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Bridging the gap from farmer to consumer critical to progress in farm animal care

Posted: October 30, 2013

Open dialogue, science-driven innovation and tangible backing from the value chain are crucial for Canadian agriculture to tackle today's challenges around farm animal care, say speakers at the 2013 National Farm Animal Care Conference in Ottawa.

Consumers are more disconnected from agriculture than ever, yet often have strong opinions on how food is produced, says Crystal Mackay, Executive Director, Farm & Food Care Ontario. "We need to engage Canadians in an open, positive and honest conversation, like we're sitting across from one another over coffee," says Mackay. "Farming and food are not typically among the top-of-mind issues keeping consumers up at night. But their attitudes and perceptions related to agriculture do have an increasing impact on what they buy and the trust they give us to manage our industries. It's much better if we can support a healthy dialogue and build understanding in a positive way before something becomes a major concern."

Building on shared values is a good approach, says Dr. Jeff Spooner, a social science researcher with the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia. He has led a multi-stakeholder, multi-study project, using in-depth interviews with both producers and non-producers in seven provinces, to identify and gain insights on these mutual principles.

"We can't expect people outside of agriculture to fully understand the reasons behind different livestock production methods," says Spooner. "But as our studies confirmed, there are values they share with producers. These values can provide a basis for building a common dialogue and understanding, and identifying practices likely to be accepted by both groups. Importantly, while some public views may be interpreted as idealistic by producers, we saw clear evidence that public idealism can readily accommodate realism. The fact that non-producers may not be well versed in contemporary production methods does not mean that they are not willing to know or learn more and to adjust their perceptions."

Values have a powerful role when crisis situations arise, says Jeff Ansell, media and crisis communications consultant. "Prevention of any crisis is obviously best but when one does arise, the principles of doing the right thing and communicating openly don't change. Know your values and show them with your actions."

Also critical to building trust is commitment to continual improvement, says Dr. Ed Pajor, Professor, Animal Behavior and Welfare, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Department of Production Animal Health, University of Calgary. In the realm of science-driven innovation, that means not just supporting research, but implementing any practical solutions it produces in a timely manner.

The area of pain assessment and management is one example of strong research progress in recent years that now must translate to practical change, says Pajor. "There will always be more we can learn and more specific ways we can assess. That doesn't mean we should wait for perfection and do nothing now, particularly with opportunities that are relatively simple to implement and don't involve major infrastructure investment. Agriculture can't afford an image of being too slow to change. Producers are going to be expected to adapt practices for welfare reasons quicker than ever before and we need to look at these situations as opportunities."

However, even with new knowledge from science, there remain tough challenges where industry economics make it extremely difficult to implement change in a way that both improves animal welfare and is workable for producers, says Catherine Scovil, Associate Executive Director, Canadian Pork Council. Sow housing in the pork industry is one of those tough issues. "The issue of cost sharing can be a sore spot for the industry and farmers should not have to bear this cost alone. We are talking to retailers, food service companies and governments, but so far no one is putting dollars on the table to help pay."

It's a case where dialogue and working together is going to be critical not just as it concerns the industry / public dynamic but also within the value chain itself, says Scovil. "We need to address this because forced conversions will have farmers exiting the industry. It's not in anyone's interests to close facilities in Canada and fill the gap with imported product. That's not the objective of the Code."

The 2013 National Farm Animal Care Conference brought together 140 participants from across the agriculture and food value chain as well as others with an interest in farm animal care. The conference was hosted by the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC). Learn more at www.nfacc.ca.