Maintain your social licence


  • Social licence: the demands on and approvals of a business that emerge from society
  • Often sought before major projects proceed and shouldn't be taken for granted
  • When something negative goes viral, it's difficult to rebuild trust

Social licence is a term bandied about with increased frequency. It isn’t a new concept, but its application to agricultural practices is relatively recent.

Typically, social licence has been used in case-by-case discussions on projects like new mine sites. Stakeholder and public acceptance, in other words a social licence, is often sought before these individual projects proceed.

With public trust comes a social licence to operate. When public trust wanes, the social licence can be revoked.

Social norms change

Those of you with a bit of grey hair, or a lot of grey hair like me, will remember when smoking was a cultural norm.

People smoked everywhere – restaurants, offices, even airplanes. Public perceptions have changed. Second-hand smoke is feared. The locations where smokers can engage their habit are severely restricted. Changing public attitudes have led to new rules and expectations.

Science alone seldom trumps emotion.

Despite evidence from the Conference Board of Canada and others that our food supply has never been safer, consumer confidence in the food system has become more tenuous. People increasingly care about what they consume, but they’re bombarded by dietary advice that’s often inappropriate.

Surveys show that farmers continue to command a high level of public trust, but the support should not be taken for granted. And while trust is slow to build, it can quickly erode.

Case in point, neonics

Consider the neonic seed treatment issue, where Ontario beekeepers and Ontario grain producers have different viewpoints. Beekeepers in the province generally believe neonics should be discontinued, pointing to links between the seed treatment and bee deaths. Most corn and soybean producers argue the risk to bees is small, especially with some improved application procedures.

As the debate played out in the media, it became clear that public sentiment favoured neonic curtailment. Most people did not wade into the scientific studies or listen in depth to expert opinion. Instead, their viewpoint was guided by perception.

Increasingly, social media can affect social licence. When something negative goes viral, it’s difficult to rebuild trust, a factor that has emerged over just the past decade.

Science is still important, but science alone seldom trumps emotion. This can lead to tighter regulations at the farm level. As well, food processors and marketers adjust their requirements to respond to consumer demand, and producers have to change production practices to maintain market access.

There are new challenges as producers work to maintain their social licence. However, change always brings opportunity and in this case, the opportunity is to more directly connect with customers and earn their trust. 

From an article by Kevin Hursh in AgriSuccess May/June 2015.