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Agricultural Ethics


Agriculture is among the earliest, most enduring, and most fundamental domains of technology. Although associated primarily with the cultivation of food crops such as wheat, maize, and rice, the term agriculture covers a wide variety of activities, including animal husbandry, dairy production, fiber production (for example cotton, flax), fruit and wine production, and aquaculture, as well as the harvesting, storage, processing, and distribution of food and fiber commodities. Agriculture frequently is understood to include all forms of food, fiber, and subsistence production, including forestry and fishing, especially with respect to the organization of scientific research institutes and government regulatory agencies. For example, government ministries such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the United Kingdom Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF), and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) have a responsibility for forestry and fisheries in their mandates. In all cases agriculture is both deeply involved with technology and science and subject to technical reflection.

Technology and Science in Agriculture

What is the relationship between agriculture and technology? That question reflects the way agriculture has faded into the cultural background in contemporary life, as if foods naturally appeared on supermarket shelves without technological intervention. It also reflects the way technology is associated strictly with machinery, manufacture, and engineering. Yet even in this narrow view agriculture has been influenced deeply by mechanization and chemical technology for 250 years.

It is more informative to see the crop varieties that farmers plant as technological artifacts, along with the systems they develop for cultivating soil, applying water, controlling weeds and other pests, harvesting, and storing and distributing agricultural products. In any broad interpretation of technology, agriculture is fundamentally a technological activity, and a technically sophisticated approach to the production, harvesting, and distribution of food is a hallmark of all civilizations.

Technical innovation in agricultural practice has been continuous throughout human history. The simple act of cultivating plants and domesticating animals, as distinct from scavenging, marks a fundamental technical advance. Prehistoric innovations in agricultural technology include achievements such as the domestication of animals, the construction of complex systems for irrigation and water management, and the development of tools for turning and maintaining the soil. Farmers also developed sophisticated techniques for maintaining desirable traits in their crops long before the underlying genetic basis of those methods was understood. Recent research (see Richards 1985, Brush 1992, Bellon and Brush 1994) on traditional farming systems has documented the sophistication farmers have applied in adapting cultivation methods and the genetic stock of their crops and animals to local conditions. Seeing traditional agricultural methods as "pretechnological" is unwarranted in light of this research. Indeed, the "agricultural revolution" equals and may exceed the industrial revolution with respect to its impact on environment and subsequent human history.

Traditional agricultural systems take a wide variety of forms. Improving or maintaining soil fertility, for example, has a number of possible technical solutions, including the composting and application of human, animal or vegetable wastes. Alternatively, pastoralists can develop symbiotic relationships with settled cultivators, who allow animals in their fields to graze (especially on stubble) and derive the benefit of the animals' manure in exchange. Swidden or "slash and burn" agriculture involves the use of fire to release nutrients from indigenous vegetation followed by cultivation at the site until fertility created by this technique has been exhausted. Other key technical elements involve water, soil loss, and genetic diversity. Much traditional agriculture is rain fed, but massive irrigation systems were developed in ancient Egypt and China. Construction of terraces provided an ancient solution to erosion. Genetic diversity was traditionally enhanced by farmer observation of unique types (or sports) and subsequent experimentation with small plots until new traits were understood and could be integrated into the main crop (see Wilken 1987).

Technical innovation in agriculture continued in the modern era and has been continuous with the development of modern science. The link between science and agricultural improvements was mentioned prominently by the philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626). The agriculturist Jethro Tull (1674–1741) published a scientific treatise on tillage in 1733. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) made improvements to the moldboard plow and advocated the inclusion of agriculture in university curricula. Cyrus McCormick (1809–1884) developed a mechanical reaper that is regarded as one the signature technologies of the nineteenth century. The German chemist Justus von Leibig (1803–1873) often is identified as the founder of modern agricultural science. Von Leibig pioneered the use of controlled experimental approaches in soil chemistry and crop improvement.

In the early twenty-first century, many traditional agricultural practices coexist with highly industrialized production methods. Commercial fertilizers and insecticides are synthetic, petroleum based products that were developed in junction with military technologies (Russell 2001). Modern crop varieties (discussed below) provide the genetic basis for large scale monocultures. In contrast to plants from traditional crop varieties, which may vary greatly in size, shape, color and response to climatic conditions, plants from modern varieties are uniform in size. They germinate, flower and produce grain or fruit at the same time. As such they are well suited to mechanical cultivation and harvesting, as well as to large-scale management and marketing practices. They also require intensive management of factors (such as water, nutrients, diseases and insect pests) that would be highly variable under traditional conditions. All these characteristics of industrial agriculture tie it closely to an extensive science and technological support system.

