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Sustainable Agriculture in Industialised Countries: the Continuing Challenge of Social Responsibility

BTG-Golder Company Ltd., Betagro Tower (North Park) 323,
Vibhavadi Rangsit Road Bangkok, 10210, Thailand.


BTG-Golder Company recently conducted a study on the environmental and social impacts of intensive livestock operations in the Province of Alberta, which forms one-third of Canada's farming heartland. The intent was to enable the Government of Alberta to formulate more effective agricultural policies that would allow significant expansion of the livestock industry to become a $20 billion processing (value-added) industry and a $10 billion production industry by 2005, without incurring unacceptable social costs. The experience in Alberta offers a number of object lessons about the difficulties of transforming ingrained beliefs about appropriate forms of agricultural production.

Instruments of Change

By definition, best management practices incorporate stewardship of both natural and human environments. The instruments that governments around the world have used to encourage best practices fall into four basic types: economic instruments; legal instruments; self-regulation instruments; and strategic stewardship instruments. These instruments constitute a continuum of options that are available to any government and no single instrument represents the entire solution to any of the challenges.

1.Economic Instruments

Economic instruments have commonly been used to influence the management of agricultural production. Deposit refund systems are a well-known example that comes from the beverage industry. In a charge system, a fee is levied for the use of a resource, on production, effluent or consumption. Alternatively, market creation seeks to produce an opportunity for activities not normally thought of as having a market value.

Typically, economic forces are relied on to discourage activities that result in resource degradation and/or to foster the delivery of environmental services. Economic instruments influence management practices by providing incentives or disincentives for certain types of behavior. When properly applied, economic instruments can be a powerful tool for achieving environmental objectives. More importantly, they encourage innovative solutions to environmental issues. Economic instruments work best when they are convenient and cost effective. However, the difficulty in applying economic instruments concerns the assignment of an appropriate market value. A high market value could put a particular industry or producer out of business, while a low value may not permit the desired objective to be achieved. Economic instruments can also be very difficult to design and implement.

2. Legal Instruments

Legal, or regulatory instruments, rely less on persuasion than on compulsion. They prescribe behaviour by setting compliance standards, which are often quantifiable, and customarily impose negative sanctions on those who act in non-compliant ways. These instruments range from legislation to regulations to local by-laws. While there can be no doubt that such legal instruments encourage positive types of behaviour, some studies have shown that their main effect is actually to create a limited view of the overall environmental problem. Regulations concentrate attention narrowly on meeting minimal standards, often precluding innovation in environmental problem solving. The outright refusal of some operators to adopt environmentally sensitive practices also demands that administrations have legal instruments at their disposal and be prepared to use them from time to time to encourage appropriate behaviour and curb violation of community standards. The effective use of regulation tends to have a salutary effect on public perceptions of government resolve in addressing environmental issues.

3.Self-regulation Instruments

Increasingly, industrial associations have seized the initiative in dealing with environmentally and publicly unacceptable management practices. Rather than wait for lawmakers to impose new, more rigorous regulations, associations have adopted a proactive approach to identifying and eliminating or, at least, mitigating inappropriate behaviours among their members. Frequently, this approach involves the development of recommended codes of practice, coupled with educational programmes for member companies and negative sanctions, which reach their extreme in the expulsion of members from industry organisations for non-compliance. Self-regulation seems to work best when implemented in conjunction with formal, independently established regulations, enforced by impartial third parties.

4.Strategic Stewardship Instruments

Strategic stewardship instruments are an emerging category of solutions that try to balance the competing environmental, economic and social issues that permeate sustainable agricultural practices. Their newness means that they are neither uniform in character nor widespread in application. The most influential impact of these instruments has come at the grassroots level, where local community residents play a significant, collaborative role in development planning that allows industrial expansion to occur in a manner that is consistent with community values. Generally speaking, they are characterised by multi-stakeholder involvement in the decision-making process about appropriate environmental and community standards, their implementation, monitoring and enforcement.

