Ethical Opportunities In Global Agriculture, Fisheries, And Forestry: The Role For FAO

Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 16 (2003), 479-504.
Author: Darryl R. J. Macer , Minakshi Bhardwaj, Fumi Maekawa, And Yuki Niimura

Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba,
Tsukuba Science City 305-8572, Japan
Fax: Int+81-29-853-6614
Director, Eubios Ethics Institute <>

ABSTRACT. FAO has a unique and essential role in addressing the ethical problems facing humanity and in making these problems into opportunities for practical resolution. A broad range of ethical issues in agriculture, fisheries, and forestry were identified by analysis of the literature and by interviews with FAO staff. Issues include sharing access to and preserving natural resources, introduction of new technology, conservatism over the use of genetic engineering, ethics in animal agriculture, access to information, food security, sustainable rural development, ensuring participation of all people in decision making and in receiving benefits of agriculture, reducing corruption, and involvement of private and public sectors in decision making. Rather than viewing these issues as problems , they should be viewed as opportunities for debate, learning about others' views, and resolution. The United Nations has an important role to play in how decisions are made in the global ethical debate in food and agriculture. The ethical role of FAO is to promote global food security, balanced conservation, management and utilization of natural resources, and sustainable rural development. FAO should fully and publicly assume its ethical responsibilities, gathering and sharing information on ethics in its areas of mandate, acting as an interactive forum, and providing expert guidance on policy options and choices based on practical ethical analysis.

KEYWORDS. Ethics, Agriculture FAO, Fisheries, United Nations, Biotechnology, Environment

Recent developments in biotechnology have made people reexamine their ethical values. This reexamination was made more urgent by the fact that the crisis of the environment is touching agricultural production and people in every country. A variety of ethical issues have been discussed in the academic literature, but there is little work on practical solutions for a number of the ethical problems raised by modern agriculture. This claim is not meant to question the success of the major efforts spent on alleviating food scarcity and poverty, and securing rural development. Rather, it refers to the resolution of policy problems by providing solutions that are based on ethical principles.
During the twentieth century, "bioethics" has emerged as a term to encompass the ethical issues associated with moral dilemmas involving living organisms. The term "bioethics" includes medical ethics and environmental ethics, and the concepts of bioethics have also long included the ethics of agriculture, fisheries, and forestry (Macer, 1990; Mepham et al., 1995; Thompson, 1998). The initial use of the word "bioethics" in English was in the field of environmental ethics (Potter, 1971). Although in simple terms, bioethics has been called love of life (Macer, 1998), it is a broad concept linking many traditional and contemporary academic fields. Human attitudes to the environment and to the use of natural resources and biotechnology are within the definition of bioethics (Macer, 2002). However, there is debate over how the term "bioethics" includes human duties towards non-living parts of the environment like rocks and natural resources, so for the purpose of this paper we will use the broader term "ethics."
In 1945, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) was founded with the objective of being the global body to respond to the need for food security and rural development. The problem of hunger is still facing over 800 million people in the world today, and the need to have clear ethical objectives is as strong as it has ever been. FAO is an "intergovernmental" organization, and in this way it is like an extension agent to governments. The role of UN technical agencies is to see that member governments have the right information available and to assist them in doing the right thing. The ethical principle of beneficence persuades many to seek new technologies to provide better options for people (Sasson, 1990).
In July, 1998, an "ethics initiative" was started at the FAO with the establishment of a Committee on the Ethics of Food and Agriculture (CE), which in turn established a Sub-Committee on the Ethics of Food and Agriculture (SCE). In the words of the Committee, the focus of this initiative was to "operationalize the approach of FAO to ethical issues in food and agriculture." While ethics is behind the existence of FAO, the approach to applying ethical analysis to policy decisions and advice given to member governments was not systematic. While the creation of such "ethics" committees may be a trendy response to deal with long standing problems, it also represented a widespread mood of the organization to consider whether its work could be better based on ethical principles. After internal discussion and identification of some issues, external advice was sought from a visiting scientist (Macer, 1999). This paper extends the internal recommendations made by the visiting scientist, based on a review of some of the relevant literature, and of FAO documents and programs, and on an analysis of interviews with 103 FAO staff members in mid 1999.
The terms "bioethics" or "ethics" are associated with both negative and positive attitudes towards modern biotechnology (Mepham et al., 1995; Comstock, 2000). However, we are of the opinion that rather than seeing the ethical issues raised by biotechnology, and agriculture in general, as "problems," we can have more success in international dialogue to view these issues as "opportunities" for understanding and resolution. There has been reluctance in some circles, including the United Nations Agencies, to become involved in areas that are seen to be intractable problems, for example the debates over genetic engineering in agriculture or animal rights. This reluctance at all levels of governance may be overcome if the mental outlook towards these problems is shifted towards seeing them as opportunities to resolve differences between groups. With this in mind, we present some ethical opportunities that await the global community in discussion of the ethics of food and agriculture. We leave it to the insights of those involved at all levels, players and judges, to change their outlook to develop practical solutions to overcome the initial perception of intractability. Let us consider a few examples below.


