The Pork Industry and Social Licence

CANADA - Trust issue rises as a lynchpin to the future of the pork industry, delegates to the Banff Pork Symposium 2015 heard last week.
calendar icon 28 January 2015
clock icon 6 minute read

The future looks brighter today for Canadian pork production than it has for several years. But there's a big "if" standing in the way that industry must tackle in order to fully capture the opportunities ahead.

That "if" centres on the rising buzz term 'social licence,' says Charlie Arnot [pictured], CEO of the US-based Center for Food Integrity, reports Meristem Land and Science from the 2015 Banff Pork Symposium (BPS).

With strong social licence – a.k.a. public trust that translates to freedom to operate – the pork industry is set to capture major growth opportunities. Pork is the most widely consumed meat product in the world. By 2022, annual per-capita consumption is forecast to leap from 9.4kg to 10.4kg in the developing world and from 21.9kg to 22.7kg in the developed world. Canada stands to gain on both fronts as a major domestic and export player.

However, without a strong and dedicated collective effort to support social licence, the path ahead could include some major stumbling blocks.

Mr Arnot told the 600-plus delegates at the BPS: "I truly believe it's a phenomenal time to be in the pork industry. But it depends on social licence. The opportunities ahead will only continue to be there if freedom to operate is continually earned and maintained. It's about trust. It's about transparency. It's about building and communicating an ethical foundation for our activity that aligns with consumer values."

Six keys to success

How can the industry accomplish this? Here are six insights, among many, offered by Mr Arnot to the BPS audience.

1. Embrace transparency. "Transparency is an issue that we have a complex relationship with in agriculture," said Mr Arnot. "We keep telling people 'We have nothing to hide, but it's none of your business.'"

That needs to change, he said. "We're making progress and this needs to continue. Transparency is going to be a key element in building trust as we go forward."

2. Don't fear questions. The food supply today is safer, more available and more affordable than ever before. So why does the industry face such intense scrutiny? "A lot of the credit for the advances we have seen goes to the technology and systems that everybody in this room and others in agriculture and food around the world have implemented. Yet we continue to see those systems challenged every single day by consumers."

Don't be surprised or frustrated, said Mr Arnot. Industry should expect ever-rising scrutiny and learn to manage it.

"We've been taught as a culture to be more skeptical of institutions as a whole and this is how the ag and food industry is viewed. Food is very personal when consumers have questions about nutrition, food safety and the impact of animal health products on their family they take it very seriously."

This is a reality that comes with challenges, he said. But with it also comes an opportunity to develop a stronger understanding and relationship with stakeholders who are more engaged than ever before.

3. Trust, trust, trust – Make it top priority. Everything hinges on trust and addressing this concept needs to be a top priority in everything the industry does, he says. Freedom to operate is not only a privilege. Particularly in the new generation now emerging, it is the root foundation for everything from production efficiency to economic benefits.

Mr Arnot said: "It's really about protecting the industry's ability to do what it does best, with a minimum of outside interference. That depends on trust. If the public trusts us to do what's right they won't feel the need to impose more social control."

4. Recognise the new market-based framework. Historically, social control was imposed through legislation or regulation, but that is changing rapidly to a market-based framework, said Mr Arnot.

He continued: "What we've seen more recently is that social control is accomplished through the marketplace. Activists and others will put pressure on leading brands, and those brands will come back and say 'we no longer want gestation stalls, antibiotics, or this product or process in our supply chain because of potential impact on our brand.'"

This needs to be a core strategic consideration for the production sector, said Mr Arnot.

"This is the new environment and it has major implications for how we choose to engage going forward," he said

5. Take charge of the economic opportunity. There is sometimes a perception that trust and related issues such as animal welfare or ethical sourcing are 'soft zone' trends somehow less important than the core economics driving the industry. But make no mistake, the two are inextricably intertwined, said Mr Arnot.

He explained: "There's a compelling economic argument for the value of social licence and it's getting clearer stronger every year."

The pork industry is granted a social licence when it operates in a way consistent with the ethics, values and expectations of stakeholders. These factors continually evolve.

He continued: "As an industry, you need to keep ahead. Otherwise, whether as a result of a single incident or series of incidents, you cross a tipping point and you move to social control, which is always rigid, much more bureaucratic and higher cost."

6. Communication is critical. Doing the right thing is essential, said Mr Arnot. But just important is telling people about it.

He said: "We need the stakeholders who control social licence to understand that while our systems have changed and our use of technology has increased, our commitment to doing what's right has never been stronger. If you're doing things right, talk about it and take the moral high ground."

Do not allow activists to drive the industry into reactive, defensive territory, he said.

He added: "Rather than trying to bring them down, elevate yourself."

Across the board, the pork industry can benefit from fresh thinking, he said.

Mr Arnot concluded: "We typically like to talk science but it's bigger than that. Shared values are three to five times more important than facts. That's where we need to focus."

Further Reading

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