Agricultural Ethics

I wrote the following articale about a decade ago for an independent study course on sustainable agriculture. It’s some of my frist thinking about the ethical issues associated with modern agriculture.

Many of the issues at the forefront of discussion in American agriculture today are ethical issues. These include ones that we are familiar with — the place of corporations in U.S. agriculture, the impact of agricultural inputs on the environment, and ones that we haven’t discussed in this course — genetically modified crops, and animal rights. This lesson provides material to help you think about these issues in a critical way while taking into account the values you hold. In addition, this lesson puts some closure to past discussions of the family farm by providing several moral arguments for saving the family farm.

Study Notes
got-ethicsEthics, what is it? Ethics is why something is good or right based on a system of moral principles or values. In this lesson we will be looking at moral arguments for saving the family farm as well as developing a deeper foundation for ethical considerations of current and future issues in agriculture.

Before we go further, we need to start from a common foundation in our discussion of ethics. Definitions of some frequently used words in this lesson follow (The Riverside Publishing Co. 1988):

  • fair – impartial, just to all parties
  • justice – the principle or ideal of moral rightness; equity
  • moral – of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior; ethical
  • equity – the quality, state or ideal of being just, fair, or impartial

You will notice that the definitions get us into a circular discussion; they depend on one another. However, when I look at these words they convey to me a sense of rightness or fairness … without indicating how this is accomplished.

I’m going to limit our discussion to two broad theories of ethics – – utilitarianism and justice as fairness. Utilitarianism is the ethical theory that all moral, social, or political action should be directed toward achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of people (The Riverside Publishing Co. 1988). American agricultural policy most often has been based on this principle of utility. As members of U.S. society we generally agree or at least acquiesce to this common system of ethics.

People holding the theory of utilitarianism often view agriculture as a business. If farming is first and foremost a business, then the driving force is profit. The centralizing forces of industrialized agriculture provide competitiveness, specialization, and efficient production of quantities of food and feedstuffs that provide this profit. I have said this before, American agriculture is a success story. Today’s agricultural production systems provide more than an adequate supply of food for the American public at relatively low prices. The average American spent approximately 40% of his/her income on food in 1891 (Comstock 1994, 27). One hundred years later this figure had dropped to 15%. Citizens in no other country spend so little of their income on food as do Americans.

But has this system created the greatest good for the greatest number of people? Your answer to this question will in part be determined by whether or not you consider: (1) the indirect costs associated with agriculture, (2) the needs of future generations, and (3) the impact of U.S. policies overseas. American agriculture has provided food supplies in excess of need during the last half of this century, but this has been at the expense of environmental degradation (review lesson 3 if necessary). Not only have we not figured in the cost of current health and environmental impacts due to agriculture into our food costs, but we show little concern for future generations when we mine the soil with the current practices of intensive crop production.

Our economic approach to public policy tends to lead us in certain ways of treating environmental resources. According to Robert Nelson, much of U.S. agricultural policy has resulted in the degradation of natural resources. He lists three characteristics that are implicit in our economically-driven agricultural policies (1995, 138-39):

  • There is no intrinsic necessity of sustaining elements of nature per se (economics is inherently about people and their welfare).
  • Factors entering into human welfare are regarded as substitutable.
  • Human well being is derived from consumption.

Emphasis is placed on humans and their welfare is almost synonymous with the amount they consume. Poverty and hunger are among the greatest evils. Economic growth rather than economic sustainability is prized because it has been assumed that growth ultimately would alleviate poverty. Resources are dispensable because substitutes can be obtained as past experience has proven. One of Nelson’s intentions was to convey the idea that economics is not value neutral. I hope you see instead that economics is value laden and influences public policy. Therefore, economic policies can be just or unjust.

In addition, American agricultural policies have weakened the indigenous agriculture of developing countries. Our aid programs have dumped surplus grain in these countries with the result that local farmers get out of the production of staple crops because prices are deflated. These same farmers get into the production of cash crops for export (for example, coffee and cocoa) and as production increases the world price for these crops also falls. As a society, they are hurt because self-sufficiency in food production is lost and they become highly dependent on the export of a raw product having minimal value.