Agricultural science became institutionalized in industrialized countries in the late nineteenth century with the establishment of government stations dedicated to agricultural research. The system in the United States combined the federally based Agricultural Research Service with existing state-based land grant universities that were chartered in 1862 as institutions dedicated to agriculture and engineering. In addition to offering education in agronomy and animal husbandry, land grant universities conducted research on local soil, climate, and crop interactions. Their findings were made available to farmers through state-operated extension services whose agents conducted demonstrations of new crop varieties, machinery, and management systems. That system was responsible for a number of technical advances of regional importance in the first half of the twentieth century, including new methods for testing soil chemistry and recommendations for the efficient application of fertilizer.

The historian Charles Rosenberg's No Other Gods (1976) argues that the early success of agricultural research conducted and disseminated through this three-way partnership of experiment stations, universities, and extension was responsible for the rising status of science in the United States during the early twentieth century. The example of agricultural technology also encouraged Americans to support the provision of public funds for science and engineering. The U.S. system of partnership between agricultural universities, experiment stations, and local extension services to develop technology for the benefit of citizen farmers continues to serve as a model for publicly funded and publicly managed approaches to the development and dissemination of technology.

Main Problems in Agricultural Ethics

The potential range of ethical issues in agricultural technology is extraordinary. Those issues can be conceptualized in three categories: (1) issues relating to human health and security; (2) issues relating to the broader environment; and (3) issues relating to the cultural, historical, and social significance of agriculture as a way of life and a system of connected institutions. The first category includes the availability of basic foods, diet, nutrition, and questions concerning food safety. The second category includes the philosophical status of agricultural ecosystems and their relationship to nature, along with questions about the standing of animals and human obligations to them. The third category concerns the social organization of agriculture and has focused on questions associated with the industrialization of farming. These categories clearly overlap, and the three-way division should be understood as a heuristic device rather than a philosophical classification scheme with ontological or ethical significance.

Hunger and food security usually are thought of as particularly compelling cases of the ethics of distributive justice: What constitutes a fair, just, or morally acceptable pattern of access to wealth and resources? Key problems include the ethical basis for framing moral obligations relating to food access: Is there a basic human right to food, as the International Declaration of Human Rights (1948) alleges, or do utilitarian models of human welfare provide a better approach to understanding the ethics of hunger? How should moral entitlements to food security be operationalized now and in the future? This question ties the discussion of food security to broad issues in economic development and especially to the challenge of population growth.

Problems related to nutrition are closely interwoven with the development of scientific nutrition in animal science departments at the end of the nineteenth century. Methodological issues figure importantly in ethical discussions of appropriate nutritional advice. Other issues involving food system risk and safety are closely tied to science and technology in two ways. First, risks frequently are associated with agricultural technologies such as chemical pesticides, food irradiation, and biotechnology. Second, scientific risk analysis is central to the debate over the appropriate response to those risks. Risk optimization, informed consent, and the precautionary principle represent three philosophical approaches to the way in which risk analysis should be applied in determining the acceptability of food system risks.

Similar risk issues are associated with the environmental consequences of agricultural technology, and transgenic crops and animals have been important case studies for risks to nonhuman organisms and ecosystem integrity. With respect to environmental impact, ethical analysis draws on debates in environmental ethics about the moral standing of nonhuman animals, wild nature, and the structure of ecosystems as well as duties to future generations. Sustainability has been proposed as a way to frame the ecologically desirable features of any agricultural system, and disputes over the appropriate specifications for a sustainable agriculture have been a major focus in agricultural ethics.

In the United States and Canada discussion of the sociocultural aspects of agricultural production systems often has been framed in terms of "saving the family farm." In Europe the debate has been framed in regard to the need to preserve traditional agriculture, and internationally the issues have been framed in terms of the industrialization and intensification of farming methods that continue to rely on a great deal of human and animal labor. These questions can be looked at strictly in terms of environmental and human well-being, but the structure of agriculture and the centuries-long transition that has seen fewer and fewer people employed in agriculture highlights an important dimension of the sociocultural aspects of agriculture as well as a significant link to the philosophy of technology.

