Agricultural Ethics Research Paper

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Globally, agriculture is confronted with huge problems such as hunger, undernutrition (causing blindness and marasmus), and overnutrition such as obesity. Environmental factors including inequality of access to arable land, good food, and water are also pressing problems. Moreover, billions of animals suffer tremendously in intensive farming practices, and pollution of water, land, and air is normal in countries with an industrialized livestock production. Global warming is coproduced by agriculture, in particular livestock farming. Geopolitical powerful companies or countries take land from poor countries in their search for commodity agriculture (like biofuel crops) and threaten livelihoods of poor farmers. Intellectual property rights enhance unequal access to seeds and increase the gap between poor and rich farmers. These ethical problems presuppose notions of justice, human rights, dignity of people, and quality of food and livelihood. Intensive, scientific-driven agriculture is often at the root of problems of animal welfare and global warming, and agro ecological types of agriculture often score much better on these issues. Starting with the Declaration of Human Rights formulating the right to adequate food, the entry discusses various ethical approaches to these global problems. It turns out that not only rights of people but also social requirements are necessary to improve our handling of these problems.


Globally, agriculture is confronted with huge problems: large numbers of people are hungry the whole day, even more suffer from malnutrition (including obesity), and lack of quality of food. Moreover, billions of animals suffer tremendously in intensive farming practices, and pollution of water, land, and air is normal in countries with an industrialized livestock production. Global warming is coproduced by agriculture, in particular livestock farming (Steinfeld et al. 2006). Inequality of access to arable land, good food, and water spurs to food riots or sabotage or even wars. Geopolitical powerful companies or countries buy or better grab land from poor countries in their search for commodity agriculture (like biofuel crops) and threaten livelihoods of poor farmers. Intellectual property rights of plants (IPR) enhance unequal access to seeds and crops and increase the gap between poor and rich farmers. These ethical problems presuppose notions of (food) justice (Gottlieb and Joshi 2010), human rights, dignity of people, and quality of food and livelihood. Some of the global problems are directly connected with the type of agriculture that is undertaken; some like land grabbing can happen everywhere. Industrialized, intensive, scientific-technological-driven agriculture is often at the root of problems of animal welfare and global warming, and agroecological types of agriculture often score much better on these issues. The article starts with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) formulating the right to adequate food and discusses various ethical approaches to these global problems. It turns out that not only recognition of the rights of people but also robust social activities to socially embed these rights are necessary to improve our handling of these problems.

Human Right To Adequate Food And Agriculture

The problems mentioned have in common that they cannot be solved on an isolated, national, local, or regional level but in one way or another belong to the responsibility of all human beings and their governmental agencies. The global character of hunger and malnutrition is recognized by the United Nations, and therefore it can be stated that “global agricultural ethics” got its official birth certificate in 1999 with article 11 of Social and Economic Council of the Human Rights commission, called The Right to Adequate Food:

Article 11. General comment on its implementation 1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.

(a) To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;

(b) Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.

  1. The Committee considers that the core content of the right to adequate food implies:

The availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture;

  1. Cultural or consumer acceptability implies the need also to take into account, as far as possible, perceived non nutrient-based values attached to food and food consumption and informed consumer concerns regarding the nature of accessible food supplies.

This universal right has a direct addressee, the state a person is living in, but also addresses less directly other people, other states, and (inter) national organizations to be responsible that the right (and everything that is necessary to live according to this right) can be exercised. Written in very general terms, the right does not solely address special agencies as responsible; hunger is defined as a global problem which should be the concern of everyone. We will see that this is also the belief of most ethicists that have studied the issue. The other issues mentioned here also have a clear global significance. Biodiversity, pollution, global warming, intellectual property rights impact on access of seeds, land grabbing, and the gap between poor and rich appeal to everyone and global organizations in particular.

Agriculture either contributes to these problems or is the battlefield where these problems are raging. Agriculture is sometimes defined very narrowly as the method to wrestle food from living organisms. However, this limited definition does not take into account the intrinsic connections between agriculture and cooking, forestry, experience and knowledge (sciences), social management, and practices and livelihoods. Everywhere agriculture is multifunctional and embodies a unique combination of three types of relationship: that of humans with nature, that of humans with other humans and societies, and that of humans with themselves. Human-nature relations are part of agriculture because as a matter of fact nature provides plants and animals (and all ecosystem services that let them flourish), and only by cultivating them can humans make use of them in preparing their food. Societal relations are necessary because, for example, cooperation is a requirement, just like discipline, curiosity, and willingness to labor. Moreover, depending on the type of food, certain groups can become dominant over others. However, also human nature itself is involved, because by processes of cultivating and preparing food, human bodies and minds evolve, which has impacts on social organizations. These three types of relationships (and their combinations) incorporate ethical issues, and they are the subject matter of agricultural ethics. From a global point of view, all of the abovementioned issues occur in the various combinations of the three relationships. Through the dynamics of agriculture, people and their societies change over time together with plants, animals, landscapes, and ecologies.

