The documentary opens onto beautiful blue skies, fields of wheat and a house on a farm in Saskatchewan, as country music plays in the background.
The Englots, a family growing wheat, soybeans and canola, discuss their day over morning coffee. Loretta, the mom will tend to her horse and the dogs, while dad Norman and son Luc will scout the field to check for weeds.
Father and son discover kochia, sow thistle and round-leaved mallow, three perennials common in Western Canada. “That’s a difficult weed,” Norman says about a patch of sow thistle. “They’re linked by the roots, and suck a lot of moisture.”
Norman then explains, “we basically want to control the perennials before they get too big, and get out of control.” Guitar notes play as Norm and Luc get the crop sprayer out and head into the field.
As they turn on the sprayer, Norman wonders whether Luc is old enough to spray by himself now. “I can sit back pretty soon and watch him spray," he says. "It’s kind of nice — can’t wait for him to take over.”
It’s a touching moment — and the documentary, called “Real Farm Lives,” a series aiming to demystify farmwork for Canadians, showcases real families and has generated real media attention for the Englots, who run Costa Lotta Farms near Montmartre, Sask.
And, according to a document obtained by National Observer, they were — wittingly or not — furthering a carefully-crafted public relations strategy developed in collaboration with an international marketing and public relations agency, Edelman, and presented months earlier to Canadian agrochemical manufacturers.
The goal of the marketing efforts is to create more "shareworthy content" that would build public support for the use of pesticides and genetically modified organisms, according to the leaked presentation. It is coming to light at a time when the industry is under scrutiny over public health concerns that could prompt governments to impose tougher regulations that cut into profits.
'Further increase public acceptance' of pesticides
The marketing proposal, dated May 2, 2018 and featuring the logo of Edelman, recommended a video series almost identical to Real Farm Lives as a way to "broaden public confidence and further increase public acceptance" of pesticides, the chemicals that most commercial farms in Canada use to kill unwanted plants.
The series would use "three Canadian farming families from across Canada" who are portrayed as “the right messengers" to deliver a message to “persuadable” people, the plan said.
The proposal was part of a larger presentation by CropLife Canada, an industry group representing corporations like Bayer, Syngenta, Nufarm, BASF — and Corteva, which tweeted about the Englots using herbicides, a type of pesticide.
The "objective" Edelman proposed was to increase the public's acceptance of "the use of CropLife Canada members’ products."
The proposal also discusses "earned media," a marketing term for the type of press coverage that the Englots and two other families in the video series, the Renwicks and the Ardiels, ended up receiving. For public relations strategists, earned media can be more valuable than advertising, since it delivers a message through the news that can be shared and spread for a client, without having to pay for it.
Luc and Madison Englot were interviewed on Global News Morning Saskatoon, for example, where the host played a clip of the episode. The series also netted coverage in HuffPost, CTV News Windsor and local news.
Marketing and public relations campaigns are common in all industries to boost reputations and create positive branding, but in this case, it risks clouding a scientific debate as public concerns start to mount about the potential overuse of herbicides across Canada, said Karen Ross, an agriculture and pesticides product manager at Montreal-based Équiterre in an interview.
CropLife's public relations strategy also raises questions about corporate ethics, she said. “I think there’s a clear conflict of interest there,” said Ross.
“Over the years, industry has been investing heavily in what I would call a social licensing campaign, to encourage the general public to perceive pesticides as these innocuous things that we can continue to use at increasing rates in Canada, without any environmental or health impact."
She added that the video series was an example of the industry “trying to protect the image or reputation of their products on the market.”
"I think that’s why we see this kind of activity ramping up these days. There’s increasing citizen mobilization in Canada and worldwide about this, and there’s increasing science that goes to show that some of these products are highly hazardous to our environment and to our health.”
Target 'persuadable greys' with 'the right message'
Edelman told CropLife that polling showed the best group of people to "target" were between the ages of 35 and 50, middle to higher income earners, concerned about food costs, lived in larger cities and had “limited to no connection to farming or agriculture."
