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Ethics of Plant and Animal Agriculture

Plant and animal agriculture raises a variety of ethical issues that bleed into debates about justice, political economy, the moral status of nature, property rights and the concept of the human. The rise of industrialized agriculture has resulted in an abundance of affordable food for vast populations in the West. However, critics argue that the costs of industrialized agriculture are hidden from consumers. Migrant laborers, the environment, future generations, and animals are expected to carry the cost of cheap food, while Western consumers enjoy the benefit. In this section we look at different areas of food production and the associated ethical issues. This is not an extensive catalogue, but serves as a primer for further research.

Industrial Agriculture and Farm Practice

The industrialization of agriculture, the seeds of which were planted in 16th Century Europe, led to the transformation of farming from ‘a way of life’ to a profitable business enterprise. The past hundred years have witnessed the steady decline of smallholder family farms and the rise of large-scale industrial agriculture producing commodity crops. These developments have had major effects on the people working on farms at the local and global level. A number of ethicists, social scientists and journalists have examined the effects of industrialized agriculture from a variety of perspectives, below is a representative sample.

Barndt, Deborah. Tangled Routes: Women, Work, and Globalization on the Tomato Trail. 2nd ed.  Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Pub, 2008

Barndt analyzes the philosophical foundation of the industrial food system and the place of women. Brandt highlights the disproportionate effect of agribusiness on women in the developing world, tracing the production of tomatoes in Mexico to their consumption in the US and Canada.

Estabrook, Barry. Tomatoland: How modern industrial agriculture destroyed our most alluring fruit. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012.

Estabrook demonstrates the impact of industrial agriculture on taste and availability of certain foods and the effect of farm practices on the lives and health of undocumented itinerant workers in the US. Written in journalistic style this is an accessible and provocative text suitable for students and teachers.

Thompson, Paul B., ed. The Ethics of IntensificationAgricultural Development and Cultural Change: Springer, 2008.

Thompson edits a collection of interdisciplinary essays addressing the ethics of intensive agriculture at national and international levels. These essays developed out of workshop sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and as such have policy focus, in addition to animal welfare, human rights and environmental ethics.

Zimdahl, Robert L. Agriculture's Ethical Horizon. 2nd ed.: Elsevier Science Limited, 2012.

Zimdahl offers a comprehensive overview of both ethical theory and its application to industrial agricultural practices such as scientific research, biotechnology, and environmental impacts. A useful resource for teaching.

Local and Organic Alternative Agricultures

Regarded as a positive alternative to the environmental and ethical ills of industrialized agriculture, small-scale agricultural practices have mushroomed over the past three decades. Using terms such as ‘organic’, ‘local’ and ‘sustainable’, small-scale farming practices have sought to revitalize ideas of the family farm and farming as a ‘way of life’. The turn toward small-scale farming draws on ideals concerned about more than best agriculture practice, but human communities, relations with the environment and political independence.

Costa, Temra. Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2010.

Costa offers an accessible text for students and general readers, profiling the lives of 30 women engaged in local and community supported agriculture, demonstrating the opportunities that local and organic farming presents women.

Guthman, Julie. Agrarian DreamsThe Paradox of Organic Farming in California.  Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 2004.

Gutham draws attention to paradoxes and tensions within the organic farming movement in its attempt to define itself in opposition to industrial agriculture. With the growth in consumer desire for organic produce, organic farmer are increasingly engaged in commercial competition with industrial and organic producers, resulting in some organic farmers mirroring industrial models.

Hewitt, Ben. The Town That Food Saved: How one community found vitality in local food. Rodale Books, 2010.

Hewitt writes a compelling narrative of the complex development of local food in Hardwick, Vermont. Hewitt highlights the historical changes and current tensions within that community as a result of the local food movement’s publicity through articles in New York Times and other popular media sources.

McWilliams, James E. Just FoodWhere Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. Little, Brown and Co., 2009

McWilliams offers a critique of what he regards as the ideologically-drive local food movement. McWilliams suggests that a more realistic approach to the global food system is necessary, one that addresses the tensions and contradictions within both the small-scale and industrial models.

