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You are not farming correctly.

Posted by Andrew Whitelaw on 3 January 2019
Andrew Whitelaw
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As a serious professional farmer in 2019 it is well understood that “best practice” means you take care of your land, you take care of your animals/crops and you are economically astute. 

Despite that it doesn't matter what you or the industry believes is appropriate. We live in an era of ‘Social Licence’ where the opinion of the ill or under informed has the capacity to determine the future of your farm and its practices.

In this article I take a look at some risks related to the pursuit of social licence.

In Robert Herrmann’s article “Social Licence – it’s a rubbish concept!”, he wrote about his concerns related to social licence. The foremost concern is that the pursuit of a social licence can involve making changes to our industry to suit the viewpoints of a populace far removed from commercial agriculture.

In this article I will briefly discuss my apprehension relating to the difficulty in chasing a social licence. In the well meaning race to have a positive social licence, we face a number of major challenges. The main concerns I hold are :

  • Who dictates the social licence?
  • Where does it stop?
Judge, Jury and executioner

Ethics and moral viewpoints can differ drastically between people. What you determine as appropriate, I may find abhorrent. 
This begs the question, who determines what is an hand-784077_960_720appropriate action for the agricultural industry to take? Is it wealthy inhabitants of the inner city, the suburban working class or consumers in developing countries? It is highly likely that each of these sectors of society have differing views on the importance of social licence, however all are consumers and customers of our produce

In 2018 a Californian jury determined that glyphosate  was the cause of a ground keepers cancer, and awarded compensation of US$289m. This is at the same time as lobbyists and activists are calling for an outright ban of the use of glyphosate in a number of developed regions.

This is despite the science showing that glyphosate when used as advised poses mimimal risk. The science shows that glyphosate is a safe product to use, and assists in ensuring that farmers are able to produce crops in an efficient manner.

So in aiming for a social licence not neccesarily based on data and science, who dictates what is an appropriate farming practice?

In the modern world of social media, it is largely the campaign group with the biggest marketing budget which will determine the route the conversation takes. At present activist groups have money (figure 1) and volunteers to ensure that they are able to loudly proclaim their message to a wide audience.figur e1

The agricultural industry has economics, environmentalism and science on it’s side, however this is not enough. The industry is told to win the emotive argument, however the reality is that activists groups through simple imagery are capable of easily winning the emotions of those removed from the day-to-day actions of agriculture.


The biggest ‘social licence’ issue at present is the live sheep export industry. Based on current polling, it is likely that the Australian Labor Party will win the coming federal election, and with that a ban on live sheep exports will be enacted.

There are many within the agricultural industry who believe that a ban on sheep live exports will be positive for the overall industry. They consider it to be the ‘sacrificial lamb to the altar of social licence’. The premise is that the removal of sheep exports will allow the the rest of the industry to have a healthy social licence unencumbered by perceptions of live exports.  

The move to ban the sheep live export industry has largely been as a result of the well funded animal rights industry. These organisations have become succesful as a result of using emotive imagery to garner support (and donations).

The pursuit of social licence has a risk of incrementalism. Once an industry practice has been removed, activists will not be satisfied. In all likelihood the opposite will occur. Their successes will further magnify their efforts into other causes.

It may not impact you today, but it could tomorrow.

I have faith that the majority of the society is astute enough to believe in the importance of economics and science. We need to continue to promote our industries, but not at the expense of our profitability.

figure 2

Topics: leadership, activists, agricultural industry

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