Social License Applies to Producers and Consumers

May 11, 2016

By: Ralph C. Martin, Ph.D., P.Ag.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture posits that “social license, within an agricultural producers’ context, can be defined as theongoing level of acceptance, approval and trust of consumers regarding how food is produced.”

Long before CFA and other groups, such as the Canadian Horticultural Council, was a twinkle in aggies’ eyes, philosopher, writer, and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed the concept of a social contract, in 1762. He said “each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”  Rousseau recognized a general will of society and argued that we each contribute to this general will and each person then socially contracts to live within the general will, enforceable by law.

Social license is not a contract but rather an intangible and current acceptance of practices that impact a community. A community of consumers may grant social license to farmers based on what they perceive and believe today and there is an expectation that as new information becomes available and/or new beliefs develop, that consumers may want to upgrade their social license.

It’s no wonder that some farmers are wary of gaining social license and investing in new long term production systems. Even if these systems are accepted today, they may or may not meet social license consensus by the time an investment is fully utilized.  Public perception can be fickle and change more quickly than that, although not necessarily.

When farmers invest money they have lots of skin in the game. How will they know that consumers will buy their products preferentially or better yet pay a premium? With social license they don’t know. However, if they do not strategically invest at times when investment is required anyway, they will still have skin in the game, with less chance of success.

Consumers pay the ag-food sector for food products. They are our customers. For social license to make sense, dialogue is required. It is not sufficient to educate consumers about agriculture and food, as much as this is needed from grades one through twelve, and beyond. We must also listen. It may be fair for consumers to ask about pesticide residues, agricultural impacts on air and water in their communities, and how farm workers are treated.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that consumers too, should seek a social license with farmers and others in the agricultural value chain. If agriculture produces, processes and delivers sufficient and healthy food then consumers can reasonably be expected to eat appropriate amounts, select food that improves rather than degrades their health and reduce household food waste. When consumers harm their health, our societal health costs increase and overall productivity decreases. Household food waste is half of the 40% wasted along the value chain, or in other words 20% of all food wasted every year, in Canada. Increasingly it makes no sense to squeeze production capacity in order to indulge the luxury of wasting food.

It is the horticulture sector that provides the fruits and vegetables (well recognized to maintain and improve human health) for consumers who want more choices. Within the context of a dialogue between the horticultural industry and consumers, it is also fair to ask consumers about their willingness to pay for food that augments their health and is produced with a light footprint. Dialogue may be limited to tracking consumer purchases of a range of products which are branded or labelled. They send clear messages when they buy. However, dialogue can also include focus groups and personal conversations between farmers and consumers at road side stands or farmers’ markets. Not all produce from a farm need be sold this way, but that which is, may facilitate market research and inform those ‘speculative’ investment decisions.

Consumers who advocate at public meetings or through organizations and/or petitions, have a reasonable obligation to explain their penchant for products that are cheap and convenient. Yes they are our customers and yet they need to know the implications of their requests. Being granted social license has less credibility and longevity, if they allow no wiggle room with ‘cheap and convenient’ criteria.

In some cases, there are opportunities for businesses to differentiate and brand products that address concerns of consumers. The early adopters who test consumer responses to shifting production practices contribute a service to the whole industry, if it can be seen that consumers value such products. For example, many greenhouses have limited pesticide applications, given the use of beneficial predators within a closed environment. If most, or all, of the Canadian sector adopts such a practice there may be an opportunity to brand Canadian greenhouse products.

Branding involves compliance from all producers and/or processors providing products for the brand. There are costs of inspection and third party verification to be coordinated and shared along the value chain. Such an approach goes beyond the intangible acceptance of social license, to a verifiable system. However, if consumers recognize the value of the brand they may preferentially select these products, if not pay more for them.

Unsatisfied consumers may push further beyond social license and convince government to become involved to ensure that producers follow given criteria. If government regulation is required, then we are approaching the social contract envisaged by Rousseau in the 18thcentury. A social contract involves law enforcement, and not just an intangible acceptance of a social license.

While taking the time to engage in dialogue to assess what consumers will accept, approve and trust, may seem like too much time away from attending to business, it can open doors and prevent unwanted interventions. Gaining social license may be the softer side of serving our customers but it beats the harder aspects of a social contract.

 Comments welcome at


Ralph C. Martin, Ph.D., P.Ag. is the Loblaw Chair, Sustainable Food Production and Professor, Ontario Agricultural College, University of Guelph.