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Maintaining agriculture’s social license to operate

Terry Fleck, the executive director of the Center for Food Integrity, had a very unnerving message to attendees of Ohio Farm Bureau’s Trends and Issues Conference — agriculture’s social license to operate is being threatened.

“Social license is the privilege of operating with minimal formalized restrictions based upon maintaining the public’s trust to do what is right,” Fleck said. “That means that your practices align with the values and expectations of consumers, a community or a group of stake holders.”

Most producers realize that there are bound to be regulations that they have to abide by but now other restrictions, like market mandates, are coming into play.

“Those in the food system are starting to talk about what consumers are wanting or not wanting, creating new restrictions all along the supply chain,” Fleck said.

Creating more and more pressure on the marketplace and attacking farming’s social license is the path most likely to be taken by activist groups that would like to reform and remake the food system to align with their values and goals.

“Overall I would say that we are one of the more regulated food systems in the developed world,” Fleck said. “The nice part about our political system is that we have a lot of checks and balances.”

The market mandates that are being set for agriculture skip that entire regulatory process and, according to Fleck, do not allow the time to think things through and work out the advantages and disadvantages of changes in the food system.

“We certainly are able to produce an affordable, healthy and safe food supply and we take great pride in that,” Fleck said. “The safety record of our food is reflected back on the regulations that are currently in place.”

When it comes to social license, once it is lost it is hard to get back. Fleck suggests a change of approach when it comes to engaging consumers about agriculture and building their trust in what farmers do.

“Our tendency has been to talk about our competencies or our technical expertise,” Fleck said. “What we need to become better at is sharing our values. We have great stories to tell and wonderful values to share with consumers, but because they are geographically and generationally removed from the food system, they may not even know a farmer or their values.”

Fleck’s advice when it comes to having those one-on-one conversations is to approach every consumer as if they are a skeptic of farming and just listen to their concerns.

“Most consumers simply want the approval to consume the meat, milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables that they would like to consume,” Fleck said. “I think by asking questions you will be able to find out exactly what they are nervous about and visit with them about their concerns. That can take some practice, but I think that is where we really have to be so we don’t alienate the consumers any more than we have to.”

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