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"No other industry has the burden of responsibility that
agriculturalists have, yet we have no code of ethics"
The conference "Decision Making in Agriculture: The Role of
Ethics" hosted by the Nova Scotia Agricultural College (NSAC), Jan.
20-22, 1994, provided a rare opportunity for farmers and academics
to discuss the future of agriculture and the choices farmers must
make as they confront the massive changes that global trade,
biotechnology and concern for animal welfare are having on their way
Although the conference agenda was set in the broader
context of a project "Building an Ethical Framework for
Agriculture," run jointly by NSAC and the Dalhousie University
Philosophy Department, it was clear that most participants were
barely coming to terms with the crisis facing agriculture let alone
trying to reach consensus on a new agricultural ethic.
In the keynote address, Dr. Paul Thompson, Director of the
Centre for Biotechnology and Ethics at Texas A&M, focused on the
clash between the Libertarian and Agrarian worldview. Thompson
briefly defined the Libertarian worldview as one advocating
individual freedom and property rights. Focusing on John
Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," Thompson used the bank's
foreclosure on the sharecropping Jode family as an example of
"The bankers are just making good sound
business decisions," he said. " There is an ethic that tells them
what they are doing is right."
In contrast, Thompson proposed that the Jodes followed an
Agrarian worldview which stressed family, community and personal
loyalty. "The Jodes see themselves as neighbours. What's ethical is to be loyal to people that depend on you and who you depend on,"
Like many farmers today, he added, the Jodes did not
see themselves as a distinct class and had difficulty comprehending
the complex forces affecting their way of life. Developing an
agricultural ethic respectful of the agrarian worldview is
difficult, concluded Thompson, when agriculture is changing from
being a community based activity to an industrial one.
The declining influence of agriculture is often thought to be
a simple question of fewer farms and farmers, but the economic
value of farming is in decline, as well. Using a study by U. of
Maine economics professor Stuart Smith, organic vegetable farmer
Norbert Kungl explained that the importance of farmers as food
producers, when expressed in terms of the money generated by animal
and crop production on farms, has barely doubled in the past 80
years. In contrast, he said, the value of the same commodities in
the marketing sector (transportation, processing, packaging,
promotion) has risen 600%.
Perhaps thinking about the four cents worth of wheat that go into
the average loaf of bread, pig farmer Tom Van Milligan said that
"at one time farmers viewed themselves as producers of food, today
we are not. We produce a commodity turned into food on a global
Van Milligan led off the debate on animal welfare by
describing modern housing systems which are designed "to raise more
animals in less space with fewer people" as "factories" causing
stress. Dissatisfied with conventional production technology, Van
Milligan developed a group housing system for his sows, piglets and weaner pigs using deep straw/hay bedding with natural ventilation.
The system has been rewarding because the animals are more quiet
and contented than previously while the barn is almost odourless.
As Van Milligan put it, "animal stress transmits itself to humans.
Humans become less human when they treat animals inhumanely.
"Now," he said, "our farm has become a better place to work because the
animals are under less stress."
Bernard Rollin, philosopher at the University of Colorado,
proposed that public concern for animal welfare has resulted from
the evolution of animal husbandry into animal science. The
difference, he said, was a question of caring for the individual
versus caring for a population.
With the development of large scale production units, said
Rollin, animal husbandry has been transformed into animal science
using "technological sanders" like dry sow stalls, antibiotics and
artificial insemination to put livestock in environments that
benefit humans but not necessarily the animals.
Rollin noted that in the future, farmers would not only face
pressure to improve animal care from the radical segments of
society, but also from the conservative middle class. This has
already happened in Europe. Possibly, confrontations over animal
welfare could be avoided if the public participated with farmers in
forging a framework for the ethical treatment of livestock.
