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V. Agricultural Ethics and the World Food Situation
PRACTICAL ETHICS IN AGRONOMIC RESEARCH
and agriculture sector (Flora, 1986). Those who lament the increasing industrialization of agriculture, especially advocates of environment, natural resource, and
social impact themes, attribute that change to government influence, manifested
through various programs including research.
The word industrial as I use it in this context connotes scale and scope economies, vertical coordination, customer focus, and differentiated products. It does
not connote mass production, top-down management, or supply-driven strategy.
Many groups seem to believe that if they can “educate” the public and the public’s representatives, their preferred themes will emerge as the dominant driving
forces and appropriate changes will be implemented by legislation and regulation.
They work hard and expend resources to persuade the body politic that theirs is
the most ethical approach, compelling need, forceful argument, and sound philosophy. The various themes are constantly reinforced by public statements of government and organizational leaders.
It seems to me, however, that agriculture moves ever more rapidly toward the
industrial model despite all the debate. The trend strongly suggests that changes
in agriculture are being driven by other forces. I think the driving force operates
as follows. Urbanization changes the logistics of feeding large, relatively affluent
populations. To meet those demands, production and marketing enterprises grow
in scale, scope, customer focus, productivity, and efficiency. Information becomes
of paramount importance.
Relatively affluent consumers go into large, modern grocery stores and select
from a very large number of diverse products. The products are carefully arranged
on the shelves and well labeled so that consumers can make price, quality, and other comparisons. As they check out, the automated inventory system collects and
analyzes information on their choices.
Based on this information, powerful messages go back down the value chain.
The messages state, in amazing detail,
We want a very diverse selection of high quality, safe, convenient, and affordable food and agriculture products and services. We want them in very large
quantities and we want them available close to our homes. If you can’t provide
what we want, we will find somebody who can. PS: We prefer that you would
not destroy the environment or consume all the nonrenewable resources to produce these products, but we have a hard time evaluating that from here.
Urbanization, affluence, and demand in the populous parts of the world continue to grow rapidly. The populous nations are entering global food markets, especially markets for animal products and feed grains, making these markets larger
and even more global. As more consumer’s around the world gain access to modern grocery stores and their automated inventory systems, even more powerful and
detailed messages will be sent. The food and agriculture sector will respond with
even more rapid industrialization.
This is a juggernaut. We cannot stop it or even substantially change its direction, even if we wanted to. As scientists, we can only create the possibility that the
effective demand for food and agriculture products and services can be met within the constraints imposed by environment, natural resources, and social stability.
We cannot even do that unless the will and resources are available to do the necessary research.
In addition to being essential to meeting world food needs, increased productivity and quality will be essential to sparing the sensitive agricultural ecosystems
and natural resources of the world. Driven by these needs, agronomists and others
will continue to conduct research aimed at increasing productivity and efficiency
of food and agricultural systems. In fact, the level of this activity must increase.
The food and agriculture sector of the world will have to become much more productive to meet food and agriculture needs in the future (Ruttan, 1994). There are
optimistic (Avery, 1995) and pessimistic (Brown and Kane, 1994) views on
whether this can be accomplished.
In the global market environment, the question of whether it is ethical to conduct research on certain subjects, including products or services that might do
harm to the environment or make food unsafe, e.g., chemicals, is moot. The need
for effective pest control will be so great that no options can be precluded before
research reveals the potentials.
The question of whether or not it is ethical to do research on technologies that
might cause dislocations among farmers or other food and agriculture practitioners is moot. The trend toward market-oriented economies and less government intervention in domestic and global food and agricultural markets will assure that
less efficient and productive practitioners will be dislocated. It is hoped that attention will be given to safety nets and other programs that mitigate these effects
and ease transitions for those dislocated.
This is not to suggest that themes other than quality, productivity, and efficiency are not important. The pressure to meet world food needs will override other
themes as central and separate issues and cause them instead to be constraints that
must be dealt with in the context of increasing quality, productivity, and efficiency. They will be constraints in an ongoing utilitarian analysis.
