Ag-education support group most welcome

If there is one universal annoyance that virtually everyone in the agricultural industry shares, it’s the blissful ignorance

If there is one universal annoyance that virtually everyone in the agricultural industry shares, it’s the blissful ignorance of the urban public about where food really comes from and agriculture in general.

I would suggest that to this day, the majority of city folks either believe food appears magically at their local grocery store, or just don’t care where food comes from as long as it’s cheap and always available.

As exasperating as that seems to us in the ag business, we do have ourselves to blame for some of that city-slicker attitude.

Our highly successful free-market production system has caused consumers to take their food supply completely for granted. Most people in the world have to worry about where their next meal will come from and whether they can afford to buy it.

In the western world, there is no worry about availability — only how much and how many varieties we can buy in excess of our needs for the cheapest price. Our food wastage alone could feed countless millions. But I digress.

The conventional wisdom when philosophizing about the lack of respect agriculture gets is that if only consumers were better educated, then ag would be much more appreciated. I expect better education applies to a lot of issues, but it’s hard to educate folks about food production when they are fat and happy and have an overabundance in front of them.

The best food and agriculture education, in my view, is a few months of scarcity and near starvation — but perhaps that’s being cynical.

In lieu of starvation to focus consumers’ attention about food and agriculture, governments and producer groups have tried education and consumer awareness as an avenue to better inform the urban public. It’s a process that has gone on for at least 40 years in Alberta under various attempts, with some being still carried out to this day.

The biggest problem ag-education programs have is that they are chronically underfunded and in many cases rely on volunteers or just goodwill to carry out the message. The provincial government sporadically gets involved by throwing a bunch of money around, but it’s usually short-term.

The underlying issue in trying to educate the consumer about agriculture is that there is no real payoff for the investment of time and money for either the industry or the government. The entire effort in my view is more of a feel-good exercise for producers, because in the end, even a consumer who is well-informed about agriculture isn’t likely to buy any more food than before.

Having said all that, another industry promotion organization has sprung up and taken up the torch to educate the public about agriculture. The new organization, called “Agriculture for Life,” strives to support agriculture education and farm-safety programs.

To date, they have put their money where their mouth is and invested $1.2 million into such well-known programs as Classroom Agriculture Program, Little Green Thumbs and a number of other initiatives across the province. The idea is to expose many more Alberta youths to agriculture and its role in our society. To say the least, the support and leadership of this new group is very much appreciated and there will be a positive payback from this kind of real support.

A big concern in the past has been the lack of significant support and participation by agri-business and related organizations in the ag-education process. Many of the early efforts relied on support from producer groups, with limited funding or the fickle interest of government.

Agri-business was conspicuous by their absence in many of those early efforts. However, the new group seems to have been initiated and financed by some of the big dogs in the ag business, amongst them Agrium, ATB, UFA and RME.

Even the energy industry has joined in the effort, with the likes of PennWest and TransCanada and ATCO. There are others and the list continues to grow. When big players like this get involved, it tends to create a rolling snowball effect, as others want to get involved. This all bodes very well for ag-education and farm safety programming everywhere.

One ponders where all this agri-business enthusiasm suddenly started, considering the long history of ag programs operating from hand to mouth.

But it’s most welcome, indeed. Next time, we’ll have a few comments on what areas some of this newfound support could be directed.

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