Originally published February 21, 2019 on Western Producer
By Robert Arnason
It happens at almost every farm meeting in Canada.
Someone gets up from their chair, walks over to the podium and delivers a 30-minute talk about “the importance of social media.”
The speaker typically uses words like “engagement” and then tells farmers how to use Twitter and Facebook to win friends and influence people.
This has been happening for years at agricultural conferences across Canada. Because of all those presentations, thousands of producers now use social media to connect with consumers and explain the food production practices on their farm.
But are those efforts making a difference?
When it comes to things like pesticides, hormone use, antibiotics and genetically modified foods, the impact has been minimal.
“We’ve tracked the level of concern around those four topics … for 10 years and we haven’t really seen any change (in public perception),” said Crystal Mackay, president of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity.
“We don’t see increasing support for agriculture overall, or for specific topics like GMOs, pesticides, antibiotics or hormones.”
That doesn’t mean the social media efforts have been a failure, but it’s becoming clear that social media advocacy, or online “agvocacy,” hasn’t moved the needle.
“Might it be influencing some people? Perhaps. But it’s not influencing the great masses of consumers,” said Mike Von Massow, a University of Guelph economist who studies how people think about food.
Other experts, such as Sylvain Charlebois of Dalhousie University, have also concluded that social media efforts are not working.
That shouldn’t be a shock.
Many people, including prominent scientists, have spent hours talking about the safety of pesticides, GM crops and other agricultural technologies.
Those efforts failed.
“It only took me 12 years, of really working hard to share science and give people facts, to realize that it wasn’t working,” said Kevin Folta, University of Florida horticultural sciences professor, back in 2017. “I was able to preach to the choir. That worked great. The choir was happy … but I wasn’t reaching the people who were just concerned. The people in the middle who didn’t know one way or the other.”
Folta’s experience is an example of a very human phenomenon — it’s hard to change people’s minds about politics, food, religion or anything.
“The tone of conversations around (things like) veganism … shows a marked similarity to other forms of ideological commitment rather than simply a food choice.”
Social media campaigns were never going to convince committed vegans to start eating Big Macs. But when it comes to ordinary people, it’s hard to know why social media efforts haven’t changed perceptions about GM foods, pesticides and growth hormones.
One possible explanation is that Twitter is not the same as television. Nearly everyone has a TV but only 20 percent of people have a Twitter account. Plus, many Twitter users aren’t typical Canadians, or even human.
“A disproportionate percentage of those people (on Twitter) are either journalists or automatic bots,” said Von Massow.
Another problem with Twitter and social media are echo chambers. People in Canada’s ag industry follow like-minded messengers and ignore messages they don’t like.
“I’m on Twitter … and farmers talk to themselves,” Charlebois said. “Whenever I see a post from a farmer, I see a lot of likes and a lot of re-tweets from other farmers…. That message is not going out (to the public).”
As well, online conversations about food and agriculture really aren’t conversations.
One of Von Massow’s students described it neatly. She said online discussions about food are basically two monologues, from two separate points of view.
Another challenge is the nature of social media or what some call the democratization of media.
Besides Twitter, Facebook and the usual social media suspects, there are hundreds of other ways for consumers to get information about food, agriculture and nutrition. The categories of smart phone apps for food and nutrition are seemingly endless:
So, a Saskatchewan farmer posting on Facebook about beef production is not going to reach a 20-something in Toronto, who gets her information about food production from an app.
“Through our students we get a little window… to their media world,” said Rene Van Acker, dean of the Ontario Agricultural College. “It is mind boggling…. We are not living in the same media world.”
If the agricultural industry committed tens of millions of dollars, and if tens of thousands of producers used social media to connect with consumers, the collective effort might convince a few more Canadians that pesticides, GM foods and growth hormones are safe.
Or maybe there’s another option: accept that consumers fall into different groups and that people in those groups want different things.
