Agricultural Ethics: Charting The Path To A Sustainable Future

By Ralph Early (

Part one of this two-part article on agricultural ethics set out a thesis which argued that the development of farming as
an industrial activity during the 20th century, aided particularly by dynamic and commercially advantageous sciences and technologies, has brought us to a point where agriculture itself now presents a substantial threat to the natural world.

This is indisputable.

The UK’s State of Nature partnership’s 2016 report cites, for instance, that farmland birds have declined by 54% since 1970, while butterflies as an indicator of the wider countryside have declined by 41% since 1976. Sadly, many species of wild plants and animals indigenous to the UK have been subject to extirpation as a consequence of various farming and land management practices over the last century, while some of the country’s most iconic wildlife is threatened by extinction. People, like wildlife, need the land.

The health of the land as a resource for human food production, and the linked capacity for wildlife to flourish, depends on an abundance of biodiversity: the biomass necessary for nature’s ecological processes to function properly in maintaining the vigour of the land and nature itself. Isabella Tree comments in her book, Wilding, saying that Britain is “among the most naturedepleted countries in the world”.

It seems that Britain is on a path which risks possible ecological collapse, threatening the very food systems that support both people and wildlife. It is clear that if we do not rethink farming – and, it has to be said, urban planning which is increasingly defined by avaricious motives and corrupt Westminster politics – we may reach a tipping point where, for example, seemingly inexorable environmental decline and the loss of keystone species brings down the increasingly fragile house of cards that is our country, our wildlife heritage and our home. It is, after all, our choice.

Farmers are members of the moral community. They are moral agents. They have the capacity to understand moral concepts and to distinguish what is morally right from what is morally wrong. Indeed, by reference to objective moral values, which ideally calibrate their own moral compasses, farmers employ moral agency every day. They make decisions which are ethical in construction and which can be framed within the discipline of agricultural ethics. Such decisions may involve, for example, the management of farm staff, the welfare of farmed animals, the protection and preservation of the farmed and wider environment, the safeguarding of biodiversity dependent on farmland for survival, and interactions with those employed more widely in agriculture as well as others in the rural community, etc.

Indeed, there are farmers who, in the Greek philosopher, Aristotle’s conception, are incontestably virtuous persons. We can think of them as virtuous farmers who, by their character and intellect, are distinctive within the farming community. They cause good through their ideas and associated actions, serving as role models for farmers generally and for wider society. Many who read this article will know such individuals as exemplars of moral conduct within agriculture. They will be recognised as the people most likely to take the lead in rethinking farming to deliver the widespread ecological balances necessary to preserving the planet and achieving genuine environmental sustainability.

Farmers contend with many issues which embody moral dimensions. One of the most thorny is that of protecting and preserving the soil as the land, and the land as the countryside. Soil is essential to food production. Much of the quality of the soil we enjoy today was created by large herbivores grazing the land over the millennia, since the end of the European ice-age some 14,000 years ago. As a natural resource, soil is finite in terms of the amount available and its quality. In temperate climates, e.g. Britain, it takes about 4 lifetimes to produce 1 cm of soil, with around 10 lifetimes to achieve adequate levels of fertility.

We know that the nutrition quality of crops, e.g. cereals, fruit and vegetables, has declined over the last 50 years as soil quality has declined due to industrial farming and increased use of fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation. We also know that increased mechanisation and pesticide use have chased native flora, insects, birds and small mammals from the fields, while artificial fertilisers can trigger the eutrophication of water courses. British farmland soil is dying before our eyes and its capacity to produce food may not extend beyond another century. Yet supermarket strategies and the ambitions of governments place farmers under constant pressure to cut costs in order to produce cheap food. By utilitarian calculus, the production of cheap food may appear to deliver the greatest good for the greatest number.

However, given the intensive methods which farmers are often forced to use just to keep up, to what extent does cheap food policy diminish the soil and the land as our key food production resource? While farmers strive to feed people, an ethical lens reveals their undeniable moral obligation to preserve the soil, not just for use today, but as a resource upon which future generations will be dependent. The soil itself, and the land, are legacies of good which must pass from one generation to another and, morally, they should be preserved.

The protection of the environment and certain species can be achieved to a certain extent through legislation which frames legal rights. This may also reinforce moral rights. For instance, the hen harrier, with a UK breeding population of less than 1,000, is an endangered species protected by law. Hen harriers, individually and as a species, have a legal right not to be made extinct. The moral right of these birds to enjoy life and to flourish as a species is, though, not grounded in law. It is grounded in the fact that as moral agents we are able to know that hen harriers have the right not to be killed for sporting or commercial benefit and, consequently, to be forced into extinction. To do so would be an evil act. If we recognise the moral right of hen harriers to survive as a species, as rationally we ought because abundant biodiversity benefits humanity, ethically we and particularly land owners and farmers bear the correlative moral duty to ensure their protection.

Asserting moral rights for the protection of hen harriers constitutes an appeal to deontological ethics: an ethical domain concerned with notions of duty, rights and justice. The deontological philosopher, Immanual Kant (1724- 1804), stated that we ought to treat people as ends in themselves, not merely as the means to our ends: a value which is not necessarily restricted to the good of human beings. Normatively, when an animal species is facing extirpation or extinction we ought to respect the species as an end in itself and work to ensure its protection. It is the morally right thing to do and stems from the principle that abundant biodiversity is naturally good for nature and instrumentally good for human beings.

