Farming’s Social Licence: It’s an Agreement, Not an Order

Does agriculture have its own social licence, its own special bond with the public?

I wondered that last week, thinking about the energy sector. My thoughts were prompted by the terrified look on Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre’s face, when he unwittingly found himself between a protestor (described by the media as “burly”) and participants at National Energy Board hearings in the city.

The subject of the hearings was the proposed $15.7-billion Energy East pipeline, which would move more than one million barrels a day of Western crude oil to Eastern Canada. Plans call for it to go through Quebec.

Understandably, after the Lac-Megantic disaster three years ago that killed 47 people, Quebec is pretty sensitive to anything volatile crossing its borders, by any means of transport.

And had the protester known Coderre’s anti-Energy East position, which the mayor was at the hearings to present, he might have tried to avoid getting in the mayor’s personal space when he flung himself at authorities.

(Loozrboy/Flickr.com, CC-2.0)
(Loozrboy/Flickr.com, CC-2.0)

Said Corderre: “There are too many problems we are witnessing to accept the project…we’re saying the project [TransCanada] presented is wrong, it’s bad and we don’t have the answers. And frankly, one of the main issues is contingency plans, everything regarding safety.”

In the aftermath, media sought out pro-pipeline people for comment, going outside the province to do so. They found one of my favourite politicians ever, former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, who raised the social licence matter.

“Before the evidence is even submitted, they say they will not support it under any circumstances,” said McKenna, now a deputy chairman at the Toronto-Dominion Bank, and a very vocal Energy East ally. “This isn’t about pipeline safety, but about opposition to a carbon-based economy … the government shouldn’t simply listen to the loudest voices.”

However, that’s what’s been happening with alarming frequency — the loudest voices are driving social licence, scaring decision makers to bow to pressure that does not appear to be coming from the masses.

So should we describe social licence as a peacefully negotiated agreement, or as mob rule?

That’s what M.J. Howell of Orillia wondered in a letter to the National Post after the disrupted energy board hearing.

“What would Canada be like today if Sir John A. MacDonald had to seek social licence to build the Canadian Pacific Railway or Louis St. Laurent needed it to build the St. Lawrence Seaway?”

The writer claimed Canada “is being held to ransom by unpatriotic environmental activists who would rather we ship in oil from overseas despots than develop the national economy and create badly needed jobs.”

In a resource-based economy like ours, pipeline development touches all Canadians. No wonder people want a say in the matter. They don’t — yet — seem as riled up about food production, at least not to the point where they’re leaping across meeting tables to make their point.

But it’s not a stretch whatsoever to believe that could be on the horizon. The same “unpatriotic environmental activists” who hate energy companies could easily come to hate the big business players in ag, too (some do already), regardless of their environmental track record.

Here, however is a difference.

Agriculture is accessible. True, people are more detached from farming than they were a few decades ago. But they’re not totally isolated like they are from most parts of the energy sector (except the gas pumps). People can drive to a farm and check it out on days the farm is open to it; otherwise, they can at least see from the road what’s going on, without having to scale walls.

 An estimated 2,000 consumers visited Veldale Farms near Woodstock, Ontario, for Breakfast on the Farm earlier this summer.
An estimated 2,000 consumers visited Veldale Farms near Woodstock, Ontario, for Breakfast on the Farm earlier this summer.

Accessibility is enhanced when farming makes an effort to connect — breakfasts on the farm, farm tours and social media engagement by farmers themselves, for example. I like Ag4Life’s initiative to get farmers to tweet about what’s in their fields, to help consumers learn about the positive impact agriculture has on consumers. Efforts like that can turn twitter followers into champions for farming.

Here’s a final word about farming’s social licence, or any licence for that matter: you get it once you’ve proven you know what you’re doing.

It takes courage, and maybe some humility, to prove to consumers and society in general that you know what you’re doing. But to me, courage comes easier when you’re right, and you know you’re right.

Hopefully, that also makes it easier to stay focussed and positive, and not get discouraged by those waving their lopsided version of a social licence at you.

A social licence is an agreement, not an edict or an order by activists. It’s a perpetual conversation starter. Let’s make sure agriculture’s social licence with society does not have a termination clause.

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