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Focused on specific issues or industries, the initiatives are making a dent in public opinion. The rewards may not be huge growth in sales, but the opportunity to keep selling at all.

Agriculture is under more scrutiny than ever before. A debate that was once focused on pesticide use has now extended to odor issues, animal welfare, manure management, mineral fertilizers, biotechnology and virtually every other aspect of food and fiber production. Some agricultural companies are entering this debate recognizing it will affect their own long-term success. Along the way, they are also finding their farmer-customers appreciate their commitment.

The reality is that everyone, from large corporations to politicians to individual farmers, will need to speak up to make a difference among an urban public who is generations removed from the farm. Organizations such as Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are strong communicators with resources behind them. It will take many voices to explain the complex issues related to biotechnology and food production from the perspective of the agriculture sector.

A number of groups have been surprised by the attention they have received in the urban media. The livestock industry has faced challenges on many fronts, including animal housing and manure management. New reforms in the European Union will see subsidies to producers based on certain animal welfare standards, including larger housing. It is likely that this will only focus further attention on the operating practices of North American livestock farmers. Add to this the concerted efforts of several well-organized groups who take a dim view of animal agriculture as an industry, plus children who believe milk comes from the grocery store rather than cows, and it is likely that the very livelihoods of conventional farmers could be on the line.

In another example of the pressures, recent studies with ag retailers in Canada capture their dismay in seeing the crop nutrition business subject to the same scrutiny that the crop protection business has long been suffering. Where once fertilizing soils seemed a noble effort, now regulators and environmental activists are focused on "chemical" fertilizer as if it is a terrible thing. Ammonia is becoming a dirty word - and not because it is applied in the soil! Water studies, air studies, odor concerns - all are focusing on ammonia, whether from mineral fertilizer or manure sources. It is quickly becoming clear this will affect the industry's freedom to operate.

In response to this scrutiny, several innovative campaigns have been launched to address the needs of specific industries, such as fertilizer, and also agriculture as a whole. At the same time, some companies are getting credit for seeing the big picture through the eyes of their customers.

Getting to the core of the issues where plant nutrition is concerned, PCS Sales, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, launched its much-lauded Fertile Minds campaign several years ago. Comprised of a range of tools on fertility information, it has been a campaign to educate the agriculture sector to speak out on plant nutrition issues. In a similar vein, Agrium has begun including key facts on fertilizer in its advertising campaigns. For instance, did you know:
  • Fertilizers are chemically the same as nutrients found naturally in soils.
  • A 50-bushel winter wheat crop removes 21 to 26 kilograms of nitrogen from the soil.
  • Agrium's quality control systems are among the most stringent in the world.

This is only one aspect of a growing trend to focus on the issues faced by industry. The Beef Information Centre has produced a recipe booklet that doesn't just feature pretty pictures of succulent steak. They have taken the opportunity to highlight ranchers across the country. Placing them on their farms and in their homes through visual images, the booklet is a new way to link food producers with the food on the table.

Similarly, Ontario Pork's innovative Farm to Fork campaign has successfully given a face to swine producers across the province. In part driven by a marketing campaign, the program has also applied public relations techniques to the challenges of the hog business by creating an ambassador program that trains farmers to be good spokespeople for the industry. That is one important principle in all the efforts of these campaigns - to multiply the number of people speaking out.

Another innovative campaign in this regard is Syngenta's briefing notes on agriculture, which have been inserted into ag publications. With these inserts, Syngenta, Greensboro, N.C., has provided information on how to be an effective communicator to a virtual army of ag leaders. It has also provided useful lines explaining the realities of agricultural production, such as:
  • Without the use of crop protection products, food production in Canada would decrease 40 percent and the cost of production would increase by 30 percent.
  • A 150-pound man would have to eat at least 3,000 heads of lettuce every day before he would be exposed to even the slightest risk from chemical residue in food.

  • Although this is not conventional product advertising, the inserts have received high marks from readers. Ed Cook, a large-scale farmer in Manitoba, notes, "There is a lot of great stuff in there. I pulled it out and kept it." He adds, "They (Syngenta) deserve some credit for looking at the future of agriculture. We need more companies doing that. It's about our livelihoods."

    The Council for Biotechnology Information, Washington, D.C., has taken a slightly different approach. A consortium of most of the large life science companies, they tackled the challenges facing biotechnology in the public media head-on. Funding several years of large-scale ad campaigns, the group has used television and print media to market the positive outcomes of using plant biotechnology. At a time when headlines were full of references to "Franken foods," it was do-or-die for the biotech business.

    The campaign had an effect. At a time two years ago when public trust in biotechnology was plummeting, the positive messages were able to stop the precipitous decline. Biotech is still a complex topic in agriculture, but it is no longer hitting the front pages with tales of doom - at least in North America.

    The harsh reality for the ag sector is that there are now groups fundamentally opposed to the way in which modern agriculture operates. The case that agriculture feeds the world rings hollow to people detached from the way produce arrives on grocery store shelves. In North America, people see abundance. So the ag sector must do more than just feed people. It must explain why and how it feeds people. It must also show who feeds people - presenting the caring, educated, responsible people who operate family farms.

    These campaigns are part of a growing trend to address the public concerns levelled against agriculture. Focused on specific issues or industries, the initiatives are making a dent in public opinion. The rewards may not be huge growth in sales, but the opportunity to keep selling at all. This is not lost on farmers, who are showing enthusiasm for the work of agricultural suppliers who are trying to be part of the solution. The next step may be a more cohesive approach across the varied interests in the agri-food business to foster public respect for food production. AM

    Robynne Anderson is the president of Issues Ink, an agricultural communications company that publishes Germination and Manure Matters, as well as several other titles.

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