Hitting back at animal activists with the truth

SOCIAL LICENCE: A hot topic affecting the intensive ag industry according to WWF's Ian McConnel.
SOCIAL LICENCE: A hot topic affecting the intensive ag industry according to WWF's Ian McConnel. Cassandra Glover

SOCIAL licence is an issue affecting the reputation of the intensive ag industry.

World Wildlife Fund's global commodity leader for beef, and fifth-generation cattle farmer, Ian McConnel spoke about the concept at the Intensive Ag Conference in Dalby recently.

"Intensive ag, probably more than other industries in many parts of the world, is under pressure from consumers,” he said.

"Through a lack of understanding and lack of engagement. And a difference in perception of what's actually occurring.”

Mr McConnel explained what a social licence is and why it is important for producers in the intensive ag industry to have one. The concept of social licence came about in northwest America in the '80s and '90s when communities became concerned about the impacts of mining and fracking in their region.

"It came when direct impacts from some of these industries were being seen in communities and seen on farms,” Mr McConnel said.

"It started to undermine the perception of identities that communities had. So they began to ask questions and began to communicate concern about the impact.

"It became apparent that community engagement in these industries didn't exist.

"They had policy and regulatory approvals to be there, but not community approval.”

A social licence refers to the approval of the community.

"Since then it's definitely moved. Nowadays we tend to think of the consumer when it comes to social licence,” Mr McConnel said.

"The social licence tends to exist at a number of different levels.

"It does resonate with the consumer and they are the final vote because they vote with the money that enters our supply chains, but it also exists at regional, national and international levels.”

Mr McConnel said social licence was an important issue for the intensive ag industry as it can affect profits and productivity. He uses the egg industry as an example of the impact of social licence.

"We see without social licence around intensive ag, with that being eroded around say eggs, the margins in farms gets declined when you start moving towards free range and so on, because that's where the social licence is strongest,” he said.

"So it becomes harder to farm if your social licence gets eroded. You maintain profits, viability, and productivity when you social licence is at its best.

"But to do that you have to have that critical analysis of your own farm and your own industry, to make sure the bad isn't there and everyone is moving towards better.” Mr McConnel said the impacts of social licence could be both positive and negative.

"Some people would see it as a success, some people would see it as a negative. For those whose margins and businesses have been impacted by a lack of market for cage eggs it's a bad thing,” he said.

"For animal welfare people who have pushed towards less chickens in cages, it's a positive for them. And that's the thing, there can be two sides to a social licence argument. "But it certainly is proof that social licence has an impact on what happens on farms. We're seeing more farms move towards free range, and less new farms being developed for caged poultry production.” Mr McConnel said animal welfare was the biggest issue for social licence in the industry.

"When you look at intensive ag, animal welfare trumps the other issues. It visual, it visceral, it's something consumers have trouble understanding when they see it visually - animals confined,” he said.

"That's why I think a lot of the conversation needs to move away from purely the imagery and to the values.

"Why from an animal health perspective are they in there? And why do we as farmers, who say we care about our animals and look after our animals and the land, do that to them? What's the value in it for us?

"The economic and productivity stories don't resonate. We have to talk more on the animal care values that resonates with the consumer. Because they have them as well.

"They have pets, they have the same values wanting to look after different things, animals and the environment, so we should speak more on that level.”

Another way to improve social licence within intensive ag is to simply do the right thing with farming practices.

"It's also about doing the right thing. If we're continually allowing the bad things to happen in our industry without taking steps to eradicate them, even the good things get ignored by the consumer,” Mr McConnel said.

"Locally, the on-farm level is always acting like the cameras are on, like someone is watching.

"Ask yourself, would I be able to live next door? Would I be happy for someone to treat my pets that way?

"Ask yourself those questions continuously in the way you design your practices and then what the consumer wants will become the truth on farm.

"And truth, over time, is how you develop trust.”

Topics:  animal welfare intensive ag social license wwf

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