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Posted: November 1, 2012

Building public trust.

For Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, this is what the challenge boils down to for livestock industries as they face a new world of rising scrutiny and expectations for animal welfare. He set the stage for a successful gamelan to tackle this objective, in a featured presentation at AFAC's 2012 Livestock Care Conference.

"I believe that trust is without question the most valuable asset that any organization has," says Arnot, offering his insights to the more than 170 livestock producers, other industry representatives and stakeholders in attendance.

"When you have trust, you have more support and more freedom to operate," says Arnot. "Simple as that. You can do more of what you would like to do and accomplish more of what you would like to accomplish."

In today's environment, it's clear that animal welfare has risen to become a high profile issue for livestock industries. All stakeholders, including consumers and the general public, are asking more questions and more closely examining industry practices. The ability of these industries to succeed in this environment depends on the level of trust they have with stakeholders, to allow them to manage this issue without the burdens of heavy external control through regulation, legislation or market requirements.

This level of trust that enables freedom to operate is called "social license" – an extremely valuable form of currency in today's hyper-aware, hyper-demanding society that Arnot believes should be the primary focus of industry leaders as they build toward the future.

"Social license is like a stamp of approval that says 'we trust you to do what is right,'" says Arnot. "It provides the privilege of operating with minimal formalized restrictions."

But it's not a free pass, he says. Social license must be earned and must be maintained. "It is based on the belief that industry activities are consistent with the expectations and values of the society and marketplace in which you operate. It is something in constant flux, and it strengthens or weakens based on the level of trust you have with all of your stakeholders."

Social license is the new currency

Social license is concept rooted in common sense, says Arnot. "If the public trusts you to do the right thing, they won't feel the need to impose greater restrictions." Those restrictions can come in the form of legislation, regulation or a rising factor called "market mandates" where branded food companies, particularly global ones, are finding a role as agents of social change.

"Today we're seeing that the big brands are driving change in the food system much more efficiently and much more effectively than any legislative or regulatory body possibly could," says Arnot. "That's a major factor in the new dynamic."

Interest groups such as activist organizations recognize this and put pressure on the brands, he says. They also face constant pressure to respond to the perceived attitudes, interests and judgments of consumers.

"We're in a completely different environment today," says Arnot. "You can't just think you can farm and be left alone. You need to be active and engaged to understand and meet the new expectations."

A major hurdle for agriculture is figuring out how exactly to do that, he says. Traditionally, the sector is most comfortable dealing with issues on a scientific and rational basis. But the realm of public perception and trust is more complex.

"In agriculture, we're good at science and we think if the science is on our side people will come around to our side of the argument," says Arnot. "But science and standards alone are not the answer. To have trust, the public needs to believe you share their values and you are committed to doing what is right. We need to communicate that clearly and effectively to build public confidence."

Lead with values

Research by the Center and its partners shows perceptions of shared values and confidence are three-to-five times more important than demonstrating competence.

"We've had the communications equation exactly backward in agriculture. Because it's not the science that's going to drive trust. It's the perception that we share the values and the ethics of our stakeholders and we're committed to doing what's right. Simply giving people more data and more information is not going to be persuasive in encouraging them to support who we are, what we do and how we operate in today's food system. We have to do more than that and we have to lead with our values and our commitment."

This is a challenge, says Arnot, which is summed up by an old saying by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt: "People don't really care how much you know until they know how much you care."

"It keeps coming back to values," says Arnot. "That's where we need to connect with people. It's not just about polishing our image. It's an issue of trust that requires fundamentally different strategies."

Map stakeholders and build relationships

Leading with values is one key strategy, he says. Another is for animal agriculture to integrate stakeholder expectations and perceptions at the core of all of its business approaches. "To be successful we need to think about integration more broadly than just within a supply system. We need to be aware of the environment we operate in and the state of our social license with the public, and factor those elements in at the core of our positioning and decision-making."

For companies and associations, Arnot suggests going through a process of mapping stakeholders and applying analysis to understand their influence and taking steps to improve those relationships. "Who has an impact on your social license? What are their expectations? Have you engaged with them? Keep in mind engagement does not mean having a meeting. It means a commitment to developing a relationship where there's ongoing dialogue about what's happening, what might need to happen, what might need to change, what might be the impacts of those changes."

Engage in the new environment

Animal agriculture has generally had good infrastructure in place to allow it to manage legislative and regulatory challenges, and to market products. But the new environment is one where brands are driving change and where the dynamic between brands, interest groups and the supply chain is where the real power lies. "This dynamic is a brand new space," says Arnot. "It's a space where we need to begin to develop some new skills, some new talents and some new systems, in order to be more effective in engaging in the conversation at that level."

The new dynamic presents new opportunities for those in agriculture to build more relationships, not just with the procurement side of food brands, but with those who manage corporate responsibility, those who manage animal welfare, etc., and provide at level of support and information. "This doesn't guarantee the outcome you're looking for, but at least by becoming engaged in that conversation you can begin to shape a potential outcome."

The Center for Food Integrity has also been involved in initiatives – such as a branded series of YouTube videos - that put a face on animal agriculture and speak to values that resonate with the public.

The important thing, says Arnot, is to operate in line with values and expectations of society and become more engaged in talking about what you are doing. Perfection isn't required, he says - it's about being proactive and playing to win, rather than playing not to lose.

Start simple and build to sophistication

Over time, Arnot believes animal agriculture can build greater understanding with the public that will strengthen its social license. A key part of the conversation is the economic story and the challenge agriculture faces in balancing a number of demands and intense competition while operating complex technical systems and delivering safe, healthy food.

"For example, we can encourage a broader conversation about these issues that helps people understand that animals are raised in systems, and if you change one variable in that system you need to understand the impact on the entire system before you continue to mandate those changes," he says. "We can help people understand the potential impacts on supply chain dynamics, the food system and animal health and wellbeing."

But getting on track by talking basic values is the first step, he says. "You need to establish basic trust to have people listening. Then you can lead them to more sophisticated understanding and discussion."

Everyone in animal agriculture has a role to play, he says. "The theme of this year's Livestock Care Conference is 'Defining the Future.' I want us all to think about how we can become more effective in building public trust to help us do that. What can you do in your company or organization or association, to begin to think about redefining what you do and who you are in a way that builds public trust?"

Small changes by many is not only one of the best pathways to progress, it's a necessity, he says. "We all have a responsibility to do our part to collectively build a strong future for our industry."

Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.

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