Freedom to operate starts at home

By: Charlie Arnot

A North Carolina jury last week awarded $50 million to neighbors of a hog farm even though the farm demonstrated compliance with all applicable state and federal environmental regulations. Last year a community in Kansas formally opposed a new Tyson plant that would have added hundreds of jobs to the local economy, and voters in one Oregon county approved a ban on all aerial pesticide applications, despite existing state regulations that disallow pesticide drift and impose other restrictions on aerial spraying. Troubling reminders that the agriculture community must not take social license and freedom to operate for granted.

Global trends showing a public more concerned about food and agriculture are coming home to roost in farming communities. Those working in agriculture can no longer assume they enjoy the benefit of the doubt and are granted a social license to operate.

Social license is the privilege of operating with minimal formalized restrictions based on maintaining public trust. It’s granted when you operate in a way that is consistent with the ethics, values and expectations of neighbors and the local community. Once lost, social license is replaced with social control, which brings the threat of regulation, legislation and litigation designed to compel you to perform to stakeholder expectations. In the three cases above, those stakeholders demanding more social control were all based in rural communities.

Maintaining freedom to operate requires more than merely complying with rules and regulations based on scientific justification. Science tells us if we can operate farms and plants, but increasingly rural residents are not asking if we can, but asking if we should.  Science will tell us if we can, society will tell us if we should, and the debate is growing more contentious.

Our research proved nearly a decade ago that providing only facts or science-based data isn’t adequate to build trust. Facts are only helpful once you connect based on shared values – the values that both the public and the agricultural community share. The research shows that shared values are three to five times more important than science, skill or expertise when it comes to building consumer trust.

When engaging with neighbors or others who have questions or may be skeptical about your intentions, remember to listen, ask and share – in that order. Instead of trying to convince someone that their position is wrong, take time to understand concerns and answer questions before sharing data on scientific studies or economic impact.  When stakeholders realize your values are aligned, you can ask if they’re interested in learning more about an issue and you are granted permission to share technical information.

Social license is earned every day. Farmers, integrators and processors must recognize that freedom to operate starts at home and earning it must be part of every business plan, just like deciding what variety of seed to use, how to hedge commodities, or what equipment to purchase. In today’s environment where consumers are crowd-sourcing knowledge and expressing their values and social preferences through lawsuits and ballot initiatives, trust has become the most valuable intangible asset of any organization.

Those intangible assets became very real last week in hog country in North Carolina.