"Edelman recommends focusing on the persuadable ‘greys,’ who do not yet know or care enough to support or oppose (pesticides), but may be converted with the right message and the right messengers," they wrote.
"We will take farms and farmers to the public, building trust by showing our audience the dizzying advancements, the path from field to table, and the diverse group of people that make it all possible."
The proposal even included a sample of a mock "documentary-style web series" called "Farm Families," that featured a simulated Facebook post showing a stock photo of a farmer with his arm around a young man. The campaign would also include "bite-sized" elements aimed at consumers that could be "leveraged for retargeted digital banner ads and social content."
CropLife announced the video series, renamed Real Farm Lives, in a press release on Oct. 22, 2018 that was co-signed by an official from Edelman. The series consisted of several elements that were recommended by Edelman. It featured six episodes following three Canadian farm families: the Englots, the Renwicks and the Ardiels.
"The families cast in Real Farm Lives personify twenty-first century farming," the press release stated. "Their actions, conversations, and emotions in the series are as honest and authentic as their labour."
An improving media picture
A separate part of the CropLife presentation showed that the industry was already seeing changes in public opinion over the past decade, coinciding with its marketing and public relations efforts. The presentation included one chart showing that negative media coverage was more than twice the size of positive media coverage in 2008.
The industry group then created a committee in 2010 to develop new messaging to build grassroots support, according to the presentation. Subsequently, positive media coverage increased steadily, while negative coverage dropped.
The presentation also included public opinion polling results showing that, between 2013 and 2017, there were significant increases in positive impressions for pest control products, modern agriculture, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Positive impressions for pest control products increased from 21 to 36 per cent of the population, during that period of time. Positive impressions for modern agriculture also increased from 48 to 57 per cent, while the food inspection agency and Health Canada, each saw jumps of about 20 percentage points in positive impressions, from 46 to 65 per cent, and from 53 to 71 per cent, respectively.
The leaked strategy also revealed that CropLife had compiled polling data to help shape their campaign after testing and measuring what types of messages were most effective at persuading members of the public to trust the industry.
For example, 64 per cent of those polled said the following statement made them more likely to support pest control products: "crops improved through [plant biotechnology/modern plant breeding] enjoy a remarkable food safety record, having been grown for 20 years and more than a trillion meals have been consumed worldwide with no reports of human health concerns."
Support for these products jumped from 36 per cent before message testing to 63 per cent after, and opposition dropped from 14 per cent to 12 per cent.
Crop sprayer 'most important' piece of equipment
The website associated with the video series makes it clear that "farmers like Norman and Luc Englot rely on spraying herbicides before harvest to help ensure next year’s crop won’t have to compete with weeds."
Most farmers in Canada spray to ensure crops aren’t competing with weeds for things like water and nutrients. Statistics Canada said in 2011 that 70 per cent of all Canadian crop farms do this.
Many also spray before harvest as a way of drying out the crop, a practice known as desiccation. "Norman believes 'our sprayer is probably the most important piece of equipment on the farm," the website states.
"The Englots, along with most Canadian farmers, use herbicides to protect their crop from aggressive weeds that will compete with crops and can cause significant damage to them."
The family been upfront about their status as a conventional farm. Madison, for example, told HuffPost that she understood the show was about alleviating misconceptions about modern farming technologies like pesticides.
"We're not dumping jugs of chemicals onto the seed that goes into production," she told the outlet.
In the second Englots episode, Madison is also seen giving Norman some tips on when to avoid spraying. Lots of green seeds, she noted, show it is "too early to spray for desiccation."
However, it's unclear how much the family was aware about the public relations strategy at work behind their appearance in the video series.
National Observer contacted Norman Englot on March 22 over the phone, but he said he was too busy to speak and suggested a later time to call.
He did not answer several subsequent calls, or respond to voicemails or emails between March 22 and 26.