Ethical Issues in Agricultural Science and Technology

The influence of publicly organized research conducted at experiment stations in industrialized countries and the organized attempt to extend those results throughout the world provide the basis for viewing agricultural science and technology as an applied science with explicit value commitments. Those values derive from the importance of food and fiber in meeting human subsistence needs, the vulnerability of virtually all people to food-borne risk, and the dependence of the rural countryside on agriculture as its key industry and dominant cultural force.

Although farming practice sometimes has adopted the stance of maintaining traditions and social institutions, modern agricultural science more typically has been guided by the maxim of increasing yield: Make two plants grow where one grew before. Thus, the underlying ethic of agricultural technology has been one of increasing efficiency. This ethic is can be interpreted most readily as a fairly straightforward application of utilitarianism: Research and technology development should aim to produce "the greatest good for the greatest number," primarily by increasing the efficiency of agricultural production.

This general orientation to science and technology has been challenged by the view that agricultural science should serve the specific interests of farmers and that researchers should be mindful of this constraint. The development of high-yielding varieties of hybrid maize is a case in point. In the 1950s Paul Mangelsdorf (1899–1989) of Harvard and Donald Jones (1890–1963) of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station discovered and patented cytoplasmic male sterility as a method for producing hybrid varieties. Many technical advances of the early twentieth century had been distributed to farmers free of charge through state extension services, but hybrid seeds had to be produced anew for each growing season. Jones was censured publicly by his colleagues for seeking to patent his discovery despite the fact that, or perhaps because, its chief value was to the commercial seed industry. Mangelsdorf's affiliation with a private university shielded him from his colleagues' censure. Contrary to medicine and engineering, in which publicly funded research has been commercialized routinely through the use of patents, publicly sponsored agricultural research has been seen by some as a public good for the express benefit of farmers (see MacKenzie 1991).

The economist Willard Cochrane (b. 1914) developed an analysis of efficiently increasing agricultural technology that extended the scope of this concern. In referring to "the technology treadmill," Cochrane showed that because the market for food is limited in size, more efficient production always will lead to a reduction in prices. Farmers who adopt technology quickly can earn profits before prices adjust, but as prices come down, they will have "run harder just to stay in place" (produce more to earn the same level of income they had at the higher commodity price). Cochrane's analysis suggests that agricultural research typically does not benefit farmers; instead, the benefit goes almost exclusively to consumers in the form of lower food prices. It also implies that there is an underlying economic necessity to the trend for fewer and ever larger farms (see Browne et. al. 1992).

The technology treadmill argument places the utilitarian argument for efficiency against the idea that agricultural scientists have special moral duties and loyalties to rural communities. One still might argue for yield-enhancing technological improvements on the grounds that they provide small but universally shared (and hence additively large) benefits to food consumers. Those benefits almost certainly will outweigh the losses in the form of farm bankruptcies and depopulation of the rural countryside. However, this argument undercuts the populist ethical rationale for agricultural research as benefiting rural communities and preserving the family farm.

Cochrane's interest was in American farmers, but the economic logic of the technology treadmill plays out in developing countries as well. Perhaps the most controversial application of agricultural science in the twentieth century was the Green Revolution, an initiative sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1950s and 1960s to make high-yielding crops available in depressed regions of developing countries. The program was rationalized in part as a response of the capitalist world to the growing influence of Soviet bloc socialism after World War II.

As a technical program the Green Revolution was a mixed success, with early efforts at improved crops foundering over local resistance to new methods and aesthetic differences in taste and cooking quality. Over time, however, improved varieties won out in most parts of the world, especially in India. Green Revolution rice and wheat varieties lie at the basis of a decade of surplus in India's total food production and one of best-fed populations outside the industrial West.

However, these increases in food availability came at a price. The use of Green Revolution varieties led to more food at lower prices, but the farmers with the smallest farms could not survive on lower profit margins. Furthermore, Green Revolution varieties were developed to be used with fertilizers and sometimes chemical pesticides as well. Poor farmers could not afford to purchase those inputs, and their use also created environmental problems in rural areas. The growing scale of farming in the developed world put farmers on a path toward the use of technology for weed control and harvest, whereas in the past those tasks had been performed by very poor landless laborers. Although one could argue that in the end the benefits of the Green Revolution have outweighed the costs, those costs were borne primarily by the poorest people in developing societies. The Green Revolution thus ran directly counter to the "difference principle" of justice elaborated by the philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002), which holds that social policies are justified to the extent that they tend to improve the lives of the group that is worst off. Vandana Shiva (1993; 1997) has been particularly influential in criticizing the Green Revolution on grounds of environmental damage and social inequality.

