Maintaining our social licence with the public

It’s becoming increasingly clear that just like other industries, farmers require a social licence to operate.


The term was traditionally applied to mining, particularly new mines and mine expansions. Major pipeline projects are now also struggling to obtain a social licence. 


It isn’t enough to have all the necessary environmental and government approvals: broad acceptance from a long list of stakeholders is becoming the prerequisite. Governments sit back waiting to see if some measure of a social licence can be garnered before they come onboard. 


Unlike a government approval, a social licence is difficult to measure. A 100 percent approval rating is virtually impossible, and how much weight do you give to people or agencies that are always anti-development?


Agriculture is under attack over a wide spectrum of public concerns, some of which are legitimate and many that are not. We ignore the concerns at our peril because they chip away at the social licence.


Surveys show that the general public holds farmers in high regard. However, support drops if you ask the public about large farms or corporate farms. The term “factory farm” is now ingrained as a negative within the public psyche. Anything big is bad.


Practices necessary for animal health and welfare are often not pretty. Many can be defended, but others, such as hot iron branding, will be increasingly difficult to justify. 


Abuses or supposed abuses caught on video reduce farmer credibility. 


In the recent case of damaging video from Chilliwack Cattle Sales, the country’s largest dairy farm, the owners and the industry said and did all the right things to restore public confidence. However, the negative publicity was nation-wide and extensive. 


Livestock producers have worked hard to update their codes of practice. Being proactive is the best defence, but it’s no guarantee.


The food industry caters to consumers. While the views and arguments of producers are usually taken into account, consumers are king and what they want can dictate what the food companies decide to buy.


It’s easier to maintain a social licence than it is to gain one. 


Most corn, soybean and canola crops are genetically modified, and that has been the norm for many years. Imagine trying to launch GM technology today. It wouldn’t fly. The social licence would be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain amidst all the fear mongering.


Food miles, fair trade, sustainability indexes, non-GM, free range, gluten free, natural and organic are terms that consumers hear and use with increased regularity. Despite evidence to the contrary, there’s a perception that food was more wholesome and safer 20 or 40 years ago.


Many consumers don’t care or don’t care enough to dramatically change their buying habits. But the food industry, farmers included, ignores the trends at their peril. 


Many urban dwellers now think it’s their inherent right to raise chickens in their backyards. Meanwhile, the use of herbicides to control lawn and garden weeds has been banned in many communities. Out in the countryside, we shouldn’t dismiss these developments. They’re a barometer of public opinion and priorities. 


It’s tempting to just say to hell with public perception: they don’t know what they’re talking about; science is on our side; it’s our land and this is the way we do things out here.


If we give in to that temptation, public trust will be lost and our social licence will be difficult to maintain.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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