Guiding Principles

An extensive national poll was conducted recently in Canada to determine public perception and attitudes towards the pig industry. This poll is a landmark survey that comes at a critical juncture in the history of intensive livestock operations in Canada.

The national poll revealed that despite the best intentions and actions of national and provincial livestock associations, the general public still felt that there were many outstanding issues with respect to intensive livestock operations. The key lesson for livestock producers and processors is that industry members can handle their affairs in a manner that is both financially responsible and environmentally sensitive and still fail to garner sufficient support from the community and regulators to allow them to proceed smoothly with expansion. In every case, the outstanding issue is public credibility. Public acceptance of industry's long-term goals is vital to the successful implementation of a provincial policy in support of expansion of the livestock industry. Sustained public opposition, on the other hand, has the potential to delay implementation of such policies, cause drastic modification of them, or scuttle them altogether.

This trend may be expected to strengthen in the near- to medium-term. The plethora of emerging issues in the environmental field generally, and within the agricultural sector specifically, makes it even more necessary that industry and government adopt a fundamentally new approach to dealing with public concerns. On the horizon are issues such as food irradiation, cloning, neutraceuticals, long-term hormonal impacts, and animal welfare. Any of these could upstage the controversies currently associated with odour control and water quality.

What can be done to arrest this trend? Specialists who routinely examine the broader issue of environmental sustainability on a global basis have recently introduced the concept of "triple bottom line" accounting in the environmental field. This means that the sustainability agenda should embrace not only the standard environmental and economic considerations but social and ethical dimensions as well.

Given the comparative experience of other industries and jurisdictions, it is possible to conclude that a holistic approach to policy and programme development for the livestock industry must be underpinned by a series of guiding principles that inform all actions. Those principles might include:

The common thread linking these guiding principles is that of knowledge transfer. Knowledge transfer ranges from development of a clear appreciation of local community attitudes to the encouragement of technological prowess to the provision of leadership training to the agriculturists of tomorrow. The four key components required to ensure better transfer of knowledge are discussed below.

1.Identifying and Addressing Root Causes

Engagement of the public in a meaningful dialogue about the true nature of local concerns and local preferences in seeking appropriate solutions is vital. Government-sponsored information sessions and public open houses are part of the answer, but more meaningful and relevant sustainable agricultural practices will emerge only from multi-stakeholder exploration of multi-disciplinary resource management techniques. While a great deal is known about specific issues, such as soil quality or manure management options, and about the efficacy of various economic instruments in influencing industry and farm practices, very little is known about the interaction between natural systems and social systems.

Success will depend on the government taking the lead in assuring the public that their concerns about sustainable agricultural practices will be identified accurately and factored into the formulation of new policies and programmes that will guide expansion of the livestock industry. This must be done before any new policies and programmes are defined. Industry consultation will be needed as well to identify potential conflicts between economic and community objectives. Subsequently, a broadly based public information strategy that involves the development of a co-operative relationship with the media must be developed as part of this initiative.

2.Identifying and Coordinating Flexible Policies and Programmes

The competitiveness of any economic sector depends, in part, on the formulation of effective policies and programmes that are able to address the immediate situation while remaining flexible enough to adjust to changing circumstances. In the past, sustainable agricultural management practices customarily resulted from the imposition of specific economic policies that combined with regulatory sanctions designed to ensure compliance. While there is little doubt that such incentive-based and standard-setting instruments are useful and will continue to be used to encourage best practices, decision-makers have many other tools at their disposal with the potential to facilitate the adoption of best practices in less time. The outstanding issue is that decision-makers are not drawing upon the full range of available policy and programme instruments and administering them in an integrated manner.

Success will be associated with the establishment of a core team of specialists in agricultural policy and programme analysis. This team must understand the fundamental challenges facing intensive livestock operations, excel at global, inter-disciplinary research, and be able to formulate recommendations for change that are both practical and flexible.

In terms of administration, international experience shows that jurisdictional complexity and confusion has a tendency to create enormous frustration among industries and public stakeholders alike, especially when linked with outdated and overlapping regulations. It is imperative that the Government of Alberta defines clear roles and responsibilities for itself, the local governments, industry, and the public at large. Within the Government, it is important that the policy and administrative issues associated with agriculture and the environment, which now fall within two major departments, be addressed with one voice.

