A social licence is easier to define once lost than when it is in place. The live export industry is very familiar with the disruptive consequences of losing the social licence to operate, and understanding social licence been critical for doing business in the forestry sector for decades.
It is currently one of the most talked-about issues in global agriculture, as was apparent at the recent Nuffield Australia National Conference, yet remains an enigma to many in the Australian sector.
The Nuffield Conference features presentations from more than 20 scholars who have just returned from travelling to investigate their scholarship topics. They have invariably been exposed to the most up-to-date research and explored the most relevant issues affecting agriculture around the world.
This year it was notable how many of the scholars focused on social licence, or at least mentioned it in passing during their presentations.
In particular, Steven Davies’ research into the Australian seafood industry’s social licence to operate and Daniel Meade’s investigation of farmer engagement by industry organisations highlighted the need for the sector to be proactive and invite opponents ‘inside the tent’.
Social licence is notoriously difficult to quantify and virtually impossible to measure, which means it is often shunted into the ‘too hard’ basket. It must be earned rather than granted, and it can be extremely tricky to regain once lost. Although it seems trendy, it is not new.
Society has always determined acceptable behaviour. What has changed recently perhaps is the range of activities that the concept of social licence is being applied to.
Many areas of agriculture once considered below the radar are increasingly subject to social licence in the way they are being regulated or influenced by market behaviour. High profile issues such as chemical use, animal agriculture and native vegetation management are but a few that have been, or are likely to be, impacted by significant regulatory change as a result of societal pressure; independent of economic, public safety or scientific imperatives.
Along with the range of issues affected, the speed and spread of change is a significant factor in why social licence has recently become such a disruptive force for agriculture.
In satirically describing the operation of a fictional Social Licence Review Board (SLRB), Australian columnist Bernard Salt said that: ‘The key skill in being admitted to the SLRB is being able to see and nurture division that others cannot or will not see.’
This is perhaps the most threatening aspect of the way that social licence is being applied to agriculture: that division and opposition to farming practices can be created seemingly without cause, and championed in a short space of time by vast numbers of people with no investment in nor understanding of the practice.
Through the speed and reach of social media-driven campaigns, practices which have been considered normal or acceptable for generations can suddenly be under threat.
While the social licence can seem a very nebulous concept for farmers to tackle, the impact of an industry losing its social licence is immediate and potentially terminal for the farm businesses involved. It is no wonder then that social licence was such a hot topic at the Nuffield conference.
The political future of animal agriculture, the future of glyphosate use regulation and the market’s acceptance of corporate farming are all issues for which the unwritten social contract is under threat. While forced practice change in these issues will not lead to the end of agriculture, it could however have the potential to shape a very different agricultural sector to what we know today.
Australian agriculture cannot afford to minimise the impact of social licence. We apply it to other sectors (such as coal seam gas, mining or banking) so it is naïve in the extreme to think that it will not be applied to our sector.
There are a number of ways that the likelihood of social licence-induced change can be approached, which will be explored at the Australian Farm Institute’s Evidence meets Emotion Roundtable Conference on October 16th in Canberra.
It can be fought: this approach requires an intimate understanding of how to communicate effectively to justify current practice. Facts alone will not be enough, as studies have shown.
It can be guided: industries that anticipate social licence issues have the ability to position themselves as drivers of change for good rather than clinging to practices which have lost public support.
It can be embraced: change always provides opportunity and successfully anticipating new markets enabled by social licence induced change will provide opportunities for those willing to seek it out.
Whichever approach is taken (and it is likely that agriculture will move forward with a mixture of all three), it cannot be ignored. Agricultural industries that do not collaboratively and continuously renew their social license will be prone to disruption well into the future.
Richard Heath is the Australian Farm Institute’s executive director