Social License for Agriculture: A Tall Drink of Water

Social License
Through the years I have seen many trends come and go.  So when I was invited to a special field day on sustainable cropping systems this past Wednesday, I was somewhat skeptical. I knew part of the program that day was a strip tillage demonstration.  I can remember going to those back in the 1980s.  Even though that was 30 years ago, sometimes it feels just like yesterday.

Needless to say, like many things that I get invited to this was very worthwhile.  I see almost everything through an agricultural economic lens and most others don’t.  That is especially the case when it comes to agricultural science.  The focus of the day was on how to produce more crops for less money in an environmentally sustainable way.  I’m all for that but when the term “social license” was mentioned, my antenna went up.  That sounded a lot like social engineering to me and when it comes to Canadian agriculture, I’ve never heard of before.

One of the takeaways from the day was, as farmers we are losing the social license with consumers and therefore we have to be somewhat proactive in cropping a different way.  Social license is defined in different ways, but can be defined as the privilege to operate with minimal restrictions by maintaining the public’s trust for doing what is right.

When I first heard that term I was somewhat perplexed.  The Chairman of the Grain Farmers of Ontario mentioned it, at the field day describing to some extent how farmers may have to change in the future simply to operate within the social license that society is increasingly imposing on farmers.  A recent example of this may be the neonic ban in Ontario.  After diligently working with many segments of society regarding this pesticide, the Grain Farmers of Ontario suddenly found a policy imposed on them.  It was like as part of the social license to produce food in this province, you’re only allowed to do it a certain way.

So, talk about a tall drink of water for me.  Throughout my career I have seen chemical bans and regulation changes but it usually had to do with some type of carcinogen in the mix.  Now, with most people in Canada highly disconnected from the land, there are many challenges coming from interest groups and government about farmers’ social license.  Many farm groups are interpreting the path forward to be one where our social licenses as farmers will be restricted.

One example of that may be the algae blooms, which are showing up now on Lake Erie.  These are caused by nutrient runoff into Lake Erie and form a green slime throughout much of the lake washing up on beaches.  At the special field day I listened to Dr. Merrin Macrae, an associate professor from the University of Waterloo in Ontario talk about phosphorus runoff into the Great Lakes.  She gave an excellent presentation about how we as farmers can retain these nutrients on our land and reduce the runoff into Lake Erie.  One interesting take away I took from her was that 80% of the nutrients which cause the algae bloom in Lake Erie come from the United States.

The culprit for that nutrient runoff is the Maumee River in Ohio.  Take a look at Google Earth and you will see that the mouth of the Maumee corresponds with the western end of Lake Erie and the problems of algae blooms.  Needless to say, one take away from the field day was that this was our responsibility too and as farmers we had better learn how to reduce this nutrient runoff and maintain our agricultural efficiency.  If we didn’t, we would risk losing more of our social license to farm like we want to on our land.

I don’t know if I buy all this.  Some of you would say that it is simply political.  We change our politics and then this restricted social license might go away.  However, there are many now within Ontario that thinks it makes no difference.  Simply put, our urban society is no longer willing to give us an unrestricted social licensed to do what we want.  As farmers, we need to move ahead and preempt this by making environmentally sustainable choices moving ahead.  Simply broadcasting fertilizer like we once did has to be redefined and changed.

Maybe Ontario is a laboratory for this, I dunno.  There is no question that in this province farmers are feeling the restriction from an urban society that simply wants cheap food.  I would argue that we can never fulfill an urban view of social license for agriculture.  However, the hard part is, there are enough people talking about this now at both the provincial and federal level that it is real.  The challenge for farmers is to survive and thrive economically in this new world.  Social engineers we are not, but a social license to farm in this country is a must.  Keeping and maintaining it will be key for our future.