A central question for the ethics of food and agriculture is what are the core ethical values?
There are different ways to view bioethics and in discussions of bioethics we should be clear which approach we are addressing. These include:
Descriptive bioethics looks at the way people view life, their ethical interactions and responsibilities with living organisms in their life, and the ethical principles they actually subscribe to.
Prescriptive bioethics or normative bioethics examines what is ethically good or bad, or what principles are most important in making such decisions. It may also be to inquire into when to say something or someone has rights, and others have duties to them.
There are at least two essential approaches to bioethics:
Interactive bioethics is discussion and debate between people, groups within society, and communities about descriptive and prescriptive bioethics.
Practical bioethics is concerned with identifying what actions are needed to make the world more bioethical, for example, health projects for medically deprived populations, and environmental activism. " (Eubios Declaration for International Bioethics, 2002).
By "core ethical values," we mean the ethical principles that are central to the application of ethics to decision making in FAO. Should FAO take as its core starting point an anthropocentric or an ecocentric point of view? What practical process and interactive mechanisms should be used when applying ethics to ethical issues raised by policy in food and agriculture?
The establishment of the United Nations (UN) in 1945 was a response to the need to protect human rights, and it is a central accomplishment of twentieth century ethics. Similarly, the establishment of FAO two weeks before the UN as a response to global hunger, with the idea of global distributive justice is another major accomplishment. What further work can we expect in facing ethical opportunities in food and agriculture? The ethical literature of the 1990s features numerous discussions of the ethical issues raised by modern biotechnology (Macer, 1990; Sasson, 1990; Bruce and Bruce, 1998; EFB, 1999). Also recently there have been numerous books highlighting the negative aspects of genetic engineering in agriculture (Ho, 1998; Boyens, 1999; Lappe and Bailey, 1999; Van Dommelen, 1999; Comstock, 2000).
In order to obtain a more balanced reflection on ethical issues in agriculture, and the ethical values that are important in making policy choices, we conducted interviews with 103 staff members in all positions and across all divisions of FAO during June-August, 1999. These interviews were supplemented by a review of past documents and activities of FAO, and by the knowledge of common values in different countries and cultures. The purpose of the survey was to seek a wider description of the views of FAO staff on the ethical issues facing FAO for the development of the Ethics in Food and Agriculture Program of FAO.
Based on these studies, we propose the following core ethical values, and provide some comments that the staff of FAO gave as examples of the way these core ethical values may be considered.

A. The recognition of people and communities, and respect for their autonomy

If we start with the standpoint that we recognize all members of the human family as having something worthwhile to say, then we can construct a bioethics for the people by the people (Macer 1994). This approach to ethics will have to include a descriptive view of ethics, in order to understand the ethical values and the priorities different people give to different ethical values. We will seek to describe their ethical values in order to discover the ethical opportunities that are presented by having diverse views on controversial topics.
The issue of protecting human rights en masse is also related to the concept of equity, further discussed below, as staff members noted in interviews,

Food and food products of agriculture should not be considered as simple tradable goods, because this is the key ingredient for the security and survival of people. This is also the basic income source for very poor farmer families in developing countries. The idea of putting a competition between very small farmer families with very little means and rich farmers of US and Europe with huge production means is almost criminal. Until now, no one has been strong enough to defend these ideas with international donors.

