COMMENTATORS have emerged over the past weeks to remark on the sudden decision by the NSW Premier to bring an end to the State’s greyhound racing industry.
Recent reports suggest the industry is fighting back with legal action with some apparently questioning the integrity of the government-commissioned inquiry which prompted the decision.
I do not claim to have any knowledge of the greyhound industry but it is certainly shaping up to be a fabulous multi-series case study for future university students across numerous disciplines - law, sports, veterinary science, public relations, ethics and more.
What this matter does highlight more than anything is how quickly something which you thought was certain can be taken away or shut down.
In agriculture the banning by the former Labor federal government of Australia’s live cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011 followed a similar path.
A television program supported by a well-funded, sophisticated and coordinated activist campaign generated unprecedented community interest and outrage.
The livestock industry was unprepared for the subsequent reaction and an uncoordinated response across the supply chain left the agriculture minister of the day holding a hot potato he didn’t want.
This year marked the five-year anniversary of the live export decision and while industry still has a long way to go, one must recognise the significant progress made over recent years.
Australian Live Exporters Council CEO Alison Penfold recently concluded her term and deserves to be congratulated for achieving change and relentlessly driving and advocating industry transformation while engaging with the community at large.
Both greyhounds and live exports have focussed on the term “social license” which is the level of community acceptance or approval continually granted to an industry’s operations or individual projects.
Long before this term became trendy, the Australian cotton industry recognised the need to change in order to maintain – or build – its social license.
More than 20 years ago, cotton started appearing in negative media stories relating around allegations of excess chemical use but now leads the agriculture pack in terms of adopting change and growing a sustainable industry with positive supply chain partnerships, including with global retailers.
One of the biggest factors driving the cotton industry’s success is innovation.
This innovation takes several forms but a significant part of the story is research and development and the adoption of genetically modified (GM) cotton varieties which now account for about 95 per cent of the industry’s production system.
GM cotton has delivered plants that have helped reduce the number of chemical sprays required to produce a crop while building a more sustainable industry and one supported by scientific evidence.
This brings me to my point.
Social license requires a solid understanding of community values but what role or opportunity does a sector like agriculture have in shaping such opinions?
The Australian dairy industry is well aware that animal activists - when they gauge the time is right and the money is available - will target “bobby calves”.
For those who don’t know what this is – it’s the industry’s term for surplus male calves.
Many in today’s society are unaware that a cow must have a calf in order to produce milk and male calves don’t really have a role to play in a sector where the primary aim is milk production.
In other words, females rule, so unless a significant veal market exists male calves are slaughtered at a very early age.
In addition to this, many agriculture sectors, dairy included, are under pressure to produce more food on less land but while ensuring long-term environmental viability and demonstrating a focus on animal health and welfare.
So how does the agriculture sector - which has built its entire existence on science - continue to utilise new technologies while building and maintaining its social license?
The Productivity Commission’s recent enquiry into agricultural regulation recommended state governments remove their moratoria on GM crops so farmers in WA, SA and Tasmania can plant varieties that their Australian and global counterparts have been growing for 20 years.
The moratoria decisions by these state governments are in part due to community attitudes towards GM crops.
This is ironic because while there is no one ‘silver bullet’ to GM food and crop attitudes, we broadly know the Australian community is comfortable with crops that have a ‘meaningful’ purpose like drought tolerance approved after scientific scrutiny by a strong regulatory framework.
Australian R&D is largely focussed on farmer needs and we have a world class gene technology regulatory system.
The Australian dairy industry has too been hesitant to pursue GM varieties like pastures that allow cows to produce more milk from the same amount of fresh grass, on the same land area.
Surely with careful explanation of the how and why, this is an innovation our community would accept, granting dairy its ‘social license’ to utilise new plant varieties without increasing land size, while ensuring cow health and delivering a nutritious product.
As a result of this ‘hesitation’ towards GM crops, plant science teams locally and globally are moving away from GM crops and utilising a different suite of gene technologies to deliver new plant varieties.
These new technologies – broadly known as genome editing – are varied and produce results that may or may not fall under the scope of our current gene technology regulatory frameworks.
Global activists are onto this scientific advancement and are predictably calling for the ‘shut down’ of all gene technology research.
The Productivity Commission’s recent report resulted in a re-emergence of these anti-GM groups and their attitude of ‘fight until the death’ despite the weight of scientific evidence.
If we examine the performance of GM cotton and canola in Australia objectively, a strong case exists to support plant varieties that offer benefits for farmers, the environment and the community, backed by clear scientific evidence.
So it comes down to this, Australian agriculture has a strong history of change and adaptation.
But in addition to adapting to changing environments, world markets and consumer preferences, it must also change to maintain and build its social license.
At what point will industry step up and engage with the community on innovations which, while they may initially be greeted with caution, actually align with the community’s values and drive long-term sustainable food production?
Almost every evening on television news broadcasts we celebrate the discovery of a gene or gene technology which promises to save us from a suite of medical complaints or diseases.
When will we celebrate the gene for drought tolerance or the gene for disease resistance or perhaps even the gene or genetic technology that would help dairy produce predominantly female calves and reduce the excess unneeded male calves?
Such developments do require further discussion with a range of disciplines from our scientists to farmers, ethicists, the community and others - but surely it’s time we stepped up and engaged, rather than hiding and hoping like the greyhound industry that no one finds us.
Only to discover overnight that we lose our social license and find ourselves without critical innovations and a means to move forward.