Key animal-related industries, including horse racing, risk losing their social license to operate unless they are more open, especially around welfare outcomes, according to a just-published paper.
The term “social license to operate” refers to the implicit process by which a community gives an industry approval to conduct its business activities.
Jordan Hampton, Bidda Jones and Paul McGreevy, all of whom have research interests around animal welfare, note that the concept has become important in industries involving natural resource management, especially mining, but there is less awareness of its role in animal-use industries.
The trio, in a commentary in the open-access journal Animals, suggest animal welfare has recently become arguably the most crucial consideration underpinning the social license to operate for Australian animal-use industries.
Australia, they note, has large and diverse animal-use industries, some of which have faced animal welfare scrutiny in the past decade. These include the live export of livestock, greyhound racing, horse racing, kangaroo harvesting, and dairy and sheep farming.
“Animal welfare issues arising in those industries have made the news headlines frequently in Australia over the past ten years,” Hampton and his colleagues wrote.
“Industries with contentious animal practices have been embroiled in ongoing outrage as exposé investigations have emerged in the mainstream media.”
Such cases, they say, illustrate how persistent issues can erode the social license, lead to regulatory bans, and decimate previously profitable industries.
Some have been the target of hidden-camera investigations and supporter-based advocacy campaigns from animal protection groups.
Concern about animal welfare practices is increasing and many animal use activities seem to be losing public support, the trio said.
The response to community outrage has resulted in several temporary national or state bans on the operations of large industries, including the live export of cattle in 2011 and greyhound racing in 2017.
“This public reaction might be unexpected from a country that has traditionally been highly supportive of animal use industries.
“Australia is now a very different place to that depicted in folklore, having become a highly urbanized nation with a media-savvy population.”
The authors, who discussed each industry separately, noted that threats to the social license to operate have recently been flagged for Australian horse racing.
“Some of the animal welfare issues relevant to Australian horse racing include mortalities during racing, so-called wastage (euthanasia of horses deemed unviable for racing), confinement, gastric ulcers, whips, and tongue ties.”
They said there are graphic animal welfare issues that are likely to cause public outrage, such as on-track mortalities and abattoir footage, as well as “sleeper” issues that are less likely to attract media attention, such as whip use.
“The two Australian horse racing codes (harness racing and galloping) have made some improvements to the animal welfare issues they face, however, reform has been slow compared to racing industries in some other countries, notably Norway.
“There are many areas in which the horse racing industry could make strides in its journey towards what has been dubbed ‘ethical racing’, and thus could strengthen its social license to operate.”
Demands for transparency
Why, they asked, have some industries faced an erosion of their social license? They believe several factors have been involved.
For example, some Australian industries have taken a recalcitrant approach to animal welfare issues, they note. There is also increasing demand from consumers for transparency. There has also been the role played by the mainstream media and social channels in highlighting concerns.
Looking for current solutions to issues around social licenses remains an ongoing challenge, they say.
“An established approach to securing a social license to operate in this context is to recognize that community engagement is essential and to commit to the regular reporting of animal welfare metrics for practices that are currently contentious.
“Solutions to established animal welfare problems will rarely be simple.
“Animal welfare scrutiny is increasing for all industries. Proactivity in anticipating the effects of this scrutiny is central to the social sustainability of animal use industries.
“In the modern age, with increasing societal expectations of transparency, efforts to avoid scrutiny or attempts to deflect it through public relations alone are unlikely to be effective.”
Welfare considerations are expected to take an increasingly important role in boardroom discussions that extend beyond animal welfare concerns in isolation, they said.
“The concept of a social license to operate appears to provide a useful framework for animal industries to build an improved model of consultation that engages the community in ways that could enhance transparency and build societal support.
“Understanding stakeholder beliefs and desires will ultimately prompt industry to guide education, resolve pressing issues, and facilitate the regular reporting of incremental improvements in welfare outcomes.
“In particular, there seems to be a need for industry-university collaborations to facilitate transparent animal welfare assessments.
“How the public perceives these animal welfare issues and how industries respond to them appear to be highly influential in shaping the market opportunities and long-term survival of affected industries.
“This trend seems to be especially prevalent in Australia. These issues are likely to affect other nations in the near future, and the case studies from Australia are instructive as to how different industry responses affect the social license to operate.”
Hampton is with the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Melbourne; Jones is with RSPCA Australia; and McGreevey is with the Sydney School of Veterinary Science, part of the University of Sydney.
Hampton, J.O.; Jones, B.; McGreevy, P.D. Social License and Animal Welfare: Developments from the Past Decade in Australia. Animals 2020, 10, 2237.