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Celebrities, social media drive disconnect with dairy farming

Progressive Dairy Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 31 July 2019

“If you’ve ever used the word ‘teat’ in a serious conversation, you are not the average Canadian,” Crystal MacKay told a packed room of dairy farmers and industry colleagues during the 2019 Western Canadian Dairy Seminar in Red Deer, Alberta.

Despite the giggles this statement provoked, MacKay meant it with all seriousness. There is a dangerous disconnect growing between the farmers who produce food and the people who consume it.

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At the time of the conference, MacKay was wrapping up her role as president of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity.

She, along with Timothy Caulfield from the University of Alberta, enlightened listeners on the mixed messages concerning food and health, the challenges of sharing agriculture’s message in a world so easily swayed by celebrities on social media and how to break through the communication barrier.

Mixed messages

From spending $425 to put energy-aligning crystals in their shoes to a “vampire facial” of injecting blood into their skin, the general public is driving the multi-trillion-dollar wellness industry.

“People are doing crazy things to live a healthy lifestyle,” Caulfield said. As the Canada research chair in health law and policy, a professor of law at the University of Alberta and research director of the Health Law Institute, he spends a lot of time evaluating the science behind health-related claims circulating society and even hosts a Netflix series on debunking such myths.

While science may prove or disprove a theory, that evidence alone is not enough to change beliefs.

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Social media makes it even easier to find data that supports what someone already believes, regardless of the facts. “Echo chambers exist, and social media contains them,” Caulfield said.

He then demonstrated how performing a query for “raw milk” resulted in seven of the top 10 Google articles with no true science basis. In fact, his research shows the most-shared articles on social media tend to have the least amount of scientific backing.

In an era of instant information with just a finger swipe or voice command, people are more perplexed than ever when it comes to taking care of themselves.

Caulfield said this creates distraction, confusion, financial loss and even physical harm – all in the name of health. And they are just as confused about their food.

MacKay shared that when surveyed on whether or not the food system is headed in the right direction or on the wrong path, most Canadians are not certain.

In looking through all the research that comes across her desk related to food system issues, MacKay identified the one that troubles her the most.

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When Canadians were asked if Canadian meat is derived from humanely treated animals, a whopping 61% answered “unsure.”

She sees this as an area for opportunity to earn public trust, noting the “major disconnect” with perceptions of humane treatment of animals.

“We can’t take public trust for granted,” MacKay stated.

Celebrities and social media

While social media in itself has tremendous power to sway public opinion, famous people may use it as a platform for building their fan base while also spreading their beliefs, regardless of the data that supports them.

“Celebrities own social media,” Caulfield said, noting pop singer Katy Perry has well over 107 million followers.

Twitter, Instagram and other channels become tools for building trust, so much in fact that according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, the public ranks celebrities as more trustworthy than scientists.

Caulfield said he blames celebrities and pop culture for influencing the belief among Canadians that GMOs are problematic.

Despite the ag community’s best efforts to earn trust and educate via social media, MacKay said, “We’re not getting through.” She added, “We’re losing the battle for hearts and minds because our voice is too quiet.”

How to break down the barrier

So what’s a dairy farmer to do about the confusing and sometimes false messages floating around about the health of their products and how they are produced? MacKay said she believes we must change our message.

“Feeding the world is not a marketing message consumers are interested in,” MacKay said. Nor are they interested in science, reproductive physiology or genetics.

Those stories fail to earn public trust; instead, she suggested “turning up the volume” on the topic of animal care. “Focus on what you do to care for cows,” she added.

Caulfield further recommended dairy farmers tell their stories and use narratives to get across good science using social media.

MacKay emphasized, “Remember, food matters. And conversations about putting food on the table are amazing.” end mark

Peggy Coffeen
  • Peggy Coffeen

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