We make choices now as we do things in FAO. We may not be doing it consciously, but otherwise these are ethical choices and they have an impact on people

The well being of people is one of the fundamental goals of FAO, and was included in the first FAO (2001) publication on Ethics in Food and Agriculture, "A more equitable, ethically-based, food and agriculture system must incorporate concern for three widely accepted global goals, each of which incorporate numerous normative propositions: improved well-being, protection of the environment and improved public health."[cite page number]

B. Human beings are members of the biological community

Concerns over ethical values have been made more urgent by the fact that the crisis of the environment is touching agricultural production and people in every country. The crisis has made more people aware of the ecological fact that persons live in an ecosystem. The objects, and subjects, of ethics can be viewed in terms of ecocentric, biocentric, or anthropocentric concerns.
Anthropocentric arguments are those that relate directly to human beings, but they can indirectly help the environment because of human dependence upon it. Biocentric thinking puts value on individual organisms, for example one tree or one animal. We could also use biocentric thinking to describe arguments when the whole species is valued.
Ecocentric concerns, which value the ecosystem as a whole, are used when expressing some environmental concerns. There is a trend for more ecocentric values to be included in legislation, with protection of ecosystems for their own value. This type of ecological concern is shown in comments like: "Agriculture itself is an activity of human beings modifying the environment, in that sense natural environment and agriculture environment are connected;" and, "At the level of production we are also interested in the use of pesticides and fertilizers; of positive and negative impacts or doing some harm on all species including plants and human beings." The question of the value of species can be in conflict with human life, as observed by one staff member,

For me the big ethical issue is whether or not the other species have a right to exist? It is a tricky question. I'm increasingly convinced that we have to argue for them. But some people do not accept this. Some have difficulty in accepting the conservation of wildlife with the use of wildlife. One person told me that it would not worry him to the slightest if every single wild life disappeared. That's a very interesting situation and the way we interpret is a symptom of the complete alienation of many urban human beings from the natural world because they're influenced by the fact that, their food comes from the supermarket and they have no concept of the connection between human beings and the natural world.

We were encouraged by a number of staff members to push for inclusion of ecocentric values in the global governance of agriculture.

C. Our heritage for the future is important to balance with the present needs

The ethics of the conservation, management, and utilization of natural resources for present versus future generations is a central ethical issue for all countries and for most areas of food and agriculture. How to achieve a balance between present and future needs has been considered within a variety of legal instruments by governments, and in the academic literature. Some issues include the following: What are the ethical principles behind social and political decisions on how much natural capital could be foregone for meeting current food needs? What values underlie the idea that technological innovation can substitute for lost natural resources? What are the ethics of energy-intensive consumption patterns and wasteful management practices that jeopardize the ecological balance for future generations? What trade-offs should be made between natural and man-made resources? There are non-renewable natural resources such as fossil groundwater, and oil, that are now used for agriculture. The ethical issue of limiting current behavior because of future needs relates to a number of areas, since it is basic to future food security, as one staff member said, "Countries, scientists, institutions and private sectors should protect this diversity because it might be useful for food and agriculture for present and future generations of farmers." How can food be produced while conserving resources, and exploring new technologies, as another person observed,

Biosafety is related to the entire food chain. At the level of food production, there are a number of issues raised like the use of resources, soil erosion, destruction of certain species, varieties of plants and animals. This is related to both the present and future, since there is an ethical issue in what should we give to our children; an unspoiled and protected world.

Governments in both the developing and developed world face these questions because resources are finite but population and consumption are increasing.
In 1972, the UN Conference on the Human Environment, raised this issue at a global level. The FAO established its program on Natural Resources and the Human Environment through the establishment of a Department of Sustainable Development to help the organization coordinate its efforts in this regard. However, the specific actions that are needed are not clear, as one staff member observed,

Sustainable development is very difficult to decide because we do not have economic instruments, where you have to choose and preserve certain resources for future generations, when the resources are badly needed now. The response to that cannot be a technical one. It has to be an ethical, moral, and political one. So we have ethical issues when we have to evaluate technical assistance.

Different areas have different time scales of vision, ranging from forestry, which can have a vision the order of one hundred years for long-lived species like teak, to agriculture and fisheries, which may be difficult to predict for even a few years. There has been an extensive academic discussion of the issue in general, and a political debate associated with environmental conventions. Here there are some key opportunities for ethical reflection: How do we develop consensus for each resource in a given ecosystem? How does the process to agree on the level of sustainable resource use depend upon the goals of the projects? Essential to this ethical reflection are discussions of mechanisms to balance present and future persons' interests; gathering of data on member countries' attitudes to a time frame of "sustainable" so that the image of sustainable is more representative; and gathering data on how quality of human life can be balanced with environmental preservation. Eventually we could envisage possible development of an "International Convention on a Sustainable Life and Future."
The safety of procedures for future human health was also raised by the staff.

