that offers a level playing field for all.
Getting to that level playing field for international trade depends on agreed rules. In Canada, that means policies and regulations based on science. These are governed by bodies such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Pest Management Regulatory Agency.
Science acts as an impartial arbiter. Parties that disagree on issues can independently conduct the same research in the same way and come up with the same answers.
That said, markets serve people, and their perceptions have a role. Regulations allow for markets tailored to people’s beliefs, whether religious such as kosher and halal, or ideological, such as non-GM labelled products.
The problem comes when popular opinion drifts into policy making and feeds the temptation to wall off local markets and producers from competition.
For example, the U.K. has barred import of Canadian beef, citing the use of hormones and carcass washes. Meanwhile, U.K. beef enjoys tariff-free access to the Canadian market. Industry organizations here are pushing to keep the U.K. out of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, since their stance doesn’t meet scientific standards.
South of the border, Mexico is enacting regulations to ban GM corn, creating a multi-billion-dollar spat with the United States. Mexico argues it is protecting its many varieties of heritage corn, a position based more upon prevailing public narrative and activism than facts.
What these examples have in common is their ability to leverage public perceptions and fears about standard practices in agriculture and food processing.
Farmers are familiar and comfortable with technologies such as GM and crop protection products, livestock vaccines and production-enhancing hormones. Not everyone shares that comfort level.
This leaves the public square vulnerable. In the absence of informed, trusted voices, activists or other agenda-driven groups dominate the conversation. From there, politicians can erect non-tariff trade barriers backed by public support.
To counter this, some farmers have taken to social media to provide a window on daily operations and how they produce food. But not everyone has the desire, time or savvy to get online to push the farm story. They need allies, both rural and urban.
Last week, representatives at the North American European Union Agricultural Conference in Charlottetown reiterated their desire to be part of ag policy development. They cited familiar challenges: policies that don’t reflect reality on the farm, labour shortages, non-tariff trade barriers and demands from consumers who are far removed from the farm.
Reaching those consumers might begin with a focus on things we can agree on.
Climate change is one possibility, although even there, agreement is not universal. A recent study in the journal PLOS Climate asserts that state-of-the-art management and ag technology could reduce or even eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. The researchers identify the food system as “one of the most powerful weapons in the battle against climate change.”
To realize these benefits means adopting new ag technology in a timely manner, whether it be genetic tools for crop breeding, new biological or chemical crop protection products, or advanced robotics. It means clear, science-based policy and regulations on which we can all agree.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Michael Robin, Robin Booker, Laura Rance and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.
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