The Social License – Our right or our privilege?

This entry was one of the finalists in our 2015 Birthday Competition and was written by Anne-Marie Huey.

One of the advantages of living in a well-developed, affluent country like Australia is that we have the luxury of being able to allocate our discretionary spending according to our own personal moral leanings. Nowhere is this more evident than in our weekly grocery shop.

Australians love their food and, judging by the seemingly endless number of cooking shows currently on television, interest in where and how our food is produced is on the increase. This has given rise to greater scrutiny of our farming practices – whether it be chemicals used in crop production or animal husbandry practices used in meat and egg production. This, in turn, has resulted in the concept a social license under which agricultural production is expected to operate.

In essence, a social license means the community expects farming practices to adhere to a standard considered acceptable to the majority of the population. As long as farming practices reflect societal expectations industry will be left to manage itself with minimal undue regulation by government. It’s a win-win situation. Farmers are left to get on with what they do best – growing food – and the community is confident the food they buy is of the highest quality and produced in an ethically acceptable manner.

And, ethically speaking, one issue about which the Australian community feels very strongly is animal welfare. The community expects our farmers, transporters, and processors to be accountable for the treatment of their animals through each step of the production chain. As a society we want to know our livestock is raised and slaughtered in the most humane manner possible. This is a good thing and something with which every farmer I know agrees. But do we, as a society, have the right to dictate which farming practices are considered acceptable and which should be banned?

In my view, where there are rights, there must also be responsibilities. In this case, I believe if the general public expect the right to have a say in which agricultural practices are considered acceptable, they must assume the responsibility of educating themselves as to the facts. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily as straight forward as it may sound.

As a beef producer I am the first to admit I know nothing about egg production. However, I do know that when in the supermarket I am confronted with a bewildering array of choices – free range, cage-free, barn laid, or cage eggs? I would hazard a guess the only label I could accurately correlate with a specific production system would be cage eggs.

Please let me make it very clear that I am in no way passing judgement on any sector of the egg industry. I am simply pointing out that, like most Australians, I have very little knowledge as to what has occurred in order for my carton of eggs to end up in my shopping trolley. And, again like most Australians, I am too busy/lazy/disinterested (insert adjective of choice) to find out. I like to think my consumer choices and any price premiums I elect to pay will ultimately result in improved welfare conditions for chickens – but will they really?

After all, what does constitute a free range egg? Is there a minimum ‘flocking rate’ that must be maintained in order to qualify? Are free range chickens really better off, or are they more at risk of disease – as in the case of the 4,000 birds that were destroyed in New South Wales in 2013 after contracting avian influenza from contact with wild ducks. And then there is injury. The phrase ‘pecking order’ exists for a reason. Chickens will attack each other in order to establish dominance, so does keeping hens together in large flocks increase the risk of injury and is that risk off-set by the assumed access to more space and open air?

Inside the shed it is no less confusing. What is the difference between cage-free and barn laid? Do hens in any of these systems actually have more access to space, fresh air, and sunlight than the others? Or does my willingness to pay a premium for a product that allows me to convince myself I am making an ‘ethical’ choice on behalf of hens across Australia simply reward clever marketing executives and their corporate clients who recognise there is a tidy profit to be made in manipulating the conscience of the general public?

And then there is the pork industry. One major grocery retailer proudly announces all its own-brand pork is ‘sow stall free’. Until this campaign I will confess I had never heard of a sow stall. Since the campaign commenced I have seen images of pigs in tightly confined spaces that look terrible. So, banning them must be a good thing and must surely mean the retailer has the best interests of animal welfare at heart. Or does it?

These ads fail to mention the vast array of other products currently available in supermarkets that contain pork imported from countries with no such constraints on production practices. There is no suggestion that these products will be removed from the shelves any time soon, so does the retailer really care about animal welfare or is this yet another calculated move to extract maximum value from our weekly shop?

Interestingly, with just a couple of clicks on google, I have discovered sow stalls have been commonly used within the pork industry to facilitate more efficient husbandry practices. I have also learned that the pork industry itself has made a commitment to phase out sow stalls by 2017, a commitment that was underway long before any advertising campaign began.

So what will the supermarkets target next in order to carve out a point of difference with their competitors? Farrowing crates, perhaps? In my limited understanding, I believe these to be very similar to sow stalls. Surely if the public finds the thought of stalls so repugnant, this will flow through to farrowing crates. Or will farmers fare better if they market their product as ‘piglet-friendly’? Which would tug more at our collective heart strings – the image of a sow in a tightly confined space or that of a newborn piglet crushed to death by its own mother?