Global agriculture and food problems galore, not only because food and agriculture is affected by many divergent global trends from unifying to systematically diversifying and fragmenting developments (like population growth, food preferences , and social upheavals) and lots of new technological developments. Also agriculture and food are battlefields of conflicts between states, peoples, neighbors, relatives, and men and women. And in all these cases, these trends and conflicts are affected by directly with agriculture-connected problems, like hunger, malnutrition (including obesity), lack of quality of food, animal welfare, pollution, and inequality in consumption.

For global agricultural ethics, these issues require strongly the moral attention of everyone, in particular of people of rich countries. This branch of ethics is focusing on values, norms, and principles to explore, systematize, justify, or criticize them in order to improve conditions of living. Ethical considerations that are developed outside the agricultural and food domain, like justice, but also notions in particular relevant for the ethical treatment of agricultural issues are brought forward, like food sovereignty, local and global developments, intellectual property rights of plant genetic resources, international companies, food networks, and fair trade.

Historical And Conceptual Clarification: Background Of Global Agricultural And Food Ethics

Seen through an evolutionary lens, humans started to feed themselves by collecting leaves, grasses, and fruits and by hunting. The exact proportion is unclear, but probably hunting delivered only a small portion of the early human diet. The complex role of food and agriculture started with cooking; this process made us human and transformed hunting, collecting, and preparing food, implicating new human-nature relations, group relations, and intra-human relations. Probably already more than a million years ago by domesticating fire and systematizing the use of fire in getting edible plants and in cooking them. This transformation required new ways of cooperation in handling fire (for new gender relations), and new ways of social and psychic behavior, like discipline in using fire and towards group members. The technology is called slash and burn and shifting cultivation. Slash and burn is a technology in which first trees and bushes are so treated that they die and then after some time the dry mass is put into fire, after which the soil with ass covered is used for raising new plants, either by waiting till seeds are spontaneously developed into edible plants or systematically by human intervention. However, after a few years, slash and burn exhaust the soil, and new land has to be prepared. This necessitated the search for an alternative approach called shifting cultivation. Important however is also the use of fire in cooking plants and meat, because that enables human to digest faster and better nutrients and to spend less time in eating and to be free in doing other things, like feasting, talking, or warring. Cooking requires also a division of labor, and these multifunctional impacts of cooking explain why cooking “made us human” (Wrangham 2009). A next developmental step is represented by sedentary agriculture, starting in the fertile deltas of China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. The latest step is industrial agriculture in some parts of the world. Industrial agriculture is characterized by high inputs (of chemicals and water, but not of labor) and determines a falling share of agriculture in economic output and employment. Here, growing urban population, urban economic activities, and eating meat are accompanied by declining rural populations.

Although from the start agriculture both encouraged global trends (think about the silk routes over land and seas) and was determined by them, globalization got a new impulse after Europeans discovered Americas. Trade in spices, sugar, rum, tobacco, rubber, potato and sweet potato, maize, tomato, pepper, and cassava connected peoples stronger than ever; add to this slave trade, one of the biggest emigration streams ever. At present, the bulk of agricultural production (mostly animal feed) is organized by international companies (in fact not more than 100 persons), more powerful than many nations, that can play up countries against each other. Food production and trade are often instruments of quick profits, power, and war; geopolitics of food and agriculture implies producing as cheap as possible and selling as expensive as possible. Nevertheless, human food is still mostly produced by poor small holders (app. three billion people) that are not dependent on international markets and are responsible for a wide diversity of crops and farming, food, and taste styles. For example, rice is differently appreciated in countries of South East Asia being short or long, bold, medium, slender, glutinous or not, or some combination of these and often associated with strong approving or disapproving emotions.

For many, agriculture and food production are multifunctional because they integrate money and nonmonetary values like care, nature and culture, technology and culture, hygiene and mud and manure, life and death, daily routine (making a meal), and consumer alienation and ignorance. Due to its intrinsic value for quality of life and survival, it transcends all conceptual distinctions and has a special place among other human activities. Nowhere food is only seen as stuff to fill stomachs or merely a tool to survive; everywhere it is embedded in sociocultural practices and identity formations, which explains the complexity and diversity of food and farming styles (Korthals 2004).