The proceedings shifted to international agricultural policy,
highlighted by a sobering account of the world food trade by Bill
Heffernan, Professor of Rural Sociology, University of Missouri. After
describing how as few as four transnational corporations (TNCs) control over 50% of the U.S. markets for beef and broilers and that
three firms control 80% of the flour milled in North America,
Heffernan said that among the major commodity groups there is
basically no competition left.
He went on to explain how TNCs are shifting livestock
production to developing countries where production costs are
lower. He pointed out how Cargill made Thailand a world leader in
chicken production inside of a dozen years and suggested that
within 10 years, more hogs destined for Canadian and American
dinner plates may be produced in China than North America.
Heffernan asked whether in a free global market third world
countries would exist as markets for North American farmers in a
global economy or as competition?
"In the world of power, food is different than anything else,"
said Heffernan. "The Saudis are producing wheat at $12 per bushel
because they realize that even oil will not stand up against the
power of food."
By the same token, he added that TNCs in
agribusiness reap a return of 2020% on their investment, second
only to the pharmaceutical industry. "We are an industry where
there is money,"said Heffernan, "it's just that farmers are not
In light of their immense power and the disregard TNCs have for
economic and social structures in host countries, dairy farmer
Havey Whidden noted that "when we open our markets to the world any
control of our ethics will be gone."
One participant suggested that
the recent decision to allow the sale of bovine somatotropin in the
U.S., and the expectation of a similar ruling in Canada, despite widespread opposition is a clear example of how agrarian ethics
have no place in a global market.
The 24 conference speakers showed that a large ethical gulf
exists between large farmers who see farming mainly as a business
and smaller farmers who also see farming as a way of life. Jack
Wilkinson, President of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture took
the position that anything but agribusiness was essentially
subsistence agriculture and a quick route to poverty. By advocating
a "get big or get out" approach to decision making, Wilkinson was
seen by some as presenting a bleak and short sighted vision of
agriculture not shared by the entire farming community.
Charles Blatz, author of "Ethics in Agriculture: An Anthology
on Current Issues in a World Context" (U. Idaho Press, 1991)
followed Wilkinson by saying "it's irrational if a large scale
producer thinks of the other people as anything other than
competitors, likewise it's irrational if a small scale producer
thinks of himself as a tough-minded business man."
Blatz said that
to be useful, an agricultural ethic should empower as many in the
agricultural industry as possible, including medium and small scale
farmers in order to ensure a secure and safe supply of food for
Author and educator Alex Sim, was quick to point out, however,
that an ethical framework would be obstructed by big business and
big government. He was doubtful a ethic based on the needs of
farmers and the land could be formed.
University of Guelph sociologist Tony Winson recommended that
farmers form strategic alliances with public interest groups such as the Sierra Club, land trusts and animal welfare advocates in
order to strengthen the position of family farmers. Presumably
consumers groups should also be included in this list but their
voice was markedly absent during the conference. Winson added that
Canadian farmers should ally themselves with their American
counterparts who he says are not so much competing against
Canadians but against the same corporate giants.
Farmer and former president of the Associated Country Women of
the World, Ellen McLean, questioned the need for building a new
ethical framework for agriculture by saying that the farm speakers
at the conference proved that one already existed. However,
defending the ethical values of farmers was not the purpose of the
conference. Instead, farmers were contemplating whether decisions
based on their traditional ethical beliefs would suffice amid the
complex changes affecting agriculture.
Philosopher Mora Campbell pointed out that historically the
discussion of ethics has been very urban and that it is difficult
to develop an agricultural ethic when few people talk about
"How do you build an ethic for something people say is a
thing of the past?" said Campbell.
Ethics cannot be legislated. To build an ethic, Campbell said,
farmers and non farmers must start questioning what they value
about agriculture and begin to tell stories about what matters most
to them in life. The dialogue should include listening to emotions
because emotions are very rational, said Campbell. It is on this
basis that a consensus will form on which an agricultural ethic can
be built. The Ethics in Agriculture conference was a step in this direction.
Copyright © 1994 REAP Canada
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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