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Treating food like medicine could make agriculture more ethical

AP Photo/David Mercer
Ethical issues have become increasingly prominent in agriculture.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

A trip to the grocery store these days is fraught with ethical considerations. Where and how were these strawberries grown? Did those practices use land and water efficiently, and pesticides safely? Who grew the coffee beans, and how were the workers treated? Were the chickens that laid these eggs kept humanely, and what does humane chicken-rearing even look like?

With the public increasingly invested in such questions, the field of agriculture is under growing pressure to be ready with satisfying answers. Could incorporating bioethics programs into agricultural schools help reassure the public that their food is in good hands?

Thorny questions

Agriculture has no shortage of potential ethical quandaries. Researchers have land rights and animal welfare to consider as well as the risks and benefits that a practice or technology may pose to people and the environment. There’s the matter of food security and the best way to feed growing populations. Then there are the debates about how to label organic or genetically-engineered food, and whether those labels are necessary or meaningful. And as in any area of research, there is the potential for scientific misconduct and conflicts of interest.

Such questions are becoming even more complicated as technology advances. Consider the latest gene editing techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9, which allows researchers to snip and replace DNA with relative ease and is ushering in a new and fast-paced era of plant and animal research. Some of the technology’s uses may be good for animals and farmers alike: for example, engineering hornless dairy cows in order to skip a painful dehorning procedure. Others may carry both benefits and risks, such as tweaking the genes of insect pests that threaten crops. This might reduce the use of chemical pesticides, but could also impact local ecosystems in unforeseen ways.

The influx of industry money flowing into agriculture schools, even as government funding remains stagnant, may also make it difficult for scientists to navigate potential conflicts of interest. For example, researchers may receive company funding to study a specific product, like a pesticide or a new seed, while balancing unrelated projects that also happen to be under-funded. Sometimes, it may be tempting or possible to use equipment or staff financed by industry for the latter, creating an ethically gray area where researchers are unconsciously becoming indebted to the company.

These issues would seem to cry out for informed ethical opinions. Yet whereas bioethics centers are a staple of biomedical research, agricultural schools typically don’t have ethicists on their faculty. The reasons why are complicated, and involve history, money, and an ongoing debate about the role of ethics in research.

The ethics of farming

Modern bioethics is in part a response to cases of horrific human experimentation, as in Nazi Germany and Tuskegee. Breathtaking wrongs like these have compelled medical schools today to assemble ethical review boards to approve and monitor research, according to Janet Stemwedel, a philosopher at San Jose State University.

But agriculture involves “a much more controversial class of patients: natural entities, the land, the soil, the environment, animals,” Robert Streiffer, a bioethicist and philosopher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, tells Quartz. “And the status of those is more in dispute than human patients in the medical sense.” Further complicating the issue is the fact that what’s good for livestock and crops, for example, may not be good for the surrounding environment.

The popular view of farmers as laborers rather than specialists may have also led agricultural schools to place less emphasis on ethics. Ethical issues such as conflicts of interest often arise as fields like medicine and law become professionalized, says Gary Comstock, a professor of philosophy and an ethicist at North Carolina State University.

“But agriculture just isn’t there yet,” Comstock adds. “You don’t have to have a license to farm—you aren’t regarded as a professional by society.”

Two decades ago, there was talk of creating a bioethics subspecialty at agricultural schools similar to that of medical schools, according to Paul B. Thompson, a philosopher at Michigan State University. But medical schools are typically an isolated unit at a university, and their bioethics centers are similarly contained. Both have grown together over time. Agriculture schools, on the other hand, are more spread out across campuses. While the schools may occasionally interact with philosophy departments, they’re not as integrated—which can make attempts to weave the two together more difficult.

Ultimately, the entrenched institutional environment at agricultural schools, as well as a limited view of what agricultural ethics entails, meant that the idea never took off.

Ethics do play a role in agriculture schools today, however. Some schools require graduate students to take relevant coursework on topics like animal use, soil erosion, or genetic engineering; host guest lecturers from the philosophy department; or have an agriculture professor cover conflicts of interest that students may encounter in their career.

Other schools have dedicated programs. Iowa State University, for example, launched its bioethics group 30 years ago in conjunction with a move to study biotechnology. The bioethicists there cover both medicine and agriculture. And a former program funded by the National Science Foundation and led by Comstock tried to integrate ethics into several Land Grant universities—a system of publicly funded agricultural schools throughout the US.

But the response isn’t uniform, and typically doesn’t involve regular interaction with scholars who are trained specifically in philosophy or ethics. “What we’ve done is a bit ad hoc at this point. We do have [ethics] considered particularly at our graduate level,” Michael Galyean, dean of the college of agricultural sciences and natural resources at Texas Tech University, tells Quartz. “I think we probably quite honestly need to be more direct about that then we have been. Right now it’s informal and it’s introduced not in as consistent matter as it should.”

Still other schools may stick with the bare minimum, such as the online multiple-choice ethics coursework required for specific types of research—using animal subjects, for example—that can be completed in a few hours.

But when ethics is presented as compliance, it misses the point. “Philosophers and ethicists aren’t Sunday School teachers to tell people what to do and obey the rules,” Comstock tells Quartz. “It is a field of scholarship in itself. You need a place with a critical mass of such people working together to solve problems.”

The way forward

So what would an integrated ethics program look like? One key would be to give ethicists access to agricultural science researchers who can help them understand technical issues.

“My concern is when non-scientists raise ethical issues about the science, but they don’t understand the science so they get the issue wrong,” Joanna Sax, a biomedical science and law expert at California Western School of Law, tells Quartz. “The rush to judgment when you don’t understand all the nuances can be detrimental to the advancement of science.”

Also important, adds Comstock, is integrating ethics into daily research and education. Agricultural students may eventually have to understand not only the biology behind food, but also how the public views that biology.

The point isn’t to lay down the ethical law for students and faculty, but to encourage discourse.

“I don’t think ethicists should be listened to as authorities,” Clark Wolf, director of bioethics at Iowa State University, tells Quartz. “I think they should be listened to as sources of thoughtful argument, and thoughtful analysis of problems. The most interesting issues—the reason they are interesting is because people disagree.”

Ethicists could also help anticipate the public’s reaction to research. Scientists were famously unprepared for the backlash to GMOs, for example, but an ethicist might well have foreseen the public’s skepticism over a technology that didn’t have an immediately obvious upside for them.

Moreover, ethicists could help researchers identify and avoid potential conflicts of interest when research funding is coming from big businesses or commodity groups. Research suggests that even small gifts from drug companies can influence doctors’ prescription habits, and much of the public automatically distrusts research that is funded by big companies. Agricultural scientists “are at somewhat of a disadvantage because they haven’t been as sensitized to [conflicts of interest] as the medical side has,” says Streiffer.

But whether ethicists will get the chance to integrate into agricultural campuses remains to be seen.

“I’m actually quite embittered about the whole attitude of land grant universities towards ethics education,” says Comstock, whose NSF-funded and university-supported programs are no longer supported. “There is such an opportunity for them in this area—and virtually none of them have seized on it.”

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