'There’s a clear conflict of interest there'
CropLife argues that wheat farmers would need 25 per cent more land to grow the same amount of wheat without the pest control products.
They also say using pesticides in modern farming is safe and that all pesticides used are regulated by Health Canada, and re-evaluated every 15 years. Their members’ products are backed by “rigorous science” and approved within “Canada’s world-class regulatory system," they stated.
The organization told National Observer that Real Farm Lives is “completely unscripted” and that the “actions, conversations and emotions you see are completely authentic.”
CropLife Canada president and CEO, Pierre Petelle, said Canadians are increasingly growing detached from their food supply, and the point of the videos were to “increase understanding and to correct misinformation surrounding the benefits, safety and sustainability of plant science innovations.”
"Our research shows there’s a segment of the population that we call the greys: they haven’t made up their minds about the technologies our members produce — tools like pesticides and GMOs — but they have questions, and we want to help answer those questions," he said.
On March 20, a U.S. federal jury found that Roundup, the world's most popular weedkiller that containes the key ingredient glyphosate, contributed to Santa Rosa man Edwin Hardeman’s cancer after he sprayed it heavily over a number of years, getting some on his skin.
It was the second such jury finding in eight months, after the case of California groundskeeper Lee Johnson, who also described heavily spraying and exposing skin.
On Feb. 10, a University of Washington meta-analysis of research that was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Reviews in Mutation Research suggested glyphosate raises cancer risk by 41 per cent.
"Overall, in accordance with evidence from experimental animal and mechanistic studies, our current meta-analysis of human epidemiological studies suggests a compelling link between exposures to (glyphosate-based herbicides) and increased risk for (non-hodgkin lymphoma)," it stated.
Spilling a concentrated pesticide on the skin is a much different phenomenon than spraying an approved mixture on crops, and would likely involve a far lower concentration, as well as a far less direct exposure.
While tests reveal that glyphosate shows up in low amounts in some foods Canadians eat, industry says this represents an extremely low amount of exposure.
In addition, farmers are expected to apply products "exactly where they’re needed in the field" and avoid spraying "non-target areas," CropLife says, as well as read and understand "label instructions and proper application techniques."
Edelman says it evaluates clients on ethics
Listed at the bottom of the CropLife press release that announced the video series was Alex Thomas, currently the director of client strategy at Edelman.
National Observer asked Thomas how Edelman became involved with the presentation, whether he was involved with the "Farm Families" concept and why Canadians needed to be persuaded to accept pest control products.
“Per Edelman policy, we do not comment on client matters,” he responded in an email.
Edelman’s statement of purpose says the firm believes clients “deserve representation if they are committed to fact-based, truthful and transparent communications” and that it will refuse to do business “with entities that operate in a manner inconsistent with our corporate values.”
It says it supports an employee’s decision to reject work unaligned with their personal beliefs.
“We evaluate all potential client engagements with regard to potential ethical, commercial, reputational and legal implications,” it reads.
Asked to respond to the accusation there was a “conflict of interest,” Petelle of CropLife said that as a trade association, one of its primary goals is increasing the “awareness, understanding and acceptance” of his members’ products.
“The reality is that Canadians have access to one of the safest and most affordable food supplies in the world, and that’s thanks in part to farmers’ use of modern technologies," he said.
But Ross, from Équiterre, drew a comparison with the case of Quebec government scientist Louis Robert, who was was fired from his job after blowing the whistle on industry influence in public research on pesticides.
“Researchers are feeling bullied and marginalized,” she said.
“It’s not to say we don’t need industry at the table...we need to be sure that we’re taking advice and research results from independent scientists at least just as seriously, if not more seriously, because they don’t have a vested interest in keeping products on the market.”
Editor's Note: This story is part of a series exploring the pros and cons of pesticide use in Canada, the strengths and weaknesses of its regulatory landscape and who exercises the greatest influence on this landscape. It is being produced in collaboration with The Echo Foundation. National Observer retains full editorial control.