Curators from the Manitoba Museum toured my farm in the fall of 2018. The USMCA had already been negotiated, but not ratified. Glyphosate had already made headlines. So had neonics. And the U.S. trade war with the China and the rest of the world was in full swing.
My dad gave them the tour. It was great, he reported. They asked great questions and stuck around for longer than expected. But that’s not the point. In November, Maclean’s magazine asked me to pitch a story to them that filled the blank in the sentence, “2019 will be the year of ____.”
I thought about this for too long and didn’t leave enough time to put together a convincing pitch. It was, however, an interesting exercise.
2018 was an interesting year for agriculture in Canada and the world. The public became much more engaged in what we’re doing on our farms. People are asking questions. They’re taking an interest. That’s good.
That same public also became much more vocal about the kinds of chemicals we are using and crops we are growing. Us farmers receive toxicity from some. Sympathy from others. And an earnest desire to learn from the rest.
It’s food. I get it. It’s a big deal to people, as it should be.
I want people to care. No. What gets me is the public’s ability to disrupt an industry it knows little about. Its ability to alter agriculture’s trajectory based on little more than a hunch and some poorly crafted, sensationalist news stories.
2019 will be year of ag education. It has to be. If not, we as farmers risk losing more of the tools we’ve become used to relying on. This uptick of interest in agriculture is great. But it’s merely the beginning.
If the agriculture sector lets that interest fizzle out, what will happen the next time glyphosate makes headline news or another seed treatment becomes at risk of getting taken off the market by the PMRA?
This is where it gets mucky. Educating a relatively naive public on agriculture should not entail being an uncritical booster for the industry. The public may not know exactly how and why we use the chemicals we do, but that doesn’t make them less intelligent. Too often we’re shills for our own industry. The public wants and needs to know that we take things seriously, that we come to conclusions based on rational processes. And that, like them, we also want our food to be clean, healthy and sustainable.
At some point, we’ll need to come clean about the fact that we make mistakes and perhaps could do better. We’ll need to be honest and specific about our thoughts on chemicals, GMOs, ag-industry mergers, seed royalties, etc.
Through chats with others working in this great industry and just from monitoring public temperament, it has become clear that farming will change. Exactly how? I don’t know.
Six years ago, when I started this column and when I started farming, there was nothing but excitement about Roundup. Its affordability, effectiveness and ease of use made a staple on many farms. It’s hard to imagine a world without glyphosate but it would be unwise not to try. It’s better to be prepared than caught without a plan. The world doesn’t need more angry farmers.
We will continue to be scrutinized in 2019. More pesticide residues will be found on food products and the news sources reporting it will lack perspective. The public’s and the market’s appetite for non-GMO products — as ridiculous and unfounded as they are — will continue to grow.
When the ag sector set out on educating the public and when I write about bridging the gap between farmers and the consumer, this level of attention had to be expected. It’s a necessary part of a process that will hopefully lead to a deeper understanding of just how established, rigorous and efficient the agricultural sector is.
We’ve committed to advocating for agriculture. Let’s continue to open our farms up to curators and others who are curious about where their food is grown. And let’s hope that as interest grows, understanding does, too. Remember: you’ve been doing this for a while and they’re only taking notice now.