Ethical Considerations

International Organizations Affecting Ethical Issues In Agriculture

United Nations’ human rights (UNDHR) and their entrenchment in the international juridical system are driven forward by UN agencies and civil society actors to establish international and national practices of fairness, quality, and equality in agriculture. Next to these drivers, the policies of global and transnational bodies and regulations of World Trade Organization (WTO), Monetary Fund and World Bank, and TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) prescribe (often seemingly in opposition of UNDHR) what many people and their governments are bound to do. WTO address trade privileges that harm free trade and market, but there is not an institution with the same compelling power that oversees human rights deficits and is able to enact institutions that institutionalize them. Food hygiene and food safety are regulated by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, and risk assessment is organized by hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) and precautionary principle, often under the umbrella of, again, the WTO. Continents have their own bodies like the European Food Safety Authority; the Federal Food,

Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA); and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Human rights are internationally recognized and justified claims that can be made on behalf of individuals that provide absolute protection of individual interests but also require certain minimum conditions to be able to realize these rights. However, the bizarre fact is there that they are not, like patents regulations, enforceable through law. Moreover, many trends, like land grabbing, the rise of biofuel crops, and counter effective aid, work against the realization of the right to food.

Ethical Theories Not Specially Developed For Agricultural Ethics

The global ethical issues mentioned have implications for rights bearers, but also implies responsibilities of people elsewhere and other states. Recently, some ethicists tackled global problems by applying or expanding general moral principles like individual autonomy or utilitarian rules. One very influential although not very articulated proposal starts with neoliberal ideas of the ethical priority of independent citizens and free markets. Agriculture is not in itself different from other industrial branches, but has one special target, to get rid of hunger. This underscores the concept of equality and subsistence right.

A total different proposal comes from Peter Singer and Mason (2006) who uses a utilitarian approach of calculating harms and happiness of the current global governance system. He argues that poverty, hunger, and malnutrition are such large harms that the international governance system has to contain free markets and give way to a central government that redistributes entitlements to resources and food production according to principles of equality. Everyone has the duty to assist people in need; so there is also a duty to reduce the sufferings from hunger and malnutrition. Hunger is something that can be rid of by means of redistribution and food aid.

Some of the most interesting proposals are however inspired by the ethical theory of John Rawls. Rawls himself has not developed a full edged theory of global justice, but his ideas on freedom and justice and his principle, allowing, as under the condition of the veil of ignorance, competition and unequal distribution of resources of as long as the losers are as well off as they can, are starting points of Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach. She accepts Rawls emphasis on individual freedom and autonomy, but notes that Rawls’ approach “does not suffice to ground an inclusive form of social cooperation” (Nussbaum 2006, p. 273); therefore, she evaluates and assesses social arrangements and policies that enable individuals to exercise their capabilities. However, these arrangements such as “education, health care, housing, and labor conditions” should leave ample room for “the spheres of peoples who own personal or shared comprehensive conceptions of value.” The global level required to tackle the agricultural problems requires “basic principles at a rather high level of abstraction” organized in the sense of a “thin and decentralized” institutional structure.

As is clear, these general proposals do not explicitly analyze problems of agriculture and food, and this explains their rather unpractical and often inconsistent solutions according to people involved (De Schutter 2010; Tansey 2008). Food aid or redistribution of food products is completely the wrong track: “give a fisherman not a fish but a rod,” and this expression is also applicable to farmers. Food should only in emergency cases be shipped in, but even then one runs the risks of sidelining local farmers and increasing corruption.

Amartya Sen (2009) also develops a capabilities approach that however is much more critical of decontextualized universal principles to which local normativity should be subsumed when it wants to be ethically recognized. He proposes that starting with local practices, making comparative judgments and then looking for best practices do not pretend to be valid for all and everywhere. Ethically seen, it is quite dubious what value it has to subsume concrete practices and activities to universal rules and why so much effort some spend to the justification of decontextualized universal principles instead of critical analyses of these practices. This is the starting point of the two sets of ethical considerations discussed in the next section.

