Who’s educating consumers?

Ill-informed consumers who demand less crop protection chemicals and have irrational fears of genetically modified food are a risk to farmer’s survival. Who is taking responsibility to ensure that the truth about food is getting to the consumer, asks Lindi van Rooyen.

Who’s educating consumers?
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Who determines what a farmer’s production methods: the farmer or the consumer? Increasingly it would appear that the consumer has a bigger say in what happens on the farm than the farmer. Farmers exporting to the EU will know first-hand how difficult it can be to meet the export requirements of a continent led by strong environmental groups who call for zero chemical usage and genetically modified (GM) food.

In the Netherlands the Animal Party, which advocates animal rights, holds two out of the 150 seats in parliament. This gives a good indication of how strongly the nation feels about where its food comes from and how it is produced. The organic industry in the EU is one of the fastest growing food sectors and in Munich, Germany the government is aiming to make all child care facilities convert to 100% organic food.

Sweden, notorious for having the most demanding consumers in terms of environmentally-friendly produced food, has such strong regulations on food production that farmers say it’s difficult to get their food to the market. Swedish beef farmers have to slaughter their cattle in such a way that no animal that is being slaughtered is in earshot of another animal. It is this kind of regulation, dictated by the consumer, that makes producing food difficult.

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Belgium has started advocating veggie Thursdays to encourage less meat consumption because of the negative effects of large-scale meat production on the environment. Germany is advising people to reserve meat for special occasions. Never far behind the EU example, South African consumers are also starting to implement meat-free Mondays.

Unbalanced information
The EU is calling for greater labelling of food that contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But without a proper scientific understanding of what the GMOs entail, consumers are left confused and averse to a product they perceive as harmful. Harmful because the only information the consumer has about GMOs is distributed by environmentalists who have dubbed it ‘Frankenstein food’.

Tanzanian journalist Susuma Susuma says that politicians in his country are talking about the introduction of GM maize, but the consumers are still against it because of the perception about it being unsafe. Whether GMOs are detrimental to one’s health remains to be seen. As Dr Pieter Mulder, deputy agricultural minister puts it, “GM food has been around for 17 years and no one has died from it.

There is no evidence of GMOs having ill-effects on the environment, animals or humans.” The agriculture department has also reiterated this. The department also said that no GMO substantially different in terms of safety for use when compared to its conventional counterpart has been released.

Focusing on the farmer
Who is educating consumers about their food? Ill-informed consumers see farmers as the evil growers of GMO’s. Periodic statements by politicians that farmers abuse their workers and don’t believe in transformation also don’t do much for the farmer’s image. Over a year ago, Agri SA made mention of a campaign to create a more positive image of the farmer. But the campaign has yet to take off and deputy president of Agri SA, Theo de Jager, said it had struggled to get support for the idea. 

Grain SA succeeded in getting an advertisement on TV that shows farmers handing out food to a long line of hungry South Africans. This is certainly a step in the direction of improving the farmer’s image, but who is educating consumers about their food?

Targeting the housewife
The agricultural industry in the US has realised the importance of educating consumers. Holly Spangler, associate editor of Prairie Farmer magazine in the US, said that when their consumers were at a stage of not paying attention to what they ate or where it came from, it gave the activists and those with personal agendas the opportunity to feed misinformation to consumers.

This led to the founding of the Illinois Farm Families programme where mothers from the city take part in farm visits and information sessions to learn more about agriculture. The agricultural industry needs to realise that a message without bias and factual inaccuracies will ensure a more sustainable sector guided by a rational public.

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.