Anything that would eliminate the human race is unethical. We use irradiation to preserve food. Some ask whether it is ethical to use atomic energy. We say, if it safe and we have knowledge that surely it does not cause any harm to human, it is safe. If it effects future generations, it is unethical.

The issue of risk is important in all areas of agriculture, whether we take an anthropocentric or ecocentric approach (Hardaker, 1997).

D. Provision of neutral and accurate information

Provision of neutral and accurate information is basic to any informed debate on any subject. FAO, like other UN agencies, are secretariats to member countries, and thus have duties to all member countries. One way they fulfill this duty is by gathering and sharing information. Difficulties in gathering information were noted by some of the staff. For example,

Information is not easy to come by or sometimes costly to come by; but we should try to make it as reliable as we can.

Consumers cast their vote by buying something; so that our division in FAO needs particular care not to listen to anybody but to science. We have a division in statistics where it is an ethical issue of honesty and correctness and completeness of information that we provide. That division is very essential in this regard because information is one of our key functions. We collect information, process it, and then disseminate. In that process, we might be in danger of biasing the information; either intentionally or unintentionally. The key closest to human values and needs is certainly the information on the number of hungry in the world. We may try our best but for years we may have neglected the scientific dialogue or alternative methods.

This person summarized the views of those we spoke to in FAO about the purpose of gathering statistics. While the staff ensure that the data is received, the manner in which data is transmitted from member countries is subject to protocol and, occasionally, to politics.
The FAO has led the UN agencies in the amount of material available for free access on the Internet, being a source of information for all working in the field. Information has political value, as another staff member put it,

A country can put a lot of pressure on the organization and we are very much dependent on the countries for all the information. If the relations get bad it would make it very difficult for us. If we have alternative information at least on some limited parts of the data, we do replace them with the figures from other sources. Also we have some regional fishery organizations that gather data, who collect independent data. But this accounts only for a very small proportion of the total data. The problem is not really an ethical one but a practical one. Countries involved, of course, challenge our right to replace any official figures but we feel it's a duty and we jealously guard our right on the precedence of the past.

In order to fulfill its ethical mission to humanity as a whole, the FAO secretariat has to make these kinds of ethical choices in the data that is recorded, which may be widely used for making decisions relating to future agriculture and use of the environment.
One target of information is the farmer, as one staff member noted,

For example small-scale farmers in Zimbabwe who don't know about GM crops or farmers' rights, or any other information that they need to know for sustainable living, need to be told. I think FAO should be playing that role.

The information should be scientific, as the following person noted,

What we can do is to provide information on things that are technically, biologically, and scientifically proven; we know that there are such and such things. Passing that information in an effective way, in a judicial way, is very important.

Traditionally, UN agencies like FAO have focused on their responsibility to member governments, so they will usually act by responding to government requests to provide good information, policy, and services to farmers through providing this to governments. However, when data is collected by FAO, some at FAO may use that information to approach the government to see whether they wish to have a small program to give the government's extension service the capacity to deliver such information. The FAO secretariat may have access to information that should be used, and the secretariat has some moral responsibility to see that the information is used, if not by FAO channels than by some other organization, like NGOs.
Another target is the consumer, as the following two persons noted,

I basically want to make sure that what is done for the consumer is the right thing and the consumer has the information upon which he can make a rational decision.

The ultimate consumer is aware of who ends up paying for and eating the food. They must be given information that is authoritative and non-emotional.

Sometimes controversial ethical issues are difficult to resolve because of conflicting sources of information.

It was also not the case for years, like in food irradiation where basically the consumer was subjected to myth information rather than rational information of technology. We informed the secretariat between WHO/FAO/IAEA, which was to provide qualitative information around the world on food irradiation. Then they would be able to make a rational choice, which would at least be an nformed choice with authoritative information. But some of the issues ended up being debated in the town hall settings and lacked very solid and authoritative information upon whicha consumer can make a rational choice.

Information dissemination is an ethical responsibility of those who possess the information, when that information will help achieve the ethical goals of FAO. The ethical goals include making better policy for agriculture, so information that reveals mistakes in policies that usually cause harm to humans and/or the environment, should still be provided to prevent mistakes in the future.