“The new reality is micro-marketing and segmentation,” Mackay said. “Amazon has 27 different segments of consumers and they’re going to more (segments). How many segments do we have for beef or grain?”
Companies, particularly restaurants, have tried to create new market segments for the meat industry.
In 2016, the Earls restaurant chain announced it would serve certified humane beef, bought from accredited American farms that raised cattle without growth hormones, antibiotics and steroids and had their animals slaughtered in a certain way. Earls tried to get the beef from Alberta ranchers, but there wasn’t a sufficient supply.
Canadian cattle producers slammed the decision and vowed to never eat at Earls again. They felt the certified humane label was offensive because it suggested cattle on Canadian ranches are mistreated.
Earls backed down. It apologized and abandoned the certified humane program.
Canada’s beef sector may have viewed it as a win, but there’s another way to look at it: lost customers.
Canadians who care about animal welfare might eat steak — if it came with a humanely raised label. Lacking such an option, they probably opt for plant proteins or fish.
“We saw a company going … to get a product that consumers were looking for…. We could have actually grabbed this moment … to recognize the consumer is looking for different things,” Charlebois said, noting this was a lost opportunity for Canada’s beef sector.
“We (the ag industry) need to really listen to messages we need to hear, not just messages we want to hear.”
Brenda Tjaden, co-founder of FarmLink Marketing Solutions and chief executive of Sustainable Grain, her new company, said some people in Canada’s ag industry are confused about the nature of the market.
Suppliers don’t dictate the rules about how things are produced. Buyers do.
“I’m just a simple market analyst. If a consumer wants a certain thing … let’s go figure out how to (produce) more,” she said. “To turn around and tell your buyers they’re wrong, that just doesn’t work in business, any kind of business.”
In December, Farm and Food Care Saskatchewan, a group that shares information about how food is produced, hosted a conference with the theme of open to change.
The basic message: tolerance and acceptance of other viewpoints.
“You may have deeply seated values about your way of farming, but it doesn’t mean it’s the only way to farm,” said Clinton Monchuk, Farm and Food Care executive director. “I’m a conventional farmer in the Lanigan area…. That being said, we have neighbours who are organic farmers. I think it’s good they are supplying a product to consumers who want organic food.”
A harder thing to accept? The crazy and absurd demands of consumers.
For instance, a segment of the public may want chickens kept outside 365 days of the year, Mackay said.
“We know that’s wrong. It’s bad for the birds…. It’s bad for human health and food safety,” she said. “But if someone says I’m going to pay $25 per pound for free-range birds that live outside year-round, somebody may want to make that happen.”
That’s an extreme example, but there are cases where consumer expectations don’t make sense.
One such case is free-run laying hens. Egg farmers and scientists have told consumer groups that birds are probably better off in enriched cages because there is more fighting, injuries and death in free-run barns.
Those arguments had no impact.
In 2016, major grocery chains in Canada, including Loblaw’s and Walmart, announced they will only buy cage-free eggs by 2025.
While scientific arguments and social media outlets have limitations, people in Canada’s ag industry should keep talking to consumers.
The public needs the best possible information about farming practices so they can make the best choices for themselves and their family.
But there will be situations when accurate information or engaging with consumers doesn’t make a difference.
Even if a mom in Calgary has all the information, she might make a choice at odds with conventional agriculture.
Mackay said this boils down to two choices.
People in the conventional ag sector can continue to engage and educate the Calgary mom, to try and sway her opinion.
Or, they can change practices and give her what she wants.
The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity hired a firm to gather the volume and nature of what Canadians were saying about agriculture and food on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Using that data, it studied the social media feeds of 250,000 Canadians from January 2017 to January 2019. The study didn’t pose any questions to participants, but instead analyzed the content of discussions already taking place. This is what the study found.
The AI program the research firm used was able to put social media conversations into certain categories or themes. For example, when it comes to GMOs:
“GMOs in food are bad”
Total volume of comments: 2.1 million
Total volume of comments: 800,000