Leaving this moral argument aside, however, we must also consider the consequences of imposing a social license on industries we barely understand. If the community insists on holding Australian farmers to standards that simply cannot compete with off-shore imports but then buys imported product because the budget is tight, then Australian producers will ultimately be forced out of the market. This would be a very bad outcome for everyone. Not only does it put our food security at risk but we would also lose all control over our production chain, jeopardising our current easy access to affordable, safe, reliable, home-grown produce.

But it is not just the supermarkets who shamelessly toy with our emotions in order to sway us to their way of thinking. Animal rights groups have been doing so for decades, sometimes with devastating consequences. Take, for example, an issue with which I am much more intimately acquainted – live export.

In 2011, Animals Australia commissioned Tracks Investigation to obtain footage of barbaric and horrific abuse perpetrated against Australian cattle in Indonesian abattoirs. This footage was eventually released to the media, along with a well-orchestrated social media campaign. This campaign included a huge range of misinformation and blatant untruths and the fall-out was devastating. There was an initial backlash against the trade and a noisy minority successfully lobbied the government of the day to suspend all live export to Indonesia.

For much of the general public who signed the petitions and expressed their outrage through conveniently accessible internet sites, this is where it ended. For those caught in the maelstrom, it was only just beginning. Livelihoods were lost, rural communities were devastated, and relations with one of our most important trading partners were deeply damaged.

The bush was reeling, urban Australia was largely oblivious. Perhaps due to our remoteness, perhaps due to the city-rural disconnect, or perhaps due to the fact that a new cause had captured the public’s imagination, the northern beef industry was left to regroup as best it could.

Today, with the benefit of four years of hindsight, I can see some positives have come out of the whole debacle. We now have ESCAS (Export Supply Chain Assurance Scheme) that allows animals to be tracked from property of origin to point of slaughter. This system, while certainly not perfect, is going a long way towards ensuring Australian animals receive the best treatment available throughout the entire supply chain.

A recent report into ESCAS determined that of the 8,000,000 animals exported since the introduction of the scheme, there have been only 22 incidents of animal welfare concern. Of course, that is 22 too many but at least where breaches are now identified there are protocols and procedures in place to minimise the possibility of these transgressions reoccurring.

But it is so much more than that. I firmly believe the best way to make long-lasting, effective improvements to animal welfare is by providing education and economic development. Live export ticks both these boxes. Thanks to Australian investment, facilities in all our destination markets are improving. The Australian live export industry is investing heavily in training of local staff and infrastructure in international feedlots and abattoirs, improving welfare for all animals regardless of their origin. And while this is a massive win for animals, it is also a major gain for local people. Thousands of people derive employment – and a regular pay cheque – from these supply chains. Millions more have access to safe, healthy, affordable beef, something so fundamental that your family and mine simply take it for granted.

While this whole process may finish at a wet market in Indonesia or Vietnam, it begins right here at home. Please note, I am in no way saying we shouldn’t question the production methods practised by our farmers and live exporters, but we should also not unthinkingly accept opinions touted as facts on social media sites, nor blindly consume the sound bites delivered by main stream media. If you feel moved by an issue, surely you owe it to yourself to explore the subject fully. Ask questions of people on both sides of the argument and come to your own – informed – opinion.

Which brings me back to the concept of a social license. Do we really have the right to force our unqualified views on the very people who work so hard to feed our families, or is it a privilege we need to earn? A privilege borne of belonging to a country that is largely untouched by war, famine, or the true hopelessness of grinding poverty. A privilege afforded to us by the economic security and political stability that is a hall-mark of our comfortable, well-supplied, Western society.

Clearly, I consider it a privilege and I believe we forfeit our privilege to impose a social license if we fail to support those who must operate under it, simply because there is a cheaper (invariably imported) alternative available. I also believe we forfeit our privilege to enforce that social license if we can’t take the time to educate ourselves about the issues at hand.

So next time you are asked to donate to a cause, sign a petition or boycott a particular product, consider your information carefully. Are you falling victim to a slick advertising campaign, or could there be a very different side to the story? There is no shortage of individuals, organisations, and web-sites willing to explain the finer points of farming – all we need to do is ask.

As a nation we are – and should be – horrified when cases of animal abuse are uncovered. However, crucifying farmers for conducting essential husbandry practices and vilifying entire industries for the misdeeds of a few is not the solution. By all means vote with your wallet on issues about which you care deeply, but if we are to affect lasting change then education is the key. If there is one thing the live export suspension of 2011 taught me it is this: There is nothing so dangerous as an uninformed opinion and nothing so powerful as an open, enquiring mind. As a community we have the power to shape how our food is produced. However, it is a power we must wield wisely and wield kindly – for the welfare of us all.