3.Enhancing Monitoring Capacity

The government must demonstrate that it recognises the critical importance of monitoring and enforcing sustainable agricultural practices as a means of establishing its seriousness with respect to environmental protection in rural areas. As the national poll in Canada indicates, the public does not trust the industry to regulate itself to the degree that community needs can be met properly; instead, government must function as the intermediary in the relationship between the industry and the public. Ideally, however, the government, industry and members of the public will work together in ensuring thorough compliance with environmental standards in the agricultural sector. The best policies and programmes are those that allow sustainable development objectives to be met at least cost.

4.Public Participation in Environmental Reviews

The credibility issue that periodically afflicts even the most proactive of industries may be offset to a considerable degree by involving members of the public directly, and on an on-going basis, in activities such as development planning, monitoring and enforcement. Many industry programmes are grounded in the belief that direct public participation in environmental audits is critical to development and maintenance of their credibility in their communities, even when it adds considerably to the cost and duration of those audits.

Government agencies cannot expect to determine the degree to which they are satisfactorily addressing the environmental, economic and social implications of sustainable agricultural practices without creating mechanisms that are effective in eliciting public and industry feedback on an on-going basis. All stakeholders must be involved in the design of those feedback mechanisms.

Once those feedback mechanisms are in place, however, it becomes critical that procedures be defined to resolve outstanding differences in an equitable manner. Some jurisdictions have implemented peer review processes at the local level that are as educational as they are prescriptive. The government should undertake comparative research to identify suitable mechanisms for ensuring equity in the enforcement of its sustainable agricultural policies.

Concluding Remarks

The Canadian public is now highly sensitised to the potentially negative environmental impacts of intensive livestock operations. Some of this mounting concern has come from direct experience with local operators whose practices are archaic and plainly unacceptable by any reasonable standard. Some has come from increasing exposure to the experience of American jurisdictions, such as North Carolina, where environmental issues have consistently been subordinated to economic imperatives. The pervasiveness of Internet access in Canada has been an important influence on the dissemination of information about environmental impacts associated with many intensive livestock operations.

The present credibility gap between the agricultural industry and the rural community is without precedent in western Canada. While there are signs that this is beginning to change, the public perception is that change is not occurring quickly enough nor taking place within a climate of trust. In light of public perceptions about the intransigence of our nation's industrial leaders, expectations of firm government action are also growing. Local governments, which in most cases lack effective monitoring and enforcement mechanisms and the staff to implement those procedures, can do little to assist. In short, Alberta's embrace of a future that includes a massive increase in livestock production is happening at a time of great public uncertainty about the viability of rural communities and scepticism about the willingness of the industry and the government at all levels to address local issues seriously.

How will we know if we are succeeding in creating an atmosphere in Alberta that is conducive to expansion of the livestock industry? The simplest and most obvious measures are the best: fewer appeals of development permit applications, less negative media coverage, retention of more socio-economic benefits at the community level, greater participation by all stakeholders in the planning of intensive livestock operations, and interest from other jurisdictions in the techniques adopted here. Are such goals achievable? Given the magnitude of the global market opportunity for the livestock industry, the longstanding tradition of trust between the agricultural sector and Alberta's rural communities, and the willingness of government to re-examine and redefine its role as an honest broker, success will unquestionably result if thoughtful and respectful discussion of long-term objectives takes place among all stakeholders.

This gulf between the agri-food industry and the communities it affects must be bridged. Decision-makers need to recognise the social dimension of agricultural sustainability, and offer local people their rightful place in the making of decisions that affect their lives, and the lives of generations to come. Satisfying the demand for socially responsible actions within the agricultural sector of industrial countries will ensure that the same sensitivity is extended to rural communities in less developed nations.

Regional Workshop on Area-Wide Integration of Crop-Livestock Activities, 18-20 June, 1998, FAO Regional Office, Bangkok Thailand.

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