Originally published March 28, 2019 on Western Producer
By Robert Arnason
There’s no shortage of controversial topics in agriculture.
Canadians, regardless if they’re informed or not, often have strong opinions about pesticides, genetically modified crops and growth hormones for livestock.
But a recent and innovative public opinion study has found that Canadians are most interested in one topic related to agriculture — climate change.
From January of 2017 to January 2019, more than 2.5 million Canadians discussed climate change and farming on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. That’s more than twice the number who talked about pesticides on social media and three times the amount who discussed antibiotics and food production.
The findings are from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, a non-profit that helps Canada’s agri-food industry earn public trust.
In the last few years, the CCFI has done traditional polling to understand what Canadians think about modern farming. Its latest study, released in detail today, didn’t ask any questions.
Instead, it hired a company to use an artificial intelligence tool to “crawl” across social media and listen to the conversations of 254,000 Canadians.
The company, Tactix, was particularly interested in what Canadians were saying about four topics: GM food, pesticides, antibiotics and hormones.
Of those four, GMOs were the hottest topic on social media:
One of the weaknesses of traditional polling is the question can influence the answer.
“Asking people a question naturally causes them to develop opinions on subjects they did not necessarily care about before,” the CCFI report said.
“The AI tool can passively monitor its sample population, waiting for them to voice their opinions rather than inciting them to develop one.”
One of the key findings of the social media monitoring was that Canadians think about farmers when they’re discussing controversial agricultural topics.
For instance, 41 percent of the analyzed discussions about GMOs mentioned farmers, but only one percent of those online conversations associated the issue with scientists.
Similarly, 59 percent of online discussions about pesticides related the issue to farmers, but only one percent of discussions connected pesticides to pesticide companies.
“Farmers are associated with these technologies,” the report said.
“Farmers are the front line and wear the issue when it comes to public opinion.”
The study also confirmed what pollsters have known for a long time — Canadians have negative feelings about GM food.
About 60 percent of the online conversations about GMOs fell into the “GM foods are bad” category.
However, the social media monitoring had a different take on demographics than public opinion surveys.
Polling has shown that demographic groups, categorized by age, gender and ethnicity, can have differing opinions about things such as pesticides and growth hormones in food production.
The Tactix results showed there is almost no difference between demographic groups and how those groups talk about farming.
For example, people younger than 25, 35 to 45 and older than 65 had similar thoughts about organic farming. Around 90 percent had favourable opinions about organics.
“On all topics, all age groups were within one to two percent of each other,” the report said.
“Race similarly had no bearing on opinion.”