Land owners and farmers ought then to protect hen harriers, simply because it is morally right to do so. Such a notion of rightness by appeal to Kantian ethics can, however, also be applied to the protection of the soil and, hence, the countryside. Those who consider themselves as stewards of the land, take unto themselves particular moral duties or obligations. The claim of stewardship asserts an ethic of duty correlated with an ethic of care. To be a steward of the land, rationally and irrefutably implies a duty to care for the soil which constitutes the land. It follows that this imposes a duty to care for nature which co-exists with healthy and productive soils, as the land. In ethical terms, the soil ought to be regarded as an end in itself and not merely the means to the end of e.g. agricultural profitability. This then compels an intellectual shift which places priority on the soil for the common good of both people and wildlife, establishing, conceptually, the moral right of the soil to be preserved and enhanced.

Assigning value to the moral dimensions of agriculture by means of an ethical lens in order to support practical, on-farm decision making is not necessarily a simple and trouble-free activity. For instance, though we may assert the moral right of hen harriers as an endangered species not to be killed for commercial benefit, e.g. to protect grouse, how does this square with the fact that farmed animals are killed for food? Arguing from a hard animal rights position we may posit the philosopher, Tom Regan’s (1938-2017) view, that animals are subjects of a life and have inherent value: meaning, essentially, that their interest in living and enjoying life is fundamentally the same as that of human beings. Such a position demands, for instance, that animals have the right not to be eaten by human beings (although they may be eaten by other animals).

Meat eating is, however, a cultural norm in many societies and for many millions of often poor people, it can be an essential and not easily replaceable source of nutrition. There is not the space here to analyse the moral arguments for and against the human consumption of meat, but we should recognise that while the justification for granting hen harriers moral rights is based in the rarity of the species, commonly used domesticated food animals are abundant. Indeed, in evolutionary terms, we might consider their success is linked to the fact that they are food for human beings.

If animals are to be farmed, a fundamental moral principle which ought to govern methods of production concerns the ethical principle of nonmaleficence, meaning that whatever one does one should cause no harm. The utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) expressed his concern for the well-being of animals, stating: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”. Bentham was unconcerned about the use of animals to feed human beings. He believed though, that if they are so used, then as sentient beings capable of experiencing pain and suffering they ought to be kept in ways which prevent unnecessary suffering. Such a position coordinates with the Farm Animal Welfare Committee’s ‘Five Freedoms’, established in 1979, which express normative moral standards for ensuring the welfare of farmed animals: (1) Freedom from thirst and hunger; (2) Freedom from discomfort; (3) Freedom from pain injury and disease; (4) Freedom to express normal behaviour; (5) Freedom from fear and distress.

Agricultural ethics is a large and complex subject which, considered in detailed philosophical terms, can easily fill many text books. Consequently, some topics must be excised from consideration here. However, we cannot leave this review without considering examples of ethical issues which may affect farming in the future: particularly in light of Brexit and the British government’s apparent desire to replace EU policies and standards by integration with America’s corporate agrifood sector. The EU has long presented a barrier to certain patented US agricultural technologies, including, for example, GM (genetically modified) herbicide tolerant crops and genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) (known as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) in Europe).

In ethical terms, new agricultural technologies, which may present benefits and harms, ought to be weighed for approval on a case-by-case basis, objectively and independently of political lobbying and commercial pressures for approval. The EU employs the Precautionary Principle in such evaluations. It emphasises caution in advance and places the burden of proof of absence of unacceptable harms on vested interests seeking approval. However, some British MPs argue that Brexit will permit agricultural and environmental deregulation and they seek adoption of the Innovation Principle, which, in essence, means try it and if things go wrong, try to work out how to repair the damage. This is a morally dubious position.

The evaluation of new agricultural technologies should, of course, centre on scientific evidence, but it should also elicit appeal to different ethical theories. The moral right of people, animals and the environment not to be harmed solely as the means to the end of corporate profit can, for instance, be framed by deontological ethics. To give a few simplified examples, GM technology raises questions about the integrity of species and the right not to be altered by transferring alien genes. The use of routine rBGH injections with dairy cows to increase milk yields raises questions about a variety of consequential harms to cattle as well as the right of consumers not to drink milk containing increased levels of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1: a hormone associated with cancer in people)

The value of agricultural ethics to the evaluation of new agricultural technologies cannot be understated. It is an intellectual discipline which can provide clarity in problem solving through different ways of thinking. Importantly, it can cause difficult and often uncomfortable questions to be asked, but they are questions that should be asked. In this respect, agricultural ethics is a discipline which ought to be employed routinely by governments in decision-making affecting farming and food. Crucially, if agriculture itself is to continue to serve humanity long into the future, farming will need to adopt a continually reflective disposition which, assisted by ethical analysis, learns from the past in order to chart its path to a sustainable future. Fundamentally, if we as humanity are to survive – an outcome which is not obligatory – we must find ways to produce food which respect and benefit people, biodiversity and the environment. In this, agricultural ethics can play an unparalleled part.