In early April, Cigi CEO JoAnne Buth was invited to speak with milling professionals from across the globe as a keynote speaker at the 120th International Association of Operative Millers Annual Conference & Expo in Columbus, Ohio. The conference attracted 850 individuals from 21 countries.
“Speaking at IAOM gave me the opportunity to raise an issue that affects all of us involved in agriculture and food,” said JoAnne. Her talk was on the importance of the industry working together to provide credible information to the public and create meaningful connections with them.
“North Americans have lost touch with farming and food production,” said JoAnne in her presentation. “People often don’t understand how their food is grown or how agriculture has changed.”
A number of factors have contributed to the drop in agriculture awareness, noted JoAnne. For example, 84 years ago, in 1931, one in three people lived on a farm. Last year that number had dropped to one in 46 Canadians, meaning only two percent of the population has had hands-on experience in the world of agriculture.
That significant change is not the only reason for the shift in awareness and understanding, said JoAnne. Another part of the issue is that often the only agricultural information the majority of North Americans are getting is from the media in times of crisis.
“The general public’s exposure to agriculture is when there is flooding, drought, transportation problems, or food safety issues,” said JoAnne, which can cause people to be distrustful of the industry.
She also spoke of the misinformation the public is receiving from other sources, such as bestselling books like “Wheat Belly,” that have contributed to North America’s non-gluten fad by villainizing wheat.
There is hope, however. JoAnne said there is a lot of good news and important stories to tell, pointing as one example to the fact that productivity has jumped by 300 per cent since the 1950s but at the same time we’re using fewer resources, less land, and newer, better technologies to grow more food. “This is great for all of us – especially as we strive to find ways to be more profitable in feeding our country and a growing world population.
“I think it’s time that we take back the messaging about our industry,” she said. “I believe we can help consumers think more critically about the messages they see, hear, and read about the food they eat and the role of the farmer in producing it.”
Recognizing that some industry professionals may question if they have the time or are the right people to engage in the conversation, she said it is her belief that over time and with a large degree of involvement the industry can make a difference, calling agriculture an essential service.
“Can we afford not to take the time?” she asked the IAOM group.
JoAnne ended her talk with a quote from farmer and author Brenda Schoepp, whose grandfather used to say, ‘Once in your life you need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman, and a preacher, but every day, three times a day, you need a farmer.’ JoAnne added, “And if you eat bread every day, you need a miller too.”
JoAnne said she was unsure how her message would be received at the conference given that it wasn’t related specifically to milling. Her fears were quickly put to rest. “I received feedback from about a dozen participants that they enjoyed my presentation. They expressed similar views about the lack of knowledge about agriculture and the food fads that are based on misinformation.
“I was pleased that my message resonated with many people,” she said. “I wanted to challenge them to participate in the discussion about the importance of agricultural production and food processing.”
Cigi has been involved with IAOM for a long time and its milling staff are all members of the international organization. Ashok Sarkar, Senior Advisor, Technology at Cigi, is the longest standing member of IAOM’s education committee and in 2013 he was recognized for his contributions to membership development and district growth, and his service to IAOM. At the conference in April, he also made a presentation about the research Cigi has been doing on co-milling CWRS and hulless barley.