Human social evolution is constant. Once held up as a cultural icon conjuring romantic notions of sweeping plains and cattle drives, the modern livestock industry is now coming under increasing scrutiny. In recent times, drought conditions across much of Australia have seen increased media coverage of cases of malnutrition, water deprivation and humane destruction of drought-affected livestock. This has brought to the fore a heightened level of discussion around the value of protecting the livestock sector's public image or ‘social licence to operate’ versus the importance of communicating the drought-induced challenges faced by rural communities in the wider political and social arenas.
Australian society reflects a similar situation in much of the Western world, whereby citizens are becoming increasingly disconnected from agriculture. In a November 2017 poll conducted by the National Farmers Federation, 83% of Australians described their connection with farming as ‘distant’ or ‘non-existent’.1 Despite this disconnect, it appears that there is a progressive increase in concern about how food is produced, particularly in regards to animal welfare.2
In 2018, the Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources commissioned Futureye Pty Ltd to independently research community views on the welfare of farm animals and the role of regulation. The report found that the Australian public's view on how farm animals should be treated has advanced to the point where 95% of people view farm animal welfare as a concern. Concerns within the general public tended to be higher for animals and issues that have received media coverage, in particular those that are depicted graphically, are viewed as unnecessary or that do not seem to provide benefit to the animal. The report also recognised the potential for issues portrayed in the media to draw uninformed sections of the population into debates, which may result in reactive calls for extreme regulation, as seen with the live export issue.3
In 2018, a series of media publications juxtaposed the plight of livestock producers impacted by drought and resulting concerns raised by animal activist groups. Attention was drawn to the duration and severity of drought conditions faced by livestock producers and, in some cases, the resulting decision to humanely euthanise drought-affected stock.4 Such drought-related media often included images of livestock that had died or were in extremely poor body condition. In response, several animal activist groups communicated their overall opposition to livestock husbandry, including the viewpoint that given the risk of drought in Australia, the continued breeding of livestock should be considered immoral, claiming ‘if you can't feed them, don't breed them’.5 The polarising appeals to empathy within the public have led to ongoing debate in several different areas including the way the Australian livestock sector's image is projected in the media, the standard of care provided to livestock as well as the impact of statements by activist groups on producers' emotional wellbeing.
A social licence to operate has been defined as the privilege of operating with minimal formalised restrictions in regards to regulation, legislation or market-based mandates that comes from maintaining public trust by doing what's right.6 In contrast, compromise to social licence can lead to increased litigation, regulations and consumer demands all of which hamper the success of industries.7 Whilst debate will likely continue on either side of the argument between animal activists and livestock producers, ultimately it is the position of the general public in the centre of the bell curve that dictates the current state of the sector's social licence to operate.
It is important to also recognise the distinction between the consumer and the public. Consumers are those that purchase animal products and whilst they generally express concern about animal welfare, it does not necessarily result in a change in purchasing habits.8 In contrast, the wider public comprises consumers of animal products, as well as those who do not consume these products but whose voices are just as much a part of the conversation on whether social licence to operate is granted.
Recent social science research has shed light on various proposed methods of building and maintaining public trust within the livestock sector. The most commonly proposed approaches tend to fall in to one of three main categories being the restriction of the flow of information, educating the public into understanding and aligning industry practices with public ideals in order to communicate ‘shared values’.
The rise of animal activist ventures involving the acquisition of covert video footage and photographs of livestock industry practices has led many stakeholders to lend their support to legislation that restricts this flow of information. These so-called ‘Ag-Gag’ laws have been debated in North America and to a lesser extent in Australia.9 However the debate in itself uncovered the deeply flawed notion of closing the doors. It has been shown that whilst most people were at first unaware of ag-gag laws, merely learning about the concept lead to a decrease in trust of farmers and an increase in support for animal welfare regulations. Counterproductively, it was also shown that awareness of ag-gag laws negatively impacted perceptions of the current status of farm animal welfare, indicating that even the intention to restrict access to information can undermine trust.10 Furthermore, when the issue at hand is the projected image of livestock management during drought, restricting the flow of information prevents wider political and social recognition of the hardships faced by rural communities and may therefore reduce much needed support.
