Agricultural Ethics: A Decision Making Tool For Farmers? (Part 1)

Written by Ralph Early
”No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” David Attenborough.

Not so long ago, wildlife in Britain was so much more abundant than it is today. Back in the 1960s, in early summer, one could walk the fields of most counties from Land’s End to John O’Groats and quite literally trip over wildlife: rabbits, hares, pheasants, partridge, and many other species hiding in knee-high grass.

A stroll through meadows carpeted with stunningly beautiful wild flowers would fill the air with butterflies, as once disturbed they departed the sweet nectar in one location to alight on blossoms in another. At night the same meadows would be filled with moths, swarming uncontrollably to the light of a torch. For anyone who remembers such experiences, this was Britain’s countryside at its most glorious. Sadly, in 2020, that world no longer exists, which is an undeniable calamity. The loss of so much of Britain’s wildlife over the last half century, and with it many irreplaceable ecosystems, undermines the capacity of Britain’s natural environment to support planetary ecosystem services.

This is a moral issue of immense importance to the future of humanity and the innumerable species with which we share the planet. It is also, distressingly, an incontestable catastrophe for young people today, for they will never experience British wildlife of the quality and diversity routinely encountered less than a lifetime ago.

They will never know nature’s wonders common to the Britain of their grandparents and greatgrandparents. A land where skies were filled with birds, hedgerows buzzed loudly with insects, and countless small mammals, reptiles and amphibians scurried in search of food. That world has passed into history and tragically may never return.

The past is the key to the future

If we are wise we will learn from the diminution of Britain’s natural heritage: a disaster that was so clearly avoidable, but which we chose not to see even as it was unfolding. Indeed, we have a moral duty to learn from it not just for ourselves, but for future generations whose rights we may deny through our own thoughtlessness and selfishness. We must learn from the past and in doing so must find ways to chart an ethically sound and ecologically sustainable course for the future. In this we should recognise that the word ‘sustainability’ is itself morally instructive. Sustainability as a term is now part of common usage in the agrarian lexicon.

This is a positive sign. It confirms recognition that we are prepared to admit that aspects of farming practice, as we have employed them for decades, are in fact environmentally harmful.

They are demonstrably unsustainable. Importantly, by being prepared to admit we got things wrong, we express understanding that we know we must change the way we farm. We also need to change the way we think about agricultural food production such that we find better ways to work with nature, not against it. In this respect we need to dispose of irrational perspectives, such as the perverse idea that by divine moral right mankind has dominion over nature. Such archaic notions are embodied in many of the farming and land use practices that created the problems we now face. If we are to manifest a truly sustainable future, a paradigm shift and definitely an ethical shift in our thinking about food and farming will be needed.

Happily this is underway, as evidenced by many practical actions being employed by enlightened, progressive and morally aware farmers, such those using zero tillage methods to restore soil quality and fertility. It is also seen in the way ethical thinking is being used overtly and in less obvious ways to guide agricultural food production more broadly. Notably, we are witnessing the development of agricultural ethics as a specialised branch of moral philosophy, and a decision making tool, accessible to farmers, agrifood businesses, policy makers etc.

This article is then the first part of a twopart article on agricultural ethics which, it is hoped, will be of particular value to everyday farmers as the professionals to whom we remain constantly indebted for keeping us fed. The aim of the article is to explain something of the concept of agricultural ethics and how it can be of practical value. However, before we immerse ourselves in ethical theory in part two, in this part we should first reflect a little on the history that has brought us to this point.

Change and acceleration

Change is inevitable. During the last century it has occurred at an almost unimaginable rate, particularly in the industrialised world. Since the end of World War II, significantly as a consequence of Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution, British agriculture has been transformed almost beyond recognition. Britain’s rural landscape began to change markedly in the 1960s, with a pace that accelerated through the 70s and 80s. Post-war agrifood policies aimed at enhancing Britain’s food security were partly responsible, as was the EEC’s Common Agricultural Policy which aimed at maximising agricultural productivity.

These factors catalysed a momentous shift in perspective with respect to the purpose of farming and, significantly, the end of the 1960s began to see the transference of elements of farm decision-making from farmers themselves to a new breed of off-farm, agricultural specialist, the farm consultant. These advisors employed by agribusiness corporations, banks and ADAS (Agricultural Development and Advisory Service), among others, introduced new perspectives to British farming which centred on ‘efficiency’, ‘productivity’ and ‘profitability’. These terms became watchwords for the industry.

But nature is not efficient, productive or profitable in any way that agricultural economists, especially ones wedded to the neoliberal capitalist ideology of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman that now shapes the British economy, would appreciate. A consequence of the development of agriculture as a movement centred almost exclusively on productivity, efficiency and profit, was that big came to be regarded as beautiful. Small-scale, mixed farms were regarded as a thing of the past.