E. Professional responsibility to make conclusions and judgment

As an organization for providing advice after gathering descriptive information, prescriptive advice needs to be given based on using an ethical framework for analysis. After staff listen to everyone that could be expected to provide meaningful input on an issue, some conclusions should be made based on sound analysis of the ideas and suggestions. This responsibility may extend to prescriptive ethics at times as a professional responsibility to consider implications of possible courses of action. This prescriptive function is expressed in proclamations, guidelines, codes of conduct, and law. There are issues in the extent of information provision when it extends to recommendations on the use of technology, as one staff member observed,

The hottest issue that comes across is whether FAO should play a role in endorsing, or promoting biotechnology and the issues that it raises. Certainly the private sector says that FAO has a responsibility as a science based organization. It should try to move away from emotions.

The responsibility of providing advice was raised by many people in interviews.

It is very important for FAO people to be aware of their normative responsibility.

[You have direct responsibility and ethical problem in what you suggest to people.]not intelligible

Poor advice is a big ethical issue. We should rather see the implications of the project and what are its effects on the environment. Even if we try to look into our projects at all the aspects, including better yield and better economics. But it may not make everybody happy.

F. The ethical principle of beneficence demands action to eliminate hunger

Based on the ethical principle of beneficence, some action should be taken beyond simply advice. The purpose of "ensuring humanity's freedom from hunger" was the most commonly cited ethical mission of FAO in interviews conducted with staff. For example,

It's true that when member governments said that the primary role for promoting human rights and with respect to right to food is developed and defined by the High Commission and the commission on economic, social, and cultural values. This is central to what FAO does. FAO also has to be actively involved with it. It's the best we do what is written in our constitution and ensuring freedom from hunger. I don't think we can get away from being involved in it. It is an ethical articulation of what we stand for.

To work towards this "mission of ensuring freedom from hunger" is a directive mandated by the member countries in the 1996 FAO Conference and re-affirmed in 2002 in the 5-year follow-up. The FAO secretariat has been formally directed by its governing council to organize all its activities toward this goal.
This laudable goal is shared by a number of CSOs, NGOs, and individuals throughout the world, and is rooted in the ethical principles of beneficence and distributive justice. However, the goal can be seen as the primary goal of FAO above other groups, as noted,

It was clearly defined and agreed by all member countries and founding fathers, that the fight against hunger is the main goal and FAO should stay with this because we are the only organization that is covering this issue in all the countries all over the world.

The issue of reducing the number of people facing hunger by the next millennium is an ethical issue. It relates to food security. The whole organization is geared for it. FAO is not an independent organization; there are 180 countries with it. We are a secretariat and we just respond to them. If the member nations decide to reduce the number [of hungry people] by half in 2015, the whole organization in its institutional capacity is geared.

FAO has been mandated to make every effort possible to reduce the number of hungry by 50% by the year 2015.

G. The ethical principle of justice

Perhaps the most controversial ethical issue is defining what a minimum standard of life is. Poverty and hunger are ethically inconsistent with the foundations of ethics, for example, respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. Population and poverty issues are unresolved in many areas of the world, but the progress seen in reducing fertility rates suggests that if efforts are made, these controversial problems can be resolved.
Practical justice to overcome poverty and inequity is a core ethical value. As one person mentioned, "The issue of equity in society and how this impacts on hunger and access to food is still very important and goes beyond bioethics." FAO, as the premier intergovernmental organization for agriculture, food, fisheries, and forestry, has an ethical role to work for all member countries, and in terms of professional ethics, the organization and all staff share the accountability and responsibility to work towards "the well being of all." As another staff member noted, "We could feel that as an organization we could have some effect on changing the present tendency to widen the gap between the rich and the poor, and to leaving it up to the markets to solve things." The UN has a role to emphasize ethical values that may be overlooked in a global system that emphasizes markets, especially in its attempts to eradicate poverty. It is sometimes reminded of these values by active NGOs that are less restricted by political constraints on their statements.
The emphasis on food security found in statements of FAO, in World Food Day, and from interviews with staff members, is ethically justified given the number of people who face starvation. One of the specific ethical responsibilities and challenges that the global body representing the governments of over 180 member countries is impartiality, as noted,

We are supposed to be a forum where views can be exchanged and a weight given to every opinion, whether it is from a developed country or a developing country, poor or rich? How can we manage to play our role fairly? Not to be biased, pro or against something.