A Framework for Thinking Ethically about Agricultural Issues
The following ideas about society and justice I gleaned from J.A. Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice (1971). Society is basically a cooperative venture among individuals for their mutual advantage. It is characterized by common identification of interests that result in the cooperation of individuals desiring to make life better than would be possible if each person lived by their own efforts. It is also characterized by conflict. Conflict arises because people are not indifferent to how the burdens and benefits are distributed. Justice then becomes a set of principles for assigning basic rights and duties and for determining how to best distribute the burdens and benefits of social cooperation.

Rawls sees one of the major failings of utilitarianism as its indifference to how the benefits of social cooperation are distributed. Utilitarianism doesn’t seriously make distinctions between persons. Instead public policy is determined much in the same way an individual makes a choice — what will provide the greatest benefit. Using this system of ethics some individuals profit more than others and in fact some individuals may end up loosing ground. Rawls further argues that we should not expect the principles of social choice to be utilitarian given that society is composed of distinct persons having different goals.

His theory of justice as fairness involves social cooperation that results in mutual advantage while taking into account distinctions among persons. Justice as fairness denies that the loss of benefits by some is made right by a greater good shared by society as a whole. Reciprocity is implicit in this system of conduct among individuals. However, this theory doesn’t equate equity with equality. I like this concept of justice. From a practical standpoint, it requires greater participation by individuals in a society because they need to voice their distinctive goals in any dialogue where public policy is being determined.

Nelson provides an economist’s view of sustainability which ties in well with Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness. He suggests we think about sustainability as a matter of distributional equity between the present and future generations (1995, 141). Perhaps this is one of the burdens of the present generation — to provide some resources for the future. If we are to show our concern for the future, I believe we need to implement governmental policies that play a role in determining what is consumed today and what should be invested for the future. This concept nicely parallels one of the definitions for sustainability that we discussed in lesson 1: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” (WECD 1987)

Justice as fairness provides part of the framework from which I assess the rightness or wrongness of agricultural issues that are being debated today. It provides the question “Are the benefits and burdens resulting from … this policy, course of action, product … being distributed in an equitable manner?” This question can be made more concrete by focusing our attention to concerns regarding the indirect costs associated with agriculture, the needs of future generations, and the impact of U.S. policies overseas. Use some of this thinking as you continue into the next section of this lesson which once again brings us back to issues of the family farm.

Is There a Moral Obligation to Save the Family Farm?
family-farm-1Your text, Is There a Moral Obligation to Save the Family Farm?, is a compilation of papers presented at the third annual conference on religious ethics and technological change at Iowa State University in 1986. Three of the required readings for this lesson are essays by Christians taking distinct stands on the family farm. In each essay, you will find that the author defends his position with the use of scripture from the Bible. The Bible is being used by these authors as a basis for ethical principles. I want you to read each of these articles carefully to understand the author’s position and get a sense of the intensity of feelings from which they make cases for their visions of American agriculture. I don’t expect you to have the background in Biblical studies to support or refute their arguments, but you should be aware that religious beliefs play an important part in many discussions of ethics and sustainable agriculture.

Gary Comstock, editor of your text, acknowledges the diversity of beliefs and opinions expressed in this set of essays as he writes his concluding remarks. He says, “For all of their many disagreements, it seems that the authors of this work do agree on two points … (1) the playing field on which farmers have been competing is not level, and (2) there can be no moral obligation to save the family farm if there is not a workable plan that could save it.” (399) That the playing field is less than level refers to the belief of many of the authors that tax laws and farm policies enacted by Congress that have been unjust in their treatment of family farmers. With regard to the second point, again there is much disagreement expressed by authors of essays in the text over whether or not it is possible to save the family farm — an entity that represents slightly more than one percent of Americans. Fortunately Comstock doesn’t stop here; he goes on to describe some of the ethical arguments used by supporters of the family farm for saving this institution. Each of these arguments is summarized below.