The degree to which other themes are allowed to constrain quality, productivity, and efficiency will be determined by the consumers as they walk down those
aisles and make their selections. To keep these powerful forces from destroying
the environment or consuming nonrenewable resources, scientists will have to create possibilities for food and agriculture practitioners to be productive and efficient
without harmful consequences.
Some will continue to hope that public opinion will eventually shift the agri-
PRACTICAL ETHICS IN AGRONOMIC RESEARCH
cultural emphasis from a quality, productivity, and efficiency ethic to an environmental, social justice, or other ethic. Given the great political interest and activity
in environment, food safety, natural resource conservation, and social issues, I can
see why this hope is sustained.
Increasingly, the public opinion that will count is the opinion individuals express as they walk down the aisles of the grocery store. This is not necessarily the
one that is expressed in the political arena. It is influenced more by price and quality and less by concern about other agricultural themes and externalities.
The driving forces described previously will strongly influence the subject matter of food and agriculture research. There will be funds to address problems and
opportunities perceived as important by consumers and other participants in the
rapidly evolving world food and agriculture system. Those who want to pursue
some other ethical theme to the exclusion of those that dominate in that system
may have trouble finding support.
Efforts to brand some themes as unethical or less ethical than other themes will
not be constructive in this situation. There will be a great need and opportunity for
researchers who can integrate other themes with quality, productivity, and efficiency. They will create possibilities for good outcomes with relatively few harmful consequences.
I think there is an important message for agronomists and other agricultural researchers and research administrators in this analysis of driving forces. It says that
as you plan and implement research on environment, natural resources, safety, social issues, or other themes, keep it within the context of quality, productivity, and
efficiency. In order for any technology or information generated in that research to
find fruition in practice, it will have to contribute to quality, productivity, or efficiency or at least not detract from them.
VI. ETHICS IN THE CONDUCT OF RESEARCH
As is obvious in previous sections of this chapter, I believe debates over the relative merits of various research themes are more appropriately technical discussions than discussions of ethics. People with impeccable records of scientific conduct and ethics can be found on both sides of such debates. From an ethical
standpoint, it is more important to think about how we as scientists engage in those
debates and resolve those and other issues. How do we develop and test hypotheses, marshal1 data, draw and report inferences, engage in rational discourse, and
work with colleagues and students in an ethical manner?
In this section, I describe my perceptions of ethical and unethical behavior in
several specific situations encountered in agronomic research and in agricultural
research in general. In each case, I move from situations in which I believe there
is considerable agreement on ethical choices to ones in which ethical behavior is
harder to specify clearly. This is not an exhaustive treatment by any means but will
serve more as a partial list of research situations with ethical dimensions. In this
section, I used the terms scientist and researcher interchangeably.
1. Selecting Topics for Research
Scientists embark on specific research efforts because they are interested in the
subject matter, have expertise in the subject matter, wish to learn something, think
the subject matter is important, wish to perform a service, wish to gain personal
reward, or some combination of these. The decisions are conditioned by employment opportunities and the availability of resources to support research. I am not
convinced that these decisions, except those involving public service, have much
practical ethical content. Of course, each person must let hisher own ethical perceptions guide these decisions.
2. Designing Experiments
Creative scientists generate hypotheses. The more creative and knowledgeable
they are, the more likely they are to generate hypotheses that depart from the current paradigm. Although there is a definite resistance to new paradigms in the scientific community, researchers who bring about paradigm shifts are often rewarded. The greatest reward is the feeling of having gone where no one went before,
having been the first human in the history of the world to understand a phenomenon, no matter how minute and unimportant. Other more tangible rewards include
recognition, accolades, fame, and money.
Scientists may become emotionally involved with their hypotheses. They want
these products of their intuition and insight to be true. Unless scientists are vigilant, they will unconsciously do things in their research and analysis that will
“stack the deck” in favor of their hypotheses. Lay people placed in the role of experimenters do this in the extreme (Folwell, 1969).
It is important for scientists to design experiments that will disprove their hy-