Federated Farmers’ president Dr William Rolleston discusses the challenge of maintaining the social licence to farm in New Zealand in the 21st century:
The concept of a social licence to operate is the complex mix of philanthropic, ethical, legal and economic expectations that a community and stakeholders may have which enables an operation, in this case farming, to continue in a local community.
The social licence to operate was born in the mining industry where local communities may have been at odds with the disruption and effects that mining activities were having on those communities. In essence a social licence to operate occurs where the values of the local community and the industry align. At the very least the social licence to operate is where a community (in the broadest sense) recognises that there is a positive balance between the benefits they receive and the disruption that may take place.
New Zealand was born on the sheep’s back. We are a nation of farmers. The alignment of the values between farming and the community has been implicit for the last 150 years. Our farmers fought our wars – General Russell, who commanded our troops in the Great War and Charles Upham, our most decorated soldier were both farmers and personified our notion and pride in our rural heritage from those times. Still today we see advertisements which reflect our rural cultural roots, although they are less common than they used to be.
So it is a surprise to many farmers today that this alignment has come unhinged and that we should even be considering farming’s social licence to operate.
I think there are two main drivers to this unhinging. The first is the continued urbanisation of New Zealand. The majority of our young have not grown up on a farm – some, so the urban myth goes, have no concept of milk beyond the supermarket. The second is the continued development and intensification of agriculture itself and that we are pushing up against environmental constraints.
In a sense we are victims of our own success. New Zealanders have a concept of the heartland farmer striding out across the hills. The longstanding success of dairying on the Waikato not with-standing, the conversion of many traditional sheep and beef farms to dairy has disrupted this traditional view.
While the original concept of the social licence to operate centred around the local community, these days in agriculture the community is wider New Zealand, not just the village down the road or the immediate neighbours.
NGOs grasped this concept some time ago. Their campaigns are targeted not only at the public but use uncertainty, fear, opinion and often public outrage to influence the gatekeepers of our goods, namely the supermarkets, as well as our politicians. The fear of losing market share or votes often magnifies public views in their eyes and is seldom compatible with swimming against the populist tide.
While NGOs are legitimately part of the community we have seen them erode the trust between agriculture and the national community through campaigns such as the highly effective “dirty dairying” campaign of the last ten years. Poor performers in the industry have been held up as the typical examples and all that is wrong. Fear and negative publicity sells. Oscar Wild’s quip that there is one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about is not always true. Negative stories and fear get into the psyche of the public and can be hard to root out even when the facts are on the other side.
The response from agriculture has not always been helpful either. Deep sectorial interests have often meant that our responses have been mixed giving the impression of uncertainty or even worse evasion. Those of you at the KPMG breakfast yesterday would have heard Volker Kuntzsch the CEO of Sandfords say that in response to the negative messages from the NGOs the fishing industry said nothing which gave the impression they had something to hide. I think he has a point.
Federated Farmers took the view four years ago that fighting back against every issue was getting us nowhere and was losing us credibility and therefore influence. My predecessor Bruce Wills stood up in the water debate and said that farmers are part of the problem but we are also part of the solution. We said that we should work together with other parties through collaboration for better outcomes. In parallel we also rallied the primary industries together so that we could speak with a common voice where it counted while still preserving our individual objectives.
These were lessons I learnt through the debate on genetic modification, and in particular through the Royal Commission process. As head of the biotechnology industry organisation and then the Life Sciences Network we rallied the science and industry organisations together, coordinated our story and engaged through the preliminary meetings of the Royal Commission process in a collaborative way. Fear and uncertainty was the currency of the day but engagement exposed the vulnerabilities and fundamentalism of the opposition view -to the Royal Commissioners at least. The public would take more time and a track record of safety which is now emerging.
The genetic modification debate is starkly illustrative of the power of a social licence to operate.
Create enough fear about food and environmental safety in the GMO space, limit sciences social licence to operate, and pretty soon what was fear will be morphed into ethics. We are left with a religious view and the science of safety then no longer matters.
How true that is: We are left with a religious view and the science of safety then no longer matters. Emotion, bolstered by fear, ignorance and propaganda, is very difficult to counter no matter what the facts might be.
Water is more subtle but the use of fear and uncertainty to reduce the social licence to operate for farming is the same.
