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CONTESTED GOVERNANCE AND LESSON DRAWING: A CRITICAL ASSESSMENT OF THE SOCIAL LICENSE MODEL IN CANADA’S AGRI-FOOD SECTOR (1998-2018)

Date

2022-02-01

Journal Title

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Volume Title

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Type

Thesis

Degree Level

Doctoral

Abstract

Focusing on Canada’s agri-food sector, this research offers a critical assessment of the social license model as a private self-governance regime. The study specifically seeks to understand the model’s role in the adoption and successful commercialization of biologically derived foods, products and innovation. Over the years, there have been several efforts to generate broad social acceptance of agricultural biotechnologies (agbiotech) because of the controversies they generate. Questions about acceptance and adoption of new technologies bring to the fore the concept of social license which has been adopted by many different sectors over the last two decades. Despite its widespread adoption, there remain significant gaps and variations in understanding, interpreting and implementing the model. One principal overarching question in this research is: if agbiotech acceptance is a major problem, is social license an effective solution? This study argues that social license will do one of two things in the pathway to agbiotech adoption: facilitate acceptance and successful commercialization or escalate rejection. This study theoretically unpacks the governance of agbiotech using Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) Framework. Through this framework the research finds that social license is, in effect, an attempt to bridge two contrasting agbiotech regulatory architectures: the scientific rationality regulatory approach, premised upon the use of scientific evidence to assess potential risks of new biotechnologies, and the social rationality regulatory approach which supports a broader socio-economic mandate. The qualitative empirical analysis for this dissertation draws on institutional and discourse analysis, three case studies of successful and unsuccessful agbiotech adoption and commercialization and 27 semi-structured interviews from various agri-food stakeholders across three Canadian provinces: Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan. This research finds that the most noticeable achievement of the social license model is its ability to bring social considerations into mainstream corporate discourse and decision-making and puts the focus on the need for communication and education in the agri-food sector. However, social license as a governance model in Canada’s agri-food sector has been unworkable for several reasons. The concept is basically more rhetorical than methodical, with little or no evidence of an effective or successful implementation in this sector. This is further compounded by the variations and gaps in the understanding of social license among the diverse stakeholders, contributing to a general lack of consensus as to what social license means in Canada. There is also a misalignment between the original intent of social license and the principal challenges of Canada’s agri-food sector, with the result that social license is acting more as a veto than a bridge. Some stakeholders are already changing the narrative from social license to public trust. The conceptual overlap and jurisdictional confusion between social license and corporate social responsibility makes social license more of a duplication of effort than a value addition and an incremental adjustment to other existing private self-governance regimes. Social license also fails to address the central issues in the overall governance and regulation of agbiotech: the minimization of risks and uncertainty. Elevating social license to a concept with veto power capable of supplanting government approval of agbiotech innovation is problematic for democracy, the rule of law and public policy and stifles innovation and development.

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Keywords

social license, agricultural biotechnology, innovation, agricultural sustainability, global agri-food governance, lesson drawing

Citation

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Department

Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy

Program

Public Policy

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DOI

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