The aforementioned disconnection between citizens and the agricultural industry is often cited as a reason for increasing efforts towards educating the public about the realities of agricultural production in the hope that understanding will breed acceptance.11 Whilst education certainly has its place, it has been suggested that efforts to educate the public are unlikely to successfully resolve concerns about practices on farms for several reasons. The first is the ‘disconnect’ itself; given the fact that such a large percentage of the population is disconnected from agriculture, relying on a small minority of informed stakeholders to educate the masses is unlikely to be successful.12 Further, whilst efforts to educate the public can assuage certain concerns about livestock production, equally they have the potential to lead to new criticisms whereby previously uninformed members of the public become newly aware of standard methods of operation that they may see as a cause for concern.13 It has also been noted that the idea of educating the public into acceptance overlooks the fact that a person's opinion on agricultural practices is greatly influenced by their moral and ethical values.14 Further explanation on this point is provided by Professor David Fraser:
‘Some emphasise the basic health and functioning of animals, especially freedom from disease and injury. Others emphasise the ‘affective states’ of animals – states like pain, distress and pleasure that are experienced as positive or negative. Others emphasise the ability of animals to live reasonably natural lives by carrying out natural behaviour and having natural elements in their environment.’15
In short, it is one thing to provide a person with information that encourages understanding and acceptance. It is another matter entirely to attempt to educate away their personal values.
Research has also shown the communication of shared values with the public to be three to five times more effective than scientific data or demonstrated technical ability when it comes to preserving trust.16 Similarly, shared values along with acknowledgement of gaps in performance and communicating a vision for policy and reform that seeks to incorporate public concerns are seen as fundamental pillars of ‘outrage mitigation’ when it comes to negative animal welfare images in the media.3
It must therefore be considered that improving levels of public trust in the livestock sector's standards of operations is unlikely to come from focusing on communicating facts and figures that speak to an acceptable minimum standard of care. Rather, it is the winning of hearts and minds that ultimately underpins the preservation of public trust. This concept must therefore be borne in mind when evaluating the value or otherwise of the way the livestock sector is portrayed in the media during times of drought.
Given that the preservation of public trust is an asset that benefits all stakeholders, it is vital that recognition be given to the fact that it is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. Awareness therefore needs to be raised around the fact that every stakeholder has the potential to put the level of trust bestowed upon the livestock sector at risk.
Despite the growing interest in the concept of social licence within the agricultural sector, it appears that many people within the industry are still reluctant to consider the citizen's perspective as valid. According to Lush (2017), ‘as a general observation, many Australian farmers seem to not fully comprehend or do not take seriously the consequences of consumers that do not understand the importance of an agricultural industry that has freedom to operate’. Raising awareness within the sector of the value attached to the maintenance of social licence to operate is therefore of key importance.
Once awareness of the importance of preserving public trust is increased, focus can then be placed on proactive social licence protection and evaluating whether there is value in moving forward as a ‘profession’ as opposed to an ‘industry’. Whilst ‘industries’ have historically been regarded as sectors which adhere to minimum standards and comply with external regulation, ‘professions’ provide a model of work that fosters higher levels of performance17 whereby stakeholders hold each other accountable and look to continually develop their standards.
In a continually evolving society, the image projected by the livestock sector has significant potential to influence its social licence to operate. With climatic challenges such as drought bringing heightened challenges to every day animal husbandry, the sector must now more than ever give careful consideration to the way it presents itself in the media to wider society. Emphasis also needs to be placed on ensuring all stakeholders are aware of their responsibility to uphold this image, hold each other accountable and continually strive for improvement in the sector's standards of operation.