The environmental critique of Green Revolution technology addresses the utilitarian orientation to agricultural research in a different way. In treating the decision to develop new technology as an optimization problem, the utilitarian approach has a tendency to ignore impacts that are difficult to quantify. Environmental impacts are often externalities that do not figure in the costs a producer considers when deciding whether to use a particular technology. Furthermore, there are often no markets or forums available for those who bear environmental costs most directly to register their complaints. This is the case for future generations, for example, but also for animals, which can be placed in intolerable conditions in modern confined animal feeding operations. Thus, to be truly justified as producing the greatest good for the greatest number, agricultural technologies must not be plagued with externalities, and those who develop, evaluate, and utilize such technologies face a philosophical challenge in reflecting externalities in their decision making.

Since 1985 many of these issues have been revisited and revised in connection with the use of recombinant DNA techniques for transforming the genetic basis of agricultural plants and animals. Disputes over the patenting and ownership of genetic resources and intellectual property have been an especially prominent feature of this debate.

History of Agricultural Ethics

In one sense agricultural ethics is among the oldest philosophical topics. Classical figures such as Xenophon (444–375 b.c.e.) and Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) wrote lengthy discussions of agriculture and its relationship to the values and social institutions of Greek society. There is little doubt that those classical authors saw agriculture as a systematic human adaptation and modification of the natural environment rather than a natural system lacking a significant technological component. Furthermore, they saw the material basis of their society as playing a significant role in both shaping the ethos of Greek life and shaping the opportunities and requirements for political institutions. Brief and less systematic discussions of agriculture occur throughout the history of philosophy, though those discussions frequently involve technological changes in agricultural production methods. A typical example is the philosopher John Locke's (1632–1704) rationale for the enclosure of common lands as a strategy for increasing agricultural production through intensive farming in the Second Treatise of Government (1689).

The Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755) made agriculture a main theme of his Spirit of the Laws (1748), arguing that climate and agricultural methods form the basis for population patterns, social institutions, and national identity. The philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) also offered extensive discussions of agriculture as a clue to the manifestation of Spirit. Hegel's account of the Greek food system, for example, notes that it was marked by rocky hills and mountains alternating with lowlands suitable for crop farming. Hegel noted that unlike China or India, the Greek landscape lacks a major inland waterway conducive to large-scale irrigation projects or the transport of harvested grain. In the place of centrally managed systems for irrigating and moving foodstuffs the Greeks developed a complex farming system that included a mix of tree and vine crops and did not depend on large pools of human labor for planting and harvesting. Hegel argued that this system favors democracy and the development of individuals who can see themselves as authors of moral judgment. This work in the Greek and European traditions of philosophy anticipates contemporary debates over the character of rural areas and the preservation of the family farm.

Ethical debate over hunger and food availability was comparatively rare until the eighteenth century, when important studies appeared in the work of the economists François Quesnay (1694–1774) and Adam Smith (1723–1790). The topic of hunger was of central importance for Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) and was discussed by Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), all of whom were occupied at one time by the problem of "surplus population" and reform of England's corn laws. Malthus argued that the race between agricultural improvement and population growth would make hunger a continuing ethical issue.

In the twentieth century philosophers such as Peter Singer, Peter Unger, Onora O'Neill, and Amartya Sen were among the many who wrote about the ethics of hunger, questioning the moral basis of the obligation to address hunger and examining the moral implications of various economic regimes in light of hunger. Other recent work has been contributed by scientists such as Garrett Hardin (1915–2003) and Norman Borlaug, who have extended the Malthusian tradition of stressing the tension between the technical capacity for food production and population growth. With the exception of Sen, twentieth-century philosophical work on hunger seldom was attentive to science and technology.

