TECHTALK by CropLife Canada

Social license is a buzzword that has gained traction in various industries and has recently firmly established itself as part of agriculture’s vernacular.

For centuries, farmers have been producing food to feed their neighbours, communities, and the world. Going back just a few generations, most people had a direct connection to the farm and understood how agriculture worked. Farmers didn’t have to talk about what they did because people knew. And people implicitly trusted in the food they ate and that farmers were doing the right thing.

The world is a very different place than it was when my grandparents farmed. Today, only about two per cent of Canadians farm. The other 98 per cent likely know very little about agriculture.

Couple this with the fact that people have greater access to information today than they ever have and a desire to know more about the food they eat and how it’s grown, and it brings us to the conversation about social license.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent in the world of agriculture that public acceptance and support can be as important, if not more so, than the approval of regulators.

We need look no further than the impact activist pressure is having on Ontario agriculture when it comes to restrictions on neonicotinoid seed treatments. Similarly, provincial bans on urban pesticides highlights the power public pressure has to trump science.

Farmers – and industry – must now rely on public trust for their right to operate, otherwise known as their social license.

Social license is defined as:

“Social License refers to the level of public trust granted to a corporate entity or industry sector by the community at large and its key consumer base.

Public trust is the belief that activities are consistent with social expectations and the values of stakeholders, and earned through industry engagement, operating practices, and expressed values. Social license is slow to build, but quick to erode. Industry tacitly garners public trust by doing what is right.”

As a result, it’s more important than ever before that the agriculture industry stands up and tells its story.

Consumers want to know that both farmers and the plant science industry are being good corporate citizens – as they should.

We in the agriculture community often talk about how farmers are the original environmentalists – and it’s true! Farmers depend on the land for their livelihoods and they take great care to protect it and ensure its viability for years to come.

The plant science industry is committed to developing tools that help farmers do just that. We are constantly innovating to come up with new ways to help farmers grow more with less, and meet the needs of the world’s growing population in the face of changing climate conditions.

Pest control products and new crop varieties developed through plant biotechnology have helped dramatically improve farmers’ yields. In fact, without these tools, farmers would need to put 37 million more acres into production to produce what they do today. That’s about the size of all the cropped land in Saskatchewan. This kind of improved productivity means valuable natural wildlife habitat can be left intact.

Thanks to the combined use of pesticides and plant biotechnology farmers have been able to widely adopt conservation and no-till practices. The result has been improved soil health, reduced erosion, and a reduction in the amount of greenhouse gas generated by agriculture.

The future looks bright, too. The plant science industry is developing new crops that better tolerate drought and salt. This holds particular promise in the developing world where these kinds of innovations could help bring entire regions out of poverty.

Scientists are also developing new crops with improved nutritional qualities. There’s golden rice, which contains added beta-carotene and iron that help prevent blindness. There are healthier cooking oils. There are fruits and vegetables with higher levels of vitamins and minerals. And there are things like soy and peanuts with fewer allergens.

Canadians should also know that Canada has one of the most well respected regulatory agencies in the world to ensure all pesticides and biotech crops, before coming to the market, are safe for both human health and the environment.

Business as usual is no longer an option in the agriculture industry. If we want to earn and maintain our social license to operate we have to actively tell our story. And I firmly believe that once Canadians learn about how sustainable agriculture is today, they’ll continue to entrust us with the role of producing food in the best way we know how.

We each have a role to play in telling agriculture’s story and earning our collective social license to operate.

Ted Menzies
President, CropLife Canada