Animal Welfare and Rights

The concern over animal welfare and rights in food production is arguably the most common and longstanding topic in the ethics of food. The literature on the ethical treatment and use of animals has a long history, from Biblical imperatives to treat domesticated animals with care to Peter Singer’s withering critique of factory farms. The treatment of animals in food production is a politically and emotionally charged issue that has attracted the attention of a variety of scholars and activists. Below is a selection of texts that serve to introduce readers to the central debates in this wide literature.

Armstrong, Susan J., and Richard G. Botzler, eds. The Animal Ethics Reader. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Armstrong and Botzler edit a collection of contemporary and classic readings on the ethics of human interactions with animals. This is an expansive volume with essays on topics such as animal emotions, cognition and language through to debates over the use of animals in agriculture.

Braithwaite, Victoria. Do Fish Feel Pain? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Braithwaite offers a scientific examination of pain in fish. Arguing against the idea that fish are automaton, Braithwaite suggests that fish should be awarded a similar ethical respect to that which is given to birds and mammals.

Milligan, Tony. Beyond Animal RightsFoodPets and Ethics. Continuum, 2010.

Milligan attempts to move beyond rights-based (Regan, 2004) and consequentialist (Singer, 2002) arguments for animal ethics, and instead develops a more flexible pluralist approach that leans towards virtue ethics. Milligan addresses topics such as local meat eating, vegetarianism, pet ownership and animals in human community.

Regan, Tom. The Case for Animal Rights. University of California Press, 2004.

Published in 1983, Regan makes a rights-based argument to protect the intrinsic value of animals. While Singer (2002) uses Bentham (1988) inspired consequentialist arguments, Regan opts for a Kantian (2002) duty-based argument to establish the moral status of animals.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. Ecco, 2002.

First published in 1975, Singer’s Animal Liberation has been instrumental in raising public awareness about the abuse of animals in factory farming and testing medical and cosmetic products. In addition, this text provoked ethicists and academic researchers to seriously consider the moral status of animals. An essential text for students and researchers interested in the moral status of animals.


Biotechnology and GMOs

While public concern over the ethical treatment of animals grew during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the commercial cultivation of GM crops in the mid 1990s soon came to dominate public debate and the news media. Biotechnological advancements and the use of genetically modified organisms divided the public, farmers and ethicists. Proponents of these developments regarded GMOs as possessing the potential to eradicate world hunger and reduce food costs, while detractors feared irreversible damage to the genetic structure of food staples and the rise of ‘Franken foods’. The citations below introduce key policy documents, review the early debates and outline future directions of biotechnology in agriculture and food production.

Andrée, Peter. Genetically Modified Diplomacy: The Global Politics of Agricultural Biotechnology and the Environment. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2008.

Andrée outlines the history of GMOs, their commercialization and global impact. Addressing attempts to regulate the potential health and environmental effects, Andrée critically addresses the politics of the precautionary principle and offers a theoretical framework through which to appraise global governance and relations surrounding GMOs.

Bernauer, Thomas. Genes, Trade and Regulation: The Seeds of Conflict in Food Biotechnology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Bernauer considers the debates surrounding agriculture and biotechnology to be polemic and divisive, in this book he attempts to adopt the position of a ‘fence-walker’ and offer balanced appraisal of the debates and their implications for policy-makers and consumers in pluralistic democracies.

Howlett, Michael, and David Laycock, eds. Regulating Next Generation Agri-Food Biotechnologies: Lessons from European, North American, and Asian Experiences. New York: Routledge, 2012.

This collection edited by Howlett and Laycock offers an examination of the recent history and international experiences of GM crops and agricultural biotechnology. Importantly, these essays also examine future directions and developments.

Kloppenburg, Jack. First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology. 2nd ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005.

Kloppenburg examines human modification of plants from 1492 – 2000. Kloppenburg’s analysis of the historical development of science and biotechnology and the influence of commerce on its development provides a deep and rich perspective to contemporary debates.

Paarlberg, Robert. The Politics of Precaution: Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

With much of the debate and subsequent analysis of GM crops focusing on the US and European contexts, Paarlberg provides an important examination of the situation in developing countries (Kenya, Brazil, India and China) and the different manifestation of precautionary policies.