Right and wrong. Good and bad. Choices.
Food is essential for our survival as human beings. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that society needs to provide its people with the means to obtain food. In our modern society, farmers are responsible for ensuring that enough food is produced to feed all humans. This leads to the enhanced well-being of citizens and that by eliminating hunger and malnutrition we improve human health. But the production of food to feed people cannot be the only consideration. Natural resources and the natural world should also be valued and a balance should be struck. These somewhat opposing forces (agriculture for the betterment of humans and protection of the natural world) necessitate the making of choices.
Farmers make choices everyday about how to produce that food. Government workers make choices everyday about regulating food production. Researchers make choices about the science they conduct to advance agriculture. Industrial workers, lawmakers, technology developers, consumers, and protesters all make choices.
Choice Impact Outcomes
It is these choices that determine the ethics of agriculture. Are the choices good or bad? Are they right or wrong? Not every choice has a purely positive outcome. Some choices have negative consequences. But to determine if choice is good or bad sometimes we need to decide if the positives of the choice outweigh the potential negative impacts of the choice. These ethics can be documented through legal codes, religion, literature, and other hallmarks of our recorded history. Ethics are values generally agreed upon by the collective whole. But because we are humans and each view the world a little differently that agreement or consensus isn’t solidified. Ethics can change as society changes.
Fewer People Produce Their Own Food
As early as 16th Century Europe, farming started to transition from ‘a way of life’ to a profitable business. Since then farmers have continued to specialize as a profession. For most of human history, all people of the society had to be involved in raising and producing food. But today, fewer than 2% of the U.S. population is involved in production agriculture. Farmers raise and produce food to feed the other 98% and our global market of trade and exchange has allowed farmers to specialize and raise only one or two crops or livestock species. The trade-off is that this system has led to mono-cultured crops and intensive livestock production systems.
Agriculture and farming was also held in high regard as an underpin of democracy with hard-working, solid citizens. Farming can be viewed as a noble human endeavor – to feed the people of Earth. At the end of World War 2, there was a tremendous need to increase food production. Agriculture and the role of farmers has been to supply abundant, safe, and nutritious food that is affordable to the consumer. New technologies and governmental policies allowed this to happen and today farmers produce enough calories to feed every person on earth. But it isn’t necessarily just producing the right kind of food, it is the logistical problems of food distribution that keep nutritious food supplies from areas that need them. At the current rate of human population growth it is assumed there will be at least 9 billion (2 million more) humans to feed by the year 2050. Farmers still largely view their role as one to produce more food.
Sustainability Provides Ethical Guidance
In modern agriculture we can use the idea of sustainability to help determine if a choice is ethical. Sustainability has three parts – economic sustainability, social sustainability, and environmental sustainability.
- Economic sustainability – If the farm will be profitable and the farmer will stay in business, it will lead to economic sustainability.
- Social sustainability – If the choice is good for individual humans and the community, it will lead to social sustainability.
- Environmental sustainability – If the production method doesn’t degrade the natural environment (soil, water, air, and plant and animal communities), then it will lead to environmental sustainability.
Finding a Balance
Ethical conversations teeter on this balance. And different groups of people might prioritize one leg of sustainability over the other. For example, people passionate about nature, wildlife, and wild habitats might say those require top consideration. But if a farmer can’t use the natural resources like soil and water to produce their crops and raise their livestock, then they will not be economically or socially sustainable. As another example, vegans and vegetarians might protest the killing of livestock for human food consumption. But throughout history, humans have been omnivores and eat meat and animal products as a part of their diet along with plants. The meat provides essential amino acids, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals that all contribute toward a healthy diet. Without meat as a part of the human diet, humans may not be as healthy and therefore the system wouldn’t be as socially sustainable.
In ethical conversations there are many considerations to weigh and balance. The conversations can include farm structure, animal welfare, food safety, environmental impacts, international trade, food security, biotechnology, research, and more. Where we land on these conversations and choices help determine governmental policies, food safety regulations, research and technology regulation, and other guiding rules and laws.
For example, biotechnology has incredible potential to advance agricultural production. Can the positive results outweigh the risks associated with it? Prudent regulation can help mitigate the risks but still allow for the advances.
Raising crops in monoculture has an incredibly high level of efficiency and productivity, but can lead to soil degredation and increased disease pressure. Can the positive results outweigh the risks associated with it? New practices like no-till farming and cover crops can reduce the negative effects of soil erosion and improve soil micro-organisms, but can cost more money to implement.
Raising animals indoors can significantly improve the efficiency of the production system. Can the positive results outweigh the negative aspects of confined quarters? Health monitoring, access to fresh food and water, and manure management keep livestock healthy with a high level of care and welfare.
These are just a few examples of the pros and cons in agriculture and why the choices made are thought to be ethical.
Farmers and others in agricultural industry make choices every day. No situation is perfect and farmers can continue to improve their practices. And ethics of farming may evolve and shift and change, but I would submit that they make these choices with the best of intentions and the hope that they are making the right, good, and ethical choice.