Determining the right to farm

Published 1 Aug 2018 | Lucy Darragh

As resources become scarce and society’s expectations more diverse and demanding, it is inevitable that social licence issues will become both more difficult and more important.(1)

Society should determine the right to farm – it’s a controversial statement in the ongoing discussion about the interface between the realities of farming and public expectations about the acceptability of production practices.

The introduction or amendment of legislation that would effectively result in specific ‘terms’ to describe the acceptability of agricultural production and related practices poses some concerns for producers. This is because these terms, described as a social licence to operate (SLO) or ‘the right to farm’, tend to be driven by factors that don’t necessarily reflect the realities of farming, such as pressures from property development markets, and increasingly outspoken communities with often conflicting ideas on agricultural practice and land use.

For agriculture, conventional definitions of the SLO hinge on the notion of an unwritten social contract that is reflective of the relationship and values shared between food and fibre producers and the broader non-producer public (2). This social contract provides freedom for farmers to operate their businesses without extensive regulation or government controls. However, issues associated with climate variability, natural resource management, land-use practice and animal welfare – as well as the widening range of stakeholders and commentators with varying and divergent views on acceptable practice – have led to conflict over the terms of the SLO.

The political landscape related to agriculture and its social licence become increasingly complex over the past 20 years and instances of SLO evolution abound. For example, in 2004, the Australian wool industry responded to an aggressive campaign against mulesing led by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), vowing to invest in research that would allow mulesing to be voluntarily phased out. In 2014 however, key members of the sheep industry abandoned this commitment following the success of longer-term research, breeding, grower education and improved practices in the use of pain relief products. To date, government and industry investment in mulesing alternatives has exceeded $26 million.

The temporary live export ban of cattle from Australia to Indonesia in June 2011, and the calls for a similar ban on sheep exports earlier this year, are other examples of an evolving SLO. While negative effects of the 2011 ban are still being felt by some producers, there have also been positive ramifications for the industry, such as improved animal welfare standards (particularly in the importing country).

Livestock producers are facing an increasing challenge in the trend away from policies that focus on improving agronomic practice and animal welfare (3), towards those more closely associated with animal protectionism (4) – an issue for which the political response in Australia is less readily explained or understood. Additional challenges are imposed by changing consumer attitudes and media/marketing influences, which provide new opportunities to agriculture yet simultaneously erode its SLO.

Genetic modification, technology-based inputs, natural resource management, land use and biosecurity are some of the most vigorously debated issues alongside animal welfare in the context of an SLO. Social pressures stemming from these issues have in one way or another, influenced a licence to operate through legislated requirements. These instances, among others, include the Blackmore’s Wagyu Beef case in 2015, the Queensland vegetation management laws introduced in May, and – although not directly related to agricultural production – the Kosciusko Wild Horse Heritage Bill 2018 in June. These cases serve as recent examples of the extent to which political influence and public perception has trumped science-based evidence in Australia’s policy-setting environment, comprising the agricultural SLO.

There is a widening gap between society’s expectations and the practical realities of farming, leading to the question of whether or not society should determine the right to farm. As production practices and society’s knowledge and expectations regarding agriculture continue to evolve, so too will agriculture’s SLO. The challenge lies in whether these factors will lead to ongoing conflict, or whether (as in the past) farming practice and societal expectations will become more closely aligned.

The AFI’s John Ralph Essay competition is exploring agriculture’s SLO with the topic: Society should determine the right to farm. Entries close September 3rd, apply online.


  1. Williams, J & Martin, P (2011), Defending the social licence of farming: issues, challenges and new directions for agriculture, CSIRO Publishing.
  2. Bray, H (2015), Sharing the table: a workshop exploring agriculture’s social licence to operate, University of Adelaide.
  3. The ethical imperative and social expectation that any use of animals for the benefit of humans should minimise suffering of the animals involved; related to health and wellbeing, extending beyond survival to the quality of an animal’s life (DAWR).
  4. Animal protectionism is a position within animal rights theory that favours incremental change in pursuit of non-human animal interests. It is contrasted with abolitionism, the position that human beings have no moral right to use animals, no matter how the animals are treated (Wikipedia).

Image:  Feral Arts

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