It’s called social licence — and farmers will pay a steep price if they lose it.
It happened to American logger Bruce Vincent, who offered his story as a cautionary tale to a rapt audience of beef producers at the recent Alberta Beef Industry Conference.
“Our social licence to operate was rejected by the public,” he said of his failing family logging business in Libby, Montana.
“And I can no longer say you’re someday going to be looking at what we’re looking at. You’re looking at it now.”
Farmers are facing the same problems today that his 50-year-old timber business had to deal with a decade ago, he said.
“We’re having what I call a collision of visions with the rest of society,” he said.
Most urbanites have no direct connection with farmers and only a dim understanding of how their food is produced. But those same consumers are flocking to farmers’ markets in record numbers, emulating the culture of rural communities, and spending their vacations in the country, he noted.
“They’ve fallen in love with the very things we love about living where we live,” he said. “They’ve fallen in love with the stereotypical view of what they think we are.”
That’s made them fierce defenders of pristine rivers, abundant wildlife and open plains — a “Disneyesque ecotopia,” he said.
“They want to save what they’re now calling the last best places. So they fight.”
Protected to death
But their vision for rural areas has a “fatal flaw,” said Vincent.
“If (consumers) remove our social licence to operate, the very thing they want to protect is going to pay the price of their protection.”
The timber industry in Vincent’s community has already paid that price after a lawsuit filed by an environmental activist to protect endangered species essentially halted logging in the 2.5 million acres of forest surrounding Libby.
“For the first time in 120 years, we don’t have a sawmill,” said Vincent, whose own operation laid off all 65 of its employees.
“We’ve crossed the line between environmental sensitivity and environmental insanity.”
It’s a case where facts no longer matter because they don’t fit the public’s perception of reality, he said.
“The truth has been outrun by lies for so long that the public doesn’t recognize the truth.”
Agriculture is no different than forestry in this regard, and farmers need to understand they need the public’s consent to operate. If they lose it, consumers will take matters into their own hands, he said.
“(Consumers are) fighting to protect us, and in many cases, we’re getting protected to death.”
From the Country Guide website: Consumers play major role in sustainable agriculture
Take the lead
The U.S. timber industry responded too slowly to the erosion of public trust, but agriculture can learn from its mistakes, said Vincent.
“If you want to maintain your social licence, you’re going to need to lead the public in a way that they give you consent to operate.”
And that means becoming activists for the industry and addressing both perceived issues — such as the dangers of antibiotics in beef — as well as real issues such as animal abuse.
“Your licence will only be granted if the public trusts you, and trust can only be built over time,” said Vincent.
Producers can’t count on the truth to win out someday down the road, he said.
“It probably will in the final analysis, but by then, your licence to operate in Alberta will be gone,” he said.
“The truth has to have a champion, and that’s got to be you.”