How can agriculture bridge the increasing rural and urban divide?

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Ah look, a bright red barn sitting in a field full of… something… ready to be harvested and sold directly to you, the consumer.

Ok, well, not so much. It may surprise you to learn that this is what farming and agriculture look like today:

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Farming has modernized just like the rest of the world, especially over the last few decades. Fewer and fewer people live on farms, have relatives working in the agriculture sector, or know anything about what goes on at a farm, which leads to an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality for many Canadians.

In recent years, consumers have started asking questions, like:

Why don’t farms look like what I think they are supposed to?

Why isn’t my food grown the way I thought it would be?

What farm practices are allowed?

These questions result in consumers’ overall negative view of agriculture, and they have a LOT of concerns:

  • environmentally unsustainable practices
  • chemicals used that are harmful to our health
  • biological engineering and lack of transparency
  • factory farming and ethical practices
  • declining competitiveness in a global market
  • shrinking land base for farming
  • uncertain future for agriculture
  • decreasing interest in the younger generation

Farmers, on the other hand, are optimistic about the future of farming and agriculture. Over half of farmers plan to adopt new technologies and expand their businesses. Most farmers have created plans to ensure they are farming in a sustainable way, have invested in energy-efficient machinery, have improved their management of hazardous products, and are protecting waterways.

As more people lose their connection to food and how it’s grown, there becomes a divide between urban and rural, a gap that has widened over time. This gap is deepened not only with geographic distance, but with economic and political barriers. With tax revenue in rural areas dropping, the quality of schools, housing, and infrastructure decreases accordingly, creating a vicious feedback cycle that has exacerbated this issue.

We can bridge this gap in 3 ways:

  1. emphasizing the link between agriculture and healthy lifestyles;
  2. building better alliances between governments, businesses, and people to open up a dialogue; and,
  3. educating the public on what modern agriculture entails

 

EMPHASIZING THE LINK BETWEEN AGRICULTURE AND HEALTH

In 2007, Geatan Lussier, the founder of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, said that “There is a new divide between urban and rural as fewer are connected to the farm through family – agriculture and health could be bringing them together.”

Food plays a critical role in minimizing risks from many diseases, making agriculture the key to enhancing consumers’ quality of life and lowering medical costs.

Cancer, heart disease, and stroke are the leading causes of death among Canadians, causing more than 50% of the deaths that occur in this country every year! What major risk factor do all three of these diseases share?

A poor diet.

Poor diets are created when people make choices on where and what to eat. Many consumers only get their information from the grocery store or restaurant, where their purchasing opinions are strongly influenced by price. The cheapest food tends to be the most processed with little nutritional value, though few consumers stop to appreciate the value of agricultural labour, which contributes to the price they pay for whole, healthier foods.

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We need to start explaining to consumers the relationship between agriculture (the work it takes to produce, process, and distribute farmed goods) and their health (protecting it, promoting it, and allowing easy access to whole foods).

When we lose sight of the value of real food, we stop valuing the role of farming and agriculture in our society.

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BUILDING BETTER ALLIANCES

Author Rory MacGregor once stated that “the rural part is what defines Canada” – unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of awareness among Canadians of the current state of the agricultural sector and its contributions to Canada’s economy, even among politicians and businesses.

Political leaders are unaware of the economic power the agriculture sector has, generating over $100 billion annually and making up almost 7% of Canada’s GDP.

This contradicts the current state of rural affairs, with farmers making lower than average incomes, dealing with growing competition from low-cost producer countries, and ‘Made in Canada’ regulations that stifle innovation.

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We should start to view our agricultural industry with pride, using our natural attributes such as climate, water supply, and safe, sustainable practices as a marketing tool that differentiates our agricultural products from others on the global market.

We need government and business intervention to refocus policy to give those working in rural areas a chance of success.

We need alliances with farmers and the cooperation of government departments.

We need better integration between health, agriculture, and environmental departments.

We need all these key stakeholders to stop competing and start cooperating.

To bridge this gap, we need alliances between farmers, governments, and industry to ensure the continued success of our agriculture sector.

 

EDUCATING THE MASSES

Ask the person sitting next to you if they know how cashews grow.

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Or artichokes.

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Or asparagus.

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As we lose our connection with agriculture, we also lose the knowledge and respect that comes along with it. Combine this with an overwhelming amount of misinformation, including celebrities pushing fad-diets based on pseudo-science and misleading marketing campaigns using buzzwords like “all natural”, “pesticide-free”, “antibiotic free”, and “free-range”.

We need to do a better job of educating people on the importance of agriculture and continue to build rural and urban coalitions, so that people’s understanding of food extends beyond what appears on grocery shelves.

There are already a ton of great resources and outreach events all over the country to help bridge the gap between urban and rural dwellers.

  • Groups like 4-H are creating outreach opportunities to share their passions about the future of farming
  • AAFC is engaged in marketing activities aimed to boost awareness of the agricultural sector and its importance to science, innovation, and the economy
  • Farm Credit Canada has launched the Ag More than Ever campaign, an industry-driven cause to improve perceptions and create positive dialogue about Canadian agriculture

Even with all these amazing initiatives, there is still room for improvement. The best way to get through to consumers is through real-life storytelling by farmers themselves. The urban-dwelling general public are interested in learning more about how food is produced, and there is a need for honest, truthful conversation about agriculture and the state of rural affairs.

 

WHAT AM I DOING TO HELP?

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As a researcher in the agriculture sector, I can help bridge this divide by sharing my research with my online connections, most of whom are not connected to the rural or agricultural worlds.

As a student at one of Canada’s prominent agriculture universities, I’ve become involved with student councils, running events, encouraging outreach, and educating anyone and everyone I meet about the amazing work conducted at this amazing school – and how exactly our research impacts consumers.

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RECOMMENDATIONS

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Overall, there are many options available to anyone interested in closing the gap between Canada’s urban and rural worlds. People are interested in what farmers have to say, but both sides need the opportunity to speak.

For anyone working in agriculture, a Tweet, a Facebook post, a shared YouTube video, a letter to the editor, or even a conversation with a stranger can help start the discussion.

Food literacy is critical and should start at a young age. Programs like Ag in the Classroom are necessary but also need to be expanded, and resources for children and teens should be available for parents to encourage discussions at home as well as in school.

In urban areas, we should be encouraging urban farming and community gardens, even small indoor gardens in peoples’ homes. When people grow their own food, it will help raise awareness about the value of agriculture, improving appreciation and stimulating conversation around food production.

 

THE BOTTOM LINE

Both sides (consumers and farmers) should be asking questions and promoting conversation. We have to approach this dialogue in a positive manner, with an open mind and debating with respect. Emphasizing healthy living, promoting alliances, and creating educational resources are excellent tools to bridge this gap, but these all need to start with a single conversation. If we are to bridge this gap of misunderstanding, confusion, and questions, we need conversation to be the bridge.

 

References

https://www.producer.com/2007/10/agriculture-seen-as-way-to-bridge-ruralurban-divide/ https://ruralris.com/2015/01/27/bridging-the-gap-from-farmer-to-consumer/ https://www.agri-pulse.com/articles/5218-how-4-h-members-are-bridging-the-farmer-consumer-gap https://www.country-guide.ca/guide-business/building-a-better-bridge-between-farmers-and-consumers/ https://ipolitics.ca/2015/03/03/its-unanimous-canadas-farmers-can-help-bridge-the-ruralurban-familiarity-gap/ https://www.pandemic.space/2018/04/21/bridging-the-urban-rural-gap-for-food-equity/ https://www.manitobacooperator.ca/crops/attitudes-toward-food-bridging-the-rural-urban-divide/

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