I saw a cartoon recently that showed an oil company executive at the Department of Motor Vehicles asking if this was the place to buy a social licence.
If only it actually worked that way.
What is “social licence” anyways? Generally speaking, it is the acceptance by society of a particular industry or industry practice. The issue is becoming increasingly important to agriculture because more consumers — especially consumers in wealthy developed countries — are becoming concerned about the origins of their “stuff.”
Did that beautiful coat once belong to a seal? One hundred years ago, that answer would not have mattered, but today it does. And the answer has meant the end of an industry that has been part of the Canadian landscape longer than the life of the nation itself.
This might not be all that difficult to address if the things that drive the evolution of society’s norms were rational and based on careful thought. However, many times the fad of the day is not based on fact or rationality and in some cases fads are driven by those who profit from misinformation.
This brings up the first difficult task of farmers and their partners in the value chain. How do we differentiate between long-term consumer trends and misplaced fads that will be gone in a year or two?
We should adapt to the first and try to correct the second. But how do we know the difference?
For example, for the vast majority of people who do not suffer the pain of celiac disease, the gluten-free fad is not based on science or rationality. Unfortunately this fad has had an impact on sales of bread and other cereals products, but we are seeing evidence that this food fad is starting to fade.
The cereals sector has responded through the provision of rational, evidence-based information through organizations like the Healthy Grains Institute. While we likely can learn to be more effective in responding, this is the right approach.
Some things, however, go beyond short-term fads and are long-term consumer trends. These long-term trends become part of our social licence. This is clearly evidenced by consumer demands that are driving animal welfare practices.
The grain industry is not isolated and we do need to pay attention to the question, “Where does my food come from and how is it produced?”
If we do not correctly respond to genuine trends, we might find ourselves on the wrong end of a major marketing campaign. I do not want bread on Canadian shelves made from Australian wheat because they allow the baker to make a sustainability claim and we don’t.
As an industry, we also need to recognize that not all customers are the same. Our industry needs to be flexible enough to respond to the trend-driven market signals of some customers, like those in North America or Europe, while keeping our price-sensitive customers at the table.
The sustainability file is one of these long-term trends that the grains industry needs to address head on. There are about a million definitions of “sustainability.” For me the simplest definition is treating the land and water we use for agriculture in a way that ensures it will be productive for generations to come. I don’t know of any farmer who would disagree with this objective.
Responding in a meaningful and reasonable way to the growing number of consumers who are asking the question, “Where does my food come from?” is the reason why the Round Table for Sustainable Crops (CRSC) has been created.
We also want to ensure that producers are not saddled with a different approach for every crop they grow. That would not be cost effective. We need to have one program that is an umbrella for all crops grown on a farm. The roundtable is aiming to facilitate sustainability assessment using broad regional measurements rather than always going down to the farm level.
In this way the CRSC will provide the tools necessary to tell the very good Canadian story on sustainability without unreasonably driving up the costs to farmers and every other player in the handling and processing system.
If we as an industry (my definition of industry always includes farmers) do not develop our own approach to social licence that works both for us and the customer then we will have something imposed on us. An approach imposed from outside will certainly not consider the needs of Canadian agriculture and it will almost certainly not be considered cost effective.
Farmers play a vital role in the development of a Canadian approach to social licence. Get in touch with your provincial association to see how it is contributing to this effort. Get informed about the progress being made. Get involved — you will make a difference.
Modern Canadian agriculture has a good sustainability story to tell. The CRSC will help farmers and their partners tell that story to our customers, here at home as well as around the world, in a way that does not place unnecessary burdens of paperwork and red tape on producers.