If we get this wrong then the outrage factor will trump science and translate into regulation, even legislation – the formal curtailment of our social licence to operate.
The Prime Minister’s Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, has recognised this risk. On his website he says:
“Democratic societies make decisions and policy based on many inputs, including fiscal considerations, societal values, prevailing public views, and the ideals and vision of the government of the day.
“But democratic governments want to make good decisions and at the base of such decision making should be the use of high quality information and evidence, both in developing new policies and in evaluating current policies. Decisions made in the absence of such informed background material are, by definition, less likely to be effective or efficient and can entrench policies which may be of little value.
Thus governments can become constrained by earlier policy decisions that are not easily reversible because there may be a popular or political perception that they are effective when in fact they are not.”
So our challenge is to ensure regulators, politicians and the judiciary make decisions which are in line with the science, which reflect the uncertainty of the time but are not paralysed by it.
To achieve this we need a more science literate and savvy public who understand the nature of science and uncertainty. A scientist said to me recently when we were talking about just how certain some activists are. He said “certain people are right sometimes”.
Bertrand Russell put it less kindly when he said: ““the whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves but wiser people so full of doubt”.
But we are seeing signs of hope. In the public discourse on fluoridation, immunisation and 1080 we are seeing the public starting to back science and reject the worn out and unsupported rhetoric of the anti-campaigners.
The certainty of the those forces railed against farming in the water debate will also struggle to stand up to the test of time and evidence, but it is not an easy battle and we need to recognise that they will be right sometimes and it would be hubris of us to think we are always right too.
We hear a lot about our markets and what they think of New Zealand. In my view this is an extension of the battle to restrict our social licence to operate. “New Zealand should be 100% organic” we hear “our customers are demanding it” they say.
We need to resist these constraints. New Zealand has operated successfully in an open economy. There are many forms of farming. At one end there is organics but there is also integrated pest management, conventional agriculture, no-till farming, conservation agriculture and modern biotechnology including genetic modification and precision gene editing. It is my view that farmers should have the choice to use those approved techniques and technologies how they see fit.
Our overriding goal should be to produce products which contain enduring value propositions such as safety, integrity, value and quality. Clean and green (in other words our environmental credentials) represent a bottom line, a ticket to the club if you like, but research shows they are not the values shoppers have at the front of their minds when making purchasing choices.
If rightly or wrongly our social licence to operate is determined by the public view we have two choices. We can either accept whatever the public, or those who claim to represent the public, are saying, and simply work within those constraints no matter how painful they may be or we can seek to understand the public point of view and how they got to that point of view. We can engage to ensure our view is persuasive. We can also repackage our message to fit the expectation. In other words we can either follow public opinion or seek to mould it.
Other players have done the latter with great effect.
At a time when the Greens were chastising farmers for growing biofuels because it took up valuable food producing land, wine production, was left alone. A glib message of sustainability helped but the fact so many enjoy the indulgence of a good wine not infrequently represents one benefit in the social licence to operate equation. If you like we can all be hypocrites when it suits us.
Air New Zealand has also flagged a message of sustainability to maintain its social licence to operate.
Scandinavian scientists are using new precision gene editing techniques – the successors to genetic modification – to “rewild” food crops with beneficial heritage traits.
And we heard yesterday that Sanfords are wanting to rebrand their image from an extractive company to a food company.
Agriculture can learn from these examples.
Our challenge into the 21st century is to recognise that our changing demographic means our social licence to operate as farmers must be earned. We must seek to ensure that licence is as broad as reasonably possible within the bounds of our scientific knowledge. We must meet the challenge through engagement, understanding, honesty and clarity with the backing of sound evidence.
We must cultivate a public who understand that the environmental effects of the last hundred years cannot simply be reversed in half a generation. We must cultivate a public who understand that we can make good progress when times are good and that while it is not acceptable to go backwards, when times are hard progress is going to be slower.
Agriculture has a good story to tell and a great part to play in New Zealand’s future. The rules which constrain us must be reasonable and sound. The outcome is in our hands.
The social licence to operate can’t be taken for granted.
Agriculture does have a good story to tell and a great part to play.
The challenge is to ensure the story is heard and that farming’s ability to play that great part isn’t handicapped by unreasonable and unsound rules based on emotion rather than science.