Agriculture needs to renew its social license

By Matt Reese

It is easy to romanticize agriculture’s past. The water was clean, the air was fresh and the sun always shone (except when a rain was needed). There were pigs, geese, horses, cattle, sheep and chickens all residing in a quaint red barn that offered no unpleasant odors. All creatures lived in harmony and farmers had a nearly unlimited social license with the general public to run their operations with freedom from excessive regulations.

Well, times have changed for the reality (or the perception) of the farm and in the minds of the general public with regard to the general public’s social license for agriculture. This social license long granted the privilege of operating with minimal formalized restrictions based on maintaining a trust with the public; if people think farms are doing the right things, then there is no need to regulate them more formally.

Though people may used to think that way, it seems that they do not any longer.

“Most consumers do not understand what you do and how you do it and why you do it,” said Beth Anne Mumford, with the Center for Food Integrity based in Kansas City. “The public does not necessarily trust that you are doing the right things for the right reasons.”

As a result, the mounting list of rules and regulations (both from the government and the voters themselves) should come as no surprise. The public loves Old McDonald and his animals that do not smell. They are not so sure about today’s farmers with big buildings veiled with a cloud mystery and suspicion conjured up through years of undercover videos and documentaries.

“The average person trusts farmers, but they are not convinced that what you are doing is farming,” Mumford said. “Their lack of understanding allows activists to persuade them. The general public wants to trust you but they are not sure that they can.”

If agriculture remains stagnant on the issue of renewing its social license, the regulations will continue to pile up as the gap between the farm and the consumer widens. The solution is to combine the appeal of Old McDonald with the reality of modern production agriculture.

“You get a social license by building trust,” Mumford said. “People are influenced by experts and they value the opinions of people they know and respect. This, combined with the competence of the farmer leads to the development of trust.”

When compounded, this individual trust creates a general belief that a farm’s activities are consistent with social expectations. Unfortunately, the social license agriculture has enjoyed has clearly been eroding in recent years.

“In the case of agriculture, this problem has been building for a long time and we need to find ways to maintain that social license,” Mumford said. “In some places, farmers still have it. In some places they don’t. And it is not really about the technical aspects of agriculture. It is a feeling that you don’t care like they care. They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

The key to this challenge is what Mumford calls values-based communication. In short, farmers need to let the general public know that there is a lot of common ground between the two ends of the food chain.

“To build trust, agriculture must engage in values-based communication that is grounded in ethics, is scientifically supported and economically viable,” Mumford said.

The audience for such “critical conversations” includes customers, employees and the general public — anyone who may not understand what takes place on a farm and why it is important. The values that need to be conveyed include the core values that drive decisions on the farm: reliability, honesty, commitment, faith, family, etc. Chances are, most conversations will involve others who have these same values, which allows them to connect with the farm.

“For a long time, agriculture has been telling people that they provide for animals because that’s when we get the best return on investment,” she said. “Now we’re telling people that we comply with all of the rules, but we all have to follow the rules. The public really wants to know more about the ethical obligation farmers have to their employees, the environment, the animals and the community.”

Where agriculture has failed in addressing the values of consumers, anti-agricultural groups have had great success.

“Wayne Pacelle (the CEO of the Humane Society of the United States) is incredibly good at his job,” Mumford said. “He has been quoted as saying, ‘We’re not telling people to become vegetarians — we’re urging them to exhibit greater decency.’ How can you argue with that? The public trusts these ‘main stream’ messages.”

By using a main stream message to fund and further their extreme agenda, groups like the Humane Society of the United States have very successfully taken advantage of the growing gap between the consumers and agriculture, effectively getting their values-based communication to the general public more clearly than agriculture.

Agriculture is at a crossroads in Ohio with consumers that will ultimately shape the direction of the industry (whether at the ballot box or the grocery store). They need to understand the realities of farming in a way that they can connect with, and no one can better fill that role than the farmers themselves.

“We have an affluent society that can choose to buy what they want to buy,” Mumford said. “We must give customers, policy makers, community leaders and consumers ‘permission to believe’ that contemporary animal agriculture is consistent with their values and expectations. Failure will result in revocation of our social license and freedom to operate. We must build and communicate an ethical foundation for our activity and engage in value based communication if we want to build the trust that protects our freedom to operate.”

This story was summarized from the “Engage” training program coordinated by the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.

A social license has long granted farms the privilege of operating with minimal formalized restrictions based on maintaining a trust with the public. That trust has been eroding away in recent years.

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