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What do people want to know?

Taking a look at the questions people are asking the internet about agriculture

I did something that made me sad the other day.

I often write about the chasm between farmers and the public they/we feed. There’s an information gap there that absolutely needs to be filled.

If the gulf is allowed to grow, and the agriculture/food sector plods forward without a meaningful connection with the public and the public continues to plod forward with no meaningful connection to the ag sector, then we are committing to a trajectory that will lead to a brutal and devastating reckoning.

I don’t want to take a stab at predicting what that might be.

I’m not entirely sure how Google autocomplete works. But I do know that popularity and frequency play a role. Try it. Start typing something into the Google search bar. Most likely, a drop down menu of potential completions to what you’re searching for will appear.

I started typing, “Is farming” and before I got any further, Google suggested these sentences:

Is farming profitable?
Is farming worth it?
Is farming hard?
Is farming a primary industry?
Is farming profitable in Canada?

I then overestimated my tech aptitude and attempted to figure out the algorithms at work behind Google’s presumptions. I didn’t really come close to figuring it out. But my efforts were not totally in vain. I was vindicated to learn that the options Google produces are some of the most popular searches among its users.

I’m sure we all would have guessed this. But I wanted to be sure. Especially after the following list of autocompletes to the sentence beginning with, “Are GMOs.” And, don’t worry, techies, I cleared all my browsing data prior to this exercise, so as not to confuse some of these “autocompletes” with my own searches.

Are GMOs bad?
Are GMOs harmful?
Are GMOs bad for the environment?
Are GMOs good or bad?
Are GMOs banned in Europe?
And then I tried: “Are pesticides.”
Are pesticides used on organic food?
Are pesticides GMOs?

Before we dive in to the scary reality that “Are pesticides GMOs?” is a popular question, I have one more for you: “Is agriculture.”

Is agriculture a natural resource?
Is agriculture an industry?
Is agriculture bad for the environment?
Is agriculture a science?

If these are the questions the average Canadian or North American has about what we do, we need to be better at communicating with them.

The public is asking

There is another side to this, though, and it’s something I see often. We consider the public’s apparent naiveté towards agriculture as a wrong that needs to be righted; an off-course ship that needs to be redirected.

In some cases, yes, this is true. But it isn’t the whole picture. Nor is it a healthy one. Farmers, like everyone else on this planet, should take every opportunity to reflect on what it is they do. We make mistakes. I make mistakes. I have been wrong about things.

I should think about what would make someone ask, “Are pesticides GMOs?” before dismissing the question as stupid. It should — if I practiced what I preach — spur me to think about the possible conditions that led a significant number of people typing those words in the Google search bar.

That question reflects real concerns of real people. And that should matter.

The public is asking questions and if farmers are not there to respond, someone else will be. And that is a problem.

We don’t know who it is asking these question. Google won’t tell me that. It could be a lawmaker. It could be your local Member of Parliament. It could be your kid’s teacher. It could be your buddy.

We do things that affect the public. We have an obligation to help them better understand, and an opportunity to learn from them.

About the author

Columnist

Toban Dyck is a freelance writer and a new farmer on an old farm. Follow him on Twitter @tobandyck or email [email protected]

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