  1. The argument from emotion – Farming is a way of life that is important in American history. Many of us have parents and grandparents who farmed and as such we have a personal attachment to this way of life. We have a duty to preserve the farms of our forefathers; the land they loved and worked. Because family farms are suffering we should intervene and rescue them. Comstock points out the danger of making moral judgments from a strictly emotional basis.
  2. The argument from efficiency – This argument is characterized as economic concern for efficiency. “The American economy prizes efficiency. The more cheaply you produce quality goods the more comparative advantage you have, and the more successful you will be. The family farm produces vast amounts of food at very cheap prices; it captures all or most of the economies of scale of agricultural producing units. Thus it ought to be successful.” (406) When the family farm isn’t successful the government often is blamed for its policies that favor industrial farming. Comstock finds this argument lacking because it is basically a utilitarian one.
  3. The argument from stewardship – Family farms provide the best stewardship of land and animals. The supporters of this argument ascribe rights to land and animals and do so on the basis of religious beliefs. They believe that family farmers are the best care givers because of their close association with the land and their understanding of agricultural systems. I think Comstock correctly argues that their is little basis for ascribing inherent rights to land and animals. However, from a pragmatic standpoint, I believe the argument may be sound. A number of studies have suggested that rates of soil erosion are less for land owned and operated by the same person than for land that is farmed by someone other than the owner. It can also be argued that the welfare of livestock often is better on family farms than on large confinement operations. In the final analysis, Comstock shows the weakness of even this view by reminding us that if superior methods of management were invented, these would be preferable even if they were not tied to the family farm.
  4. The argument from cultural identity – This argument traces its roots back to Jeffersonian agrarianism. The argument goes that widespread land ownership is necessary to ensure that political and economic power is distributed democratically. Supporters of this line of reasoning fear the loss of democracy and its related freedoms as corporate entities become more of a dominate feature of U.S. agriculture. Comstock identifies the weakness in this argument as possibility of devising other forms of widespread land ownership other than family farms.

After dismissing each of the above four arguments, Comstock proposes his own argument, which he calls an argument from responsibility. His argument from responsibility closely resembles parts of our earlier discussion of justice as fairness. He voices concerns for human communities across generations and for the environment. His concluding remarks from your text read:

I do not believe there is a moral obligation to save the family farm. Not everything about it is worth saving. … I believe that we have moral obligations to each other, to our children, and to the natural environment. In order to live justly and fairly, to respect the material world that sustains us, and to preserve its resources for those who come after, we must discover economic structures and communal arrangements that allow us to meet these obligations. If the alternatives are fifty thousand superfarms or half a million family farms, our responsibility is clear. To the extent that family farms help us fulfill our duties to one another, to unborn generations, and to God’s created world, it is our duty to help them survive.

What Kind of Agriculture Do We Want in the 21st Century?
I believe it is highly probable that American agriculture will find technological fixes for many of the current problems in agriculture. It is also likely that we will see more and more agricultural policies implemented in the next century that are supportive of sustainability as awareness of ecological problems grows. It is my hope that the sustainable agriculture movement transforms American agriculture by helping us to think in terms of how crops, livestock, and humans are integrated together in agroecosystems. People in the sustainable agriculture movement have goals that go beyond economics. They are concerned with environmental and health impacts of agriculture, with raising families in healthy communities, with passing the farm on to future generations, and with quality of life considerations. For them, “good” agriculture would be characterized by farming-family-community relationships that are regenerative.

People in the sustainable agriculture movement have done us a favor by providing an alternate vision for agriculture. Even if you don’t agree with their vision for agriculture, we as a society are indebted to them for the public dialogue they have created. For without defining what we want agriculture to become, we will allow others to make this determination.

What part does ethics play in all of this? Ethics helps us think about what is right and what is wrong, but it has no authority in and of itself. All ethics can do is suggest a path of conduct for us to follow. Most of us desire to live congruent lives; lives in which our behaviors are the natural outcome of our values. I hope that as you come to realize that many of the issues of agriculture are ethical issues you will participate in society in ways that are congruent with your values.

Required Reading
Gary Comstock, “Conclusion: Moral Arguments for Family Farms” (in the text).
National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “ A Catholic, Populist View” (in the text).
David Ostendorf, “A Protestant, Populist View” (in the text).
Merrill Oster, “A Christian Businessmen’s View” (in the text).

Comstock, G. 1994. Some virtues and vices of agricultural technology. p.25-32. In P.G. Hartel, K.P. George, and J. Vorst. (eds.) Agricultural ethics: Issues for the 21st century. American Society of Agronomy, Madison, WI.
Nelson, R.H. 1995. Sustainability, efficiency, and God: Economic values and the sustainability debate. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 26:135-54.
Rawls, J.A. 1971. A theory of justice. Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA.
The Riverside Publishing Co. 1988. Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary. Houghton Miffin Co., Boston, MA.
World Conference on Environment and Development. 1987. Our common future. Oxford Univ. Press, New York, NY.


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