Social licence is low on the list of priorities for New Zealand’s agricultural industry

Chairman of the Meat Industry Association John Loughlin says social licence is low on the list of priorities for New Zealand’s agricultural industry. Speaking with Agriview this week, Loughlin made it clear that he felt the term was not only inaccurate, but also representative of an ‘odd shift’ in societal expectations around moving to agriculture-intensive regions:

“I think the whole boundaries with this thing have changed. I mean the idea used to be that if there was an airport and you moved next to it, you expected to hear the noises of planes, and that if you moved there and were surprised/angered by the level of noise then frankly you were an idiot. I think society has become more tolerant of this kind of illogical behaviour. At the end of the day, if you move somewhere where it is well known that agricultural practices have to be carried out and have the potential to annoy people living in those areas, then you have no real right to complain. It’s your choice and you just have to live with that.”

Loughlin was quick to affirm that he took environmental issues one hundred percent seriously, but feels the issue is entirely separate from social license: “With horticulture, I think the issue when it comes to social license isn’t really to do with environmental degradation/pollution, it’s more town vs country based. Orchards tend to be closer to urban folk, whether thats people on the edges/borders of towns or people on lifestyle blocks. You get into issues like noisy helicopters and wind machines protecting from frost damage, spray drift, etc. It’s more about impacts on people than impacts on the environment.” 

He stressed the importance of encouraging personal responsibility, commenting that “people who have moved to the country without realising there are a whole lot of things happening that are necessary to produce horticultural incomes - and impact on your ability to sit on your porch and enjoy the sun - are a little naive.”

Prior to beginning the interview, Loughlin made his views on the term itself clear:

“Social license is a really technical term and I think talking about ‘social license’ is unhelpful to the target audience. The term is sort of ‘industry speak’; we know what we mean by it, but I don’t think it resonates with the public and I think by using it as a term publicly you give off the wrong impression- that being that it can be given and taken away.”

In regard to the current state of national water bodies, Loughlin believes too much emphasis has been placed on farming as a primary impactor, saying that “not all of the environmental degradation that has occured in areas that are substantially farmed is a result of farming itself.” Loughlin used the Tukituki River, beside which his family home is situated, as an example:

“As a kid I used to swim in that river regularly, now I wouldn’t even think about it. If I look at that river, there’s not a lot of dairying upstream, so dairy farming isn’t the issue, there is a bit of drystock farming, but I don’t think that’s the primary cause either. The primary cause is sewage coming from the surrounding towns- Waipawa and Waipukurau- and the Takapau Meatworks. Farming is in the mix, I’m not denying that, but not to the extent that many believe.”

Loughlin was part of the group of farming leaders who made the pledge to “have all New Zealand rivers swimmable for our grandchildren” in August last year, and believes that in order to achieve that goal, a set of complex issues need to be tackled, issues that are the responsibility of towns and communities as well as farmers:

“A lot of the factors contributing to the current state of national water bodies probably started 20 years before it began to be noticed, and their effects are likely to still be felt for the next 20 years or so. We’re still going to have stuff coming into the river systems as a result of yesterday’s activities, and that’s probably unstoppable. Firstly I think we need to understand the sources of what’s happening in our rivers. In terms of what’s happening in our rural towns, that’s something we can get to pretty quickly. I think there’s a really direct and short linkage between what’s happening today in towns and what’s happening tomorrow in the river, because the water gets there very quickly. So that’s the first thing to do- clean up the sewage, treat it with U.V etc. so that what we’re pumping into the river the day after tomorrow is as clean as it can be. In terms of farming, we need to understand our environment at a farm level, at a catchment level in far greater detail, and in terms of soil we need to get our minds really quickly around what is just going to go straight through and either find ways of farming without it or stopping it getting through. We need leaching to go down dramatically. What we’re putting into the soil today needs to have far less of an effect on our water quality tomorrow. As I said, we still have that 20 or so year buffer, in which we will continue to feel the effects of contaminants, but that buffer will only become larger if we can stop putting in the excess that is coming through, and find ways to use less contaminants, which take far longer to leach into waterways.”

As far as social license plays a part in this issue, Loughlin feels it is granted by the community, rather than green NGOs, and he is willing to acknowledge that at times it is a matter of importance:

“I do think that in instances where farmers have increased inputs and those inputs have increased runoff into town rivers and affected water quality, then that is an example where the community has been affected. In those instances, it is the community who grants social license, and the NGOs then act on their behalf.”

At the same time, Loughlin worries that emphasising social license could be harmful to the development of the agricultural sector in a way that is both economically productive and environmentally sustainable:

“Society has sort of moved in a bit of an odd way. I mean I am absolutely on board with the idea that we need to clean up our rivers and be proactive when it comes to looking after the environment, but I find that the whole concept of social license is becoming intrusive.”

He feels that the way forward lies in promoting education and commitment across the board:

“Most of the good farmers that I know are attracted to the notion of intergenerational farming; they want the farm to be handed down through their family, and want to hand it off in at least as good a condition as it was in when they got it. So I think you’re going to see 95% of them carrying that educational message, particularly if that message is a combination of environmental sustainability and farming efficiency; if you drop your application of superphosphate in a smart way, you can make it count and push less of it through. I think in a number of aspects of this issue, that will be the case. It’s absolutely critical that farmers in a catchment play their part and the thing is, if we tolerate disengagement from some, it becomes an excuse for others.”

Loughlin finished by stressing the importance of keeping the momentum rolling, and making sure everyone sticks to the task ahead: “These things gain momentum as they succeed, so if the rate of success is slowed by people not buying in, it will be difficult to sustain momentum and achieve what we want to over the next few decades. All members of communities and catchments must play their part fully and to the best of their abilities.”