Ethical Theories Specially Developed In Agricultural Ethics

Although global agricultural ethics has a short history, several approaches and concepts have been developed in trying to understand and evaluate the problems just listed here. In accordance to the neoliberal position outlined above, industrial agriculture of Norman Borlaug and Robert Paarlberg (2010), for instance, deplores the lack of science and technology in poorer countries due to political barriers and plead for more free trade and more science. This type of neoliberalism that puts individual autonomy (defined as income or wealth) to the fore promotes the use of a largely unregulated market system to produce and distribute goods in a fair way. Hunger and the other agricultural problems can be tackled by investing in more science and destroying trade and other economic barriers. Livelihood of poor smallholders does not play a role in this proposal because of the emphasis on scientific expertise and export, with a hidden agenda that privileges rich countries and large corporations. Intellectual property plays a crucial role in expanding this approach (Tansey 2008). Originally introduced to protect poor innovators against free market riders, it now protects large countries and multinationals in having exclusive rights on seeds and transgenic crops where farmers have to pay a considerable price, without having the right to experiment with patented seeds. The patents are valid for a certain period of time; however, often at the end of the patent term due to the evolution of weed resistance, the patented crop is not useful anymore.

The opposite position is presented by agrarianism, which focuses on local farming practices and their traditional activities (Berry 2010). The farm dictates what to serve at the table. This production movement also implicitly acknowledges the ethical value of how to lead a good life. This variant gives farmers in local communities that reduce the connection between production and consumption as short as possible full priority in what and how to produce. Tilling the soil gives farmers special virtues of modesty, solidarity, and sustainability. Consumers living in cities are not conceived as important stakeholders due to the fact that they are often seen to prefer convenience and therefore processed food. The agrarian tradition is also often wary of technological innovation (according to Wendell Berry, a farmer who uses a computer is not to be trusted) and tries to stick to traditional methods. Local farmers should not be comprised by entering markets. The global component of many agricultural issues is neglected; indeed, it is argued that global problems should be tackled by going local.

A totally different position is represented by a number of approaches that circle around the concept of “food sovereignty” (De Schutter 2010). Inspired by local practices and theoretical approaches that put emphasis on participation and deliberation, several proposals are put forward. In the west, they are often inspired by the deliberative approach of Habermas’ discourse and dialogue theory of communication (Korthals 2004). Arguments derived from established ethical theories can play a role as reasons in a debate, but can never dictate certain actions as the ones one should do, due to the pluralism and complexity of agriculture. They do not function as general requirements that one ultimately must settle all ethical problems by applying these theories. Issues of agricultural ethics cannot be solved by appealing to these general theories. Food sovereignty is a concept that originated with small and medium farmers in Latin America, and it covers “the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture; to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives; to determine the extent to which they want to be self-reliant; to restrict the dumping of products in their markets; and to provide local fisheries-based communities the priority in managing the use of and the rights to aquatic resources. Food sovereignty does not negate trade, but rather, it promotes the formulation of trade policies and practices that serve the rights of peoples to safe, healthy and ecologically sustainable production” (Desmarais et al. 2010). External intervention in food and agricultural practices (i.e., food aid) is often against food sovereignty. Hunger and malnutrition can best be tackled by production on the spot. When large corporations or countries buy land elsewhere and propagate that the former smallholder which made use of the land can now become employees of their plantations, this often means a considerable degradation of their human rights (on adequate food) and food sovereignty. However, the concept is now also often used by movements in the developed world like urban gardening and urban community farming, which not always produce all their food, but at least many of the fresh food products require control of food produced elsewhere. Food sovereignty is then changed into consumer sovereignty, recognizing the right to choose your own food style.

Some Other Ethical Considerations

Informed food choice both in the richer countries and in the poorer countries is an important concept that expresses the right to adequate food. For many in the west, it is clear that food production is not in accordance with animal welfare, fair trade, or biodiversity requirements. Due to the pluralism of value orientation, consumers put a different emphasis on these values, but they can only act according to their values when they have access to information that is relevant to them. Fair trade and respect for biodiversity are often very difficult to find out; for many, it is clear that large multinationals do not respect rights of people in the poorer countries, for example, by doing business with a governmental elite often keeping power by western support (Pogge 2008). Informed choice about the inputs they buy, such as seeds and equipment, is also relevant for farmers. Informed food choice, food sovereignty, and the right of adequate food constitute a cluster that together give shape to a life that is in freedom is connected with others and with routines and habits and building new routines when necessary. Nobody lives on their own, so the degrees of freedom that the context of food decisions allows one are an important item. This context is always structured by past decisions of others, and sometimes it is ethically acceptable to change that context.

Informed food choice and labeling are for many important ethical concepts. In the USA, many producers and others are against giving this type of information; however, in the European Union, there are strict rules about what to put in place on the labeling of foodstuffs to enable European consumers to get comprehensive information on the contents and the composition of food products. Labeling and types of certification are helpful for consumers, because they enable to make a reasonable food choice in accordance with his or her life and food style. What should be put on the label and what should be certified and how are ethical issues.

