Although farmers and farming are often associated with hard work and clean living, the industry has always been somewhat dog-eat-dog. Unlike other sectors, such as pharma, plastics and energy, which tend to coalesce and act in concert when challenged by outside forces or circumstances, agriculture too often turns on itself – the proverbial circular firing squad.
Some of this behaviour is structural and logical. Every dollar gained by one player, a beef producer say, is forgone revenue for stakeholders up the chain; processors and retailers in this case.
Ripples spread when we don’t cooperate
But industry stakeholders have also traditionally taken a ‘me first’ rather than a cooperative approach on significant policy issues, often to their own long-term detriment. For example, the agricultural biotechnology sector split violently around the proposed introduction of the first major biotech product in Canada, Bovine Somatotropin or BST.
Developed in the 1980s, BST replicates the somatotropin naturally produced in cattle using a biotechnology-based manufacturing process. Its development offered significant productivity advances and was found to be both safe and effective by regulatory authorities. However, because the technology was associated with milk, and fearing consumer backlash, other companies in the biotech field distanced themselves. In some cases, they even took a negative position toward registration.
The result: not only was BST never registered in Canada (it did eventually attain registration in the US and many other countries globally), future biotech technologies and platforms, such as the unfortunately named genetically modified organisms or GMOs, were also tainted in the minds of consumers.
The question today is: has this trend softened? Is the primary ag sector now willing and prepared to act cooperatively more than before, not only due to the stresses of COVID, but also because consumers are increasingly engaged in their food selection, preparation, and consumption decisions? Coupled with the emergence of social media, rifts in the industry are now highly visible and can negatively affect both bottom lines and reputations.
Have we learned our lesson?
Two industry leaders think we may be turning this ship around. John Jamieson, president and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI), notes they created the recently launched It’s Good Canada campaign to celebrate the work of everyone involved in Canada’s food system. Jamieson has seen strong uptake and participation in the campaign from all corners of the agri-food sector, from producers to processors, retailers, bankers, academics and others.
“Industry players may need a new mindset,” says Jamieson. “We can’t continue to try to build ourselves up as individuals or sectors by bringing someone else down. The public is more aware and engaged, and they expect better of us.”
Cathy Lennon, general manager of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), found herself reaching out, connecting and coordinating with stakeholders outside of primary agriculture more than ever before as she dealt with COVID-related issues on behalf of her membership.
“In my role at OFA, for example, I sit on the board of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce,” says Lennon. “Because of this, I meet with a lot of people outside my usual agricultural constituency. So at various meetings and roundtables, the universities, construction and forestry people are there, and, all of a sudden, we’re talking about the lack of broadband coverage across the country, which affects not only farmers but also business executives and universities who are now challenged in ways they never were before by trying to work remotely. It points out not only the need to coordinate within ag to push for change, but also to stay connected with other sectors and stakeholders. It’s a whole new interconnected world, interdependent and in need of trust and better communication.”
Only time will tell if necessity becomes the mother of cooperation within the agricultural sector. It’s a trend definitely worth watching.