Sustainable Farming

Sustainable Farming Index | Virtual Library | Magazine Rack
Search | Ecological  Solutions Roundtable


"No other industry has the burden of responsibility that

agriculturalists have, yet we have no code of ethics"

Alex Sim


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

of life.

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

Libertarian thought.

"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,"

said Thompson.

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

making any".

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.

Info Request | Services | Become EAP Member | Site Map

Give us your comments about the EAP site

Ecological Agriculture Projects, McGill University (Macdonald Campus), Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, QC,  H9X 3V9 Canada
Telephone:          (514)-398-7771
Fax:                     (514)-398-7621


To report problems or otherwise comment on the structure of this site, send mail to the Webmaster