Large farms grew larger, increasingly focusing on fewer or even single enterprises, and monoculture agriculture became the new norm. Such farming was prized because it was modern. It represented a vision of the future, communicated evangelically to aspiring young farmers in colleges and universities throughout the land, with the support and endorsement of burgeoning transnational agri-business corporations. As British farms changed so farmers, once steeped in the traditions of preceding generations and a sense of spiritual indebtedness to nature and the land, were transformed into agricultural technologists. A new breed of farmer had arrived. The farmer as expert in distinct and even separate types of agricultural food production. No longer the generalist, increasingly the specialist.

As farming has become more specialised, a relatively small number of major agri-business companies have achieved significant influence over the British agricultural sector.

At the same time, the supermarkets have ensured that they are the main points of access to the food marketplace for British farm produce. Power imbalances are now common within the food system and the pressure to survive is a constant source of anxiety for farmers, often exacerbated by the lack of morally just financial rewards. For some, solutions lie in the application of new technologies, for agriculture itself is a technology, and in this they may be right. At least in part.

Experience reveals, however, that both science and technology often have the tendency to advance faster than the wisdom required to regulate and control them. New technologies such as precision farming, genetic engineering and CRISPR-Cas9 (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and the CRISPR-associated enzyme, Cas9) will undoubtedly play a role in the development of British agriculture, as will other technologies. But if farming is to become truly sustainable and, importantly, ecologically benevolent in the way it serves the needs of humankind today and in the future, it will need to embody moral values based in a deep respect for ecology and the workings of the natural world.

Such values will inevitably be informed by the theory and practice of agricultural ethics which, necessarily, will demand that all who regard themselves as agriculturalists, whether directly involved in farming or employed in ancillary and support sectors, remain conscious of Ernst Friedrich Schumacher’s words, “Modern man talks of the battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side.

Old problems demand ethical solutions

As farmers work to survive in an increasingly competitive world they quite reasonably seek opportunity in innovative ideas and technologies. However, while novel ideas and technologies may yield many benefits, they may also entail unintended consequences which bring to the fore a variety of ethical dilemmas. Indeed, the central moral issue faced by all farmers is found in the fundamental duality of doing good through the production of food yet, at the same time, minimising and ideally preventing the harms that agricultural practices may entertain.

For instance, over the last 50 years agricultural policy decisions, combined with market forces and innovations by the agricultural machinery and agri-chemicals sectors, have triggered an increase in the size of farm machinery with promises of continually increasing efficiency, productivity and profitability. This, though, has generally been associated with the elimination of hedges and other wildlife habitats in the UK to create larger, more efficiently managed fields with the unintended consequence of a concomitant decline in wild and farmland biodiversity.

Ploughing and the use of heavy machinery, once considered a standard practice, is now known to cause soil erosion and the release of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, while artificial fertilisers accelerate the loss of soil quality and organic matter, catalysing the breakdown of aggregate structure so increasing erosion and loss of top soil. Additionally, phosphate, a constituent of synthetic fertilisers and organophosphate pesticides, causes fresh water eutrophication while nitrogen from fertilisers causes sea water eutrophication.

Research, reported in 2014, suggests that the quality of British farmland soil is now such that only around 100 harvests are likely, which is why the improvement of soil quality has been set as a priority objective for national agricultural policy.

These are just a few of the issues that farming faces and which raise numerous questions of an ethical nature. Indeed, many are issues that may best be understood by means of an ethical lens, so helping to determine the route to genuinely sustainable and regenerative forms of agriculture.

A moral compass for farmers

Ethics is concerned with the moral values and principles that govern human behaviour. It deals with concepts of moral goodness and moral evil, perhaps more easily understood as moral badness, as well as with human actions framed as what is either morally right or morally wrong. Agriculture yields many benefits for humankind, being the source of most food as well as e.g. biofuels and fibre.

But the practice of agriculture can itself present a range of moral concerns, simply because it has the potential to cause both benefits and harms.

For instance, the loss of wild habitat to agricultural food production has already been cited as a moral issue and one that raises many questions about the moral rights of the environment and biodiversity. The use of agri-chemicals demands ethical consideration of the utilitarian balance of benefits versus harms with respect to possible negative externalities, e.g. effects on pollinating insects and the health of farm workers and consumers. Farmed animals, as sentient beings capable of experiencing pain and suffering, deserve for valid moral reasons to be respected and cared for appropriately. These are among many of the moral issues embedded in the practice of agriculture which, because of space, we cannot appraise here but will do so in part two.

Agricultural ethics is then an applied subject of practical value to contemporary farmers who, unlike preceding generations, face a diversity of existential threats which must be resolved if farming itself is to be sustained long into the future. An inescapable and often uncomfortable truth is that many of the challenges that farmers face today are rooted in the practices of agriculture developed in the last 100 years or so, as well as in the general industrialisation that occurred during the last two centuries. Such challenges are epitomised by the problem of anthropogenic global climate change. Solutions to most agricultural problems will doubtless be found in the sciences and technology. But as farming redefines its path to an industrious and ecologically sustainable future, we can be sure that agricultural ethics will provide the moral compass required to navigate the journey and ensure safe arrival.