No single body has sole responsibility for overcoming these ethical problems, and different bodies are more suited to responding to different issues in different places at separate times. However, given that many countries have failed to develop a sustainable economy and food supply, and the international nature of trade, these issues need to be dealt with within the context of the global situation.
The principle of solidarity was raised by a few staff, for example,

In the early years of international assistance to poor countries, there was more emphasis on the ethical view that the rich countries should help the poor or the rich countries being former colonial powers had accumulated the guilt that they had exploited the poor countries over many centuries and now had an obligation to help. This kind of moral obligation has disappeared as an argument with the independence of the states. Now it is considered that [it is] within [each] country's own possibilities, and it is considered as their own neglect of priorities if they don't get out of poverty. But still there is an international solidarity globally, that it is still an issue that could be more emphasized.

In addition to the selfishness argument, which might be an ethical argument too, many countries have come to the conclusion that egoism is more effective as a driving force of action than altruism. So now the argument is that rich countries should do something that is in their own economic interests for the development of poor countries because it will create market opportunities for them.

H. Case specific appropriate response

Although theoretical work in ethics has elaborated basic principles like autonomy, justice, non-maleficence and beneficence (Macer 1998; Thompson 1998), generally most ethical decisions in practice follow a case by case approach. Situationalism could also be argued to be a core ethical framework, since it is one with a long history in pragmatic resolution of conflicts and dilemmas.
Agriculture, as with almost all of human life and activity, is a social activity, involving many relationships with people and the ecosystem. A fundamental difference in ethical foundation is seen if agricultural systems attempt to dominate nature or agricultural systems are made to be in harmony with the environment. The principle type of argumentation seen in global dialogue on agriculture are human centered goals. However, more work on other world views based on ecocentric thinking, or biocentric thinking needs to be included, if the UN system is to represent the values of all of humankind.
A unique role at an intergovernmental level for the United Nations is to determine how ethical values can be incorporated into policy beyond economic efficiency arguments. In practice, the World Bank policy guidelines for assessing projects in terms of environmental impact and ensuring participation of all persons, have been more influential, since they determine the funding of many projects. However, global extensions of this, expressed in the World Trade Organization (WTO), cannot be expected to go thoroughly beyond trade issues into cultural values. FAO should not follow the WTO ethics. Rather it should focus the voices of conscience from member countries to lead interactive debate on how to include ethical values in policy making.

I. Interactive ethics discourse is essential

FAO is the premier intergovernmental forum for discussion of issues relating to agriculture. FAO is by nature an interactive body for policy making. The forums for discussion include the secretariat itself with a multicultural professional staff of over 6,000 persons, and meetings that provide a unique chance for interactive ethics. These meetings range from the Ministerial level in the FAO Conference, FAO Council, Commission on Genetic Resources in Food and Agriculture (CGRFA), Committee on Agriculture (COAG), Committee on Fisheries (COFI), Committee on Forestry (COFO), CCP, CFS, Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), etc. It also hosts informal technical meetings and receives expert consultations, and supports other symposia. A number of NGOs and civil society organizations (CSOs) are recognized as participating in these meetings. FAO also provides expert technical advice on policy formulation, some of which relates to ethical choices between different technologies, based on concerns beyond raw productivity.


Different ethical issues can be considered in the way that FAO could make appropriate responses to them (Macer, 1999). The FAO has adopted most of the recommendations in developing its public policy as outlined in the 2001 document (FAO, 2001). In all of the following points that we wish to draw attention to, it is essential that multicultural dialogue is developed, both among ethnic cultures and among cultures of people at all levels of society, and in all fields of experience and expertise of FAO.

A. Opportunities for introducing paradigm shifts

Specific opportunities for developing policies that better represent the ideal values of humankind can be identified and incorporated in policy, planning, and action. Each governmental or intergovernmental body is called to take a stand (for, against, or no comment) on issues that relate to their mandate. There is an ethical imperative for such bodies to be involved in areas where they can be a productive partner in achieving the general ideals of their member parties. Often these ideals are expressed in a constitution and may be developed in ongoing general conference reviews and future work plans. Taking a stand may mean, for example, to say a given technology is ethically appropriate or not under a given case, or to decide not to comment.
The FAO has established itself as an innovator in some areas of environmental ethics, for example, with the concept of Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) in fisheries since 1957 that attempts to limit over fishing; with support for the holistic concept of integrated pest management (IPM) since 1965 that attempts to use a more ecologically sustainable regimen of pesticide applications; with the Peasant's Charter in 1979 that promotes the human rights of poor farmers; with the World Soil Charter in 1982 that draws attention to the maintenance of soil and land (Macer, 1999); and with the range of agreements on protecting plant genetic resources from extinction in the 1990s (Lesser, 1998). Some issues may be resolved to the extent that they do not need ongoing management or review.