Ethical traceability is developed in the context of extending consumer control over large networks of food chains; producers already use traceability schemes to find where potential risks in those chain can occur. However, many consumers, conscious of the fact that in those chains also ethical decision are made, for instance, on animal welfare (are the pigs penned or allowed to forage?) and fair treatment of farmers, want to develop their own systems of information, with the aim that they get information on the basis of which they can choose the products that satisfy their often differing values. Some consumers want information about environmental footprints and climate gas emissions during the production process. Some experiments are done with this approach, and in particular the new social media can assist in making the information available that these consumers are interested in (Coff et al. 2009). In this way, an informal global network is developed that connects consumers and producers.

Coexistence of different food and agro systems takes into account that both producers and consumers can differ in their appreciation of different agricultural systems. It implies the recognition that pluralism of farming and food styles is an essential element of fair global system of agriculture and food production. For example, genetically modified (GM) crops and organic crops are connected with very different values about what good food is and what the value of nature is. Nevertheless, it is possible that these different types of agriculture coexist and that those engaged in each type learns from each other. Coexistence does not try to overcome the differences in values and appreciations by making one food system dominant; rather, it means looking for ways to live better together with these differences. In the EU, coexistence is the main strategy for living with GM and non-GM crops; as long as the two areas are separated from each other, interference between the two is assumed to be prevented. The same holds with respect to organic and nonorganic ways of farming. However, it is not possible to make strict separations between the two, and cross pollinations happen; so compromises and other solutions are to be explored.


Globally, mankind stands on a crossroad in deciding between two different types of agriculture and food production that can feed adequately (taken into account food quality, sustainability, and justice) the mouths in 2050 and later. The right to adequate food has implications for both the billions of farmers and for consumers. Producers and consumers in the rich countries are responsible for what happens in the poorer countries due to their excessive use of resources (as in meat production) in the poorer countries; they contribute to hunger and poverty elsewhere (Pogge 2008) and the disregard of the right on adequate food. There are at least two trajectories to implement this right and to recognize the pluralism of farming and food styles, and in both science can play a role.

On the one hand, there is the current regime of agricultural intensification of production that treats food and agricultural products as commodities, not different from cars and computers, with one remarkable difference, that nowadays consumers are alienated from the production process. Consumers do not know what and how to eat. Comparative (economic) advantage and nothing else determines what, where, and by whom food is produced. Farmers are entangled in an economic treadmill, try to prevent the diminishment of their profit margins, and go continuously for the cheapest. Agriculture is disconnected from the table (consumers); ingredients come from everywhere and are changed into nearly unrecognizable substances. This is particularly the case with edible items that are composed of bulk ingredients like maize, wheat, or rice. Farmers are also treated as consumers of seeds and inputs produced by multinationals and are pressed to leave their land and to escape to city slums.

On the other hand, there is a large segment of global society sector where food comes from local sources as in agroecology, farm to table, agrarianism, and glocalism movements. The majority of farmers live in the South (approximately 1.5 billion people), and more than 85 % are poor, often not owning their own land. They are involved in a different agro-food regime than industrialism and world market, producing for local or regional markets. Being poor, pesticides and fertilizers are used in small amounts. Many of these farmers have learned to improve the soil with organic material, and intercropping (agroecology and agroforestry). Two sophisticated sociotechnological methods, applying principles of scientific trial and error, are agro ecology (De Schutter 2010) and the system of rice intensification (SRI), applied also to wheat and corn. These two methods can increase current yields with a factor of two or more, with less environmental and economic costs than further intensification by chemicals such as industrial agriculture prescribes (Korthals in Herring 2014). Tittonell (2013) argues convincingly that “… most importantly, food will be produced where it is urgently needed, and where the surpluses can generate extra income for poor rural households” (see also De Schutter 2010). According to this regime, the cooperation of “external science,” indigenous technological development, and cash-crop orientation can increase harvest quality and quantity, partly for the market and partly for the subsistence of farmers.

The types represent poles of a continuum with many variants in between, and the most promising types are the ones that learn from each other in improving the quality of food and recognize the right on adequate food. The styles determine in larger measure what type of relationship humans will have with the soil and with nature, with other humans, and with themselves. Pluralism of farming and food styles has the advantage that the various styles can learn from each other. Due to the fact that agriculture is confronted with new problems like climate change, population growth, and technological innovations, it is necessary that experimenting and learning processes are intensified. Whereas differences in conceptions of animal welfare, conceptions of nature, and the role of humans may continue, areas of cooperation are still possible.

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