Although philosophers writing before 1900 did not organize their work in terms of scientific or technological ethics, there is little doubt that they understood agriculture as a form of technology and were interested in the normative problems and implications of agricultural practice. For the most part the agricultural writings of past philosophers have been neglected. Singer's seminal article on world hunger in 1972 has virtually no discussion of agriculture and typically is not read as an exercise in either scientific or technological ethics. Recent work on hunger, as well as even more recent studies of agricultural biotechnology, makes virtually no reference to the philosophical-agricultural writings of the past. There is thus a large hiatus in the philosophical history of agricultural ethics as it relates to technology.

A few agricultural specialists contributed ethical studies on agriculture during the period from roughly 1900 to 1975. Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858–1954) was a leading American agricultural scientist who was known especially for his contributions to plant taxonomy. He chaired the Country Life Commission under President Theodore Roosevelt and was the main author of its report, which was an argument for egalitarian improvement of rural America through technological advance and social reform. Sir Albert Howard (1873–1947) was an English agronomist who conducted research on soil fertility. His books An Agricultural Testament (1940) and Soil and Health (1956) anticipated many contemporary ethical critiques of industrial agriculture and served as an inspiration for figures such as J. I. Robert Rodale, founder of the Rodale Press, and Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute. The anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt conducted a critical study of the social consequences associated with large-scale farming in California for the USDA in 1947, but many of his results were suppressed until they were published under the title As You Sow: The Social Consequences of Agribusiness in 1978. Rachel Carson (1907–1964) was the author of Silent Spring (1962), a polemical critique of agricultural pesticides that sometimes is credited with creating a popular environmental movement in the United States. The turn toward concern about the social and environmental effects of industrial agriculture paved the way for a rebirth of philosophical attention to agriculture as a form of technology in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Aside from work by philosophers such as Singer, Unger, and O'Neill, who did not think of themselves as working in agricultural ethics, philosophical studies in agricultural ethics began anew around 1975 when Glenn
L. Johnson (1918–2003), an agricultural economist, produced a series of articles on positivist influences in the agricultural sciences and called for renewed attention to normative issues. Agricultural issues came to the attention of philosophers largely through the work of Wendell Berry, a poet and novelist whose The Unsettling of America (1977) offered an extended philosophical critique of industrial agriculture, land grant universities, and modern agricultural science while putting forth an impassioned defense of the family farm. For a decade Johnson was known only to specialists in the agricultural science establishment, whereas Berry was regarded there as a meddling outsider with little credibility.

Johnson's call for normative reflection in the agricultural sciences was answered by Lawrence Busch, William Lacy, and Frederick Buttel, three sociologists who separately and in collaboration published many studies on the political economy of agricultural science during the last quarter of the twentieth century and also called for a philosophical and ethical critique of agricultural science and technology. They mentored a generation of sociologists who have examined normative issues, including Carolyn Sachs, who produced one of the first feminist studies of agriculture, and Jack Kloppenburg, Jr., author of First the Seed (1989), a normative history of plant breeding. Busch and Lacy brought the philosopher Jeffrey Burkhardt into their research group at the University of Kentucky in 1980. Paul B. Thompson was the first philosopher with an appointment in an agricultural research institution at Texas A&M in 1982. Thompson as well as a group at California Polytechnic University, including the philosopher Stanislaus Dunden, the agronomist Thomas Ruehr, and the economist Alan Rosenfeld, began to offer regular coursework in agricultural ethics in the early 1980s.

Institutional growth of agricultural ethics was stimulated by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which made many grants in that field in the 1980s and supported Richard Haynes in founding the journal Agriculture and Human Values and forming the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society in 1988. In the 1990s Gary Comstock conducted a series of workshops on agricultural ethics at Iowa State University that brought the field to a larger audience. European interest in agricultural ethics lagged by about ten years. Led by Ben Mepham the agricultural research group at the University of Nottingham sponsored a seminal meeting on agricultural ethics in 1992. The European Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics was founded in 1998, and The Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics became its official outlet in 2000. The first indication of interest in agricultural ethics beyond the West occurred with the launch of a series of papers on ethics at the FAO in 2000. Virtually all this work is focused closely on the ethical and policy implications of technological innovation and science-based decision making. The public debate over agricultural biotechnology has stimulated even more widespread interest in agricultural technology, and many individuals are conducting ongoing research.


SEE ALSO Agrarianism; Animal Rights; Animal Welfare; DDT; Deforestation and Desertification; Food Science and Technology; Genetically Modified Foods; Green Revolution; Environmental Ethics.


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