B. Opportunities and problems that can be addressed on an ongoing basis if appropriate mechanisms are introduced and maintained

The accelerated rate of loss of biodiversity is a central ethical problem facing humanity because biodiversity is irreplaceable for the foreseeable future. The MSY in fisheries needs to be assessed for each species in each region, requiring a mechanism for ongoing review and monitoring. The concept of MSY has evolved into monitoring of unethical practices in fishing by the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. One example of an ethical analysis procedure is that for the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries included in "Rapfish" (Pitcher, 1999).
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, which replaced in 2002 the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources and the International Code of Conduct for Collecting and Transfer of Germplasm (which are under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Commission on Genetic Resources in Food and Agriculture (CGRFA), and the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)), require the active work of the member governments and the secretariats to work out agreed interpretations of the articles, and develop specific measures for extending the number of species covered, for example. Guidelines for biosafety assessment (The Cartegena Protocol) and benefit sharing (The Bonn Guidelines) have been developed out of these meetings. Future opportunities include extension of similar instruments to Animals and Fish.
The ethical principle of do no harm is behind the efforts to reduce unethical and unsafe practices involving pesticides by the International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides and the PIC Convention. Another example of this type of opportunity for ongoing governance is the guidance on forest practices from the Model Code of Forest Harvesting Practice (Dykstra and Heinrich, 1996).
If we reflect on the core ethical values that we need to protect the ecosystem to resolve unethical practices, we may also need to develop new infrastructures and training to implement sustainable solutions to the underlying causes of ecosystem abuses. These may need to have some more objective criteria for evaluation and monitoring.

C. Rapidity of change in human life

The rapidity of change in agriculture is more than merely a modernization of agriculture. There is a basic social transition being experienced at this period in history. While the voices against new technology have always been heard, human-nature contact is being changed more rapidly and greatly than in the past. This includes a need to update and detail environmental and social impact guidelines for aid projects. There have been related ideas that have a more ecocentric bioethic, for example the idea of looking at ecotechnologies, and the need to consider the value of environmental services like soil conditioning and purification.
Although most ethical issues have a long history, and new technology tends to highlight issues from different angles, there may be some ethical issues that are not even foreseen at present. The whole breadth of these issues is not even charted. A significant issue for consideration of human values of agriculture is the rapidity of modernization in agriculture. This was also recommended for a policy paper to FAO (Macer, 1999). The intensification and modernization debates highlight differences between North and South and countries with different population densities. This includes the questions of the use of high yielding plant and animal varieties, new technology, factory farming, and external inputs.
A method to deal with new issues, or issues that emerge into ones of widespread concern, needs to be established. A proactive role to identify issues would be useful so they can be dealt with before they grow into problems and cause greater harm. International collaboration is required (Plucknett et al., 1990). A long term vision is needed. Some boost was given to reconsider these issues by the coincidence that the year 2000 was a millennium year and governments wanted to organize UN Millennium Conferences. As governments reflected on the challenges of the new millennium, there was more impetus to make progress toward the development of a global society after reflecting upon where humanity has been going in the past years and where it should be heading. Agriculture has a multifunctional nature as addressed in the 1999 FAO/Netherlands Conference on Cultivating Our Futures: The Multifunctional Character of Agriculture, which attempted to explore new ground in the causes of related environmental and social problems.
Another example is that the globe is facing increasing water scarcity (competition for limited water resources) because the annually available renewable freshwater resources are roughly constant while the population keeps increasing. Water scarcity results in growing pressure to consider water as an economic good in addition to a social good, raising access issues with regard to water for domestic purposes and to ensure food security. Both of these issues need to be resolved ethically.

D. The problems of the commons

The ethics of the conservation, management, and utilization of common and shared natural resources is a fundamental issue in agriculture, representing the spatial aspects of natural resources. The terms "common" and "shared" have different meanings, but the term "common" has a longer history in ethics. While management of shared resources can help conserve them more effectively, the open access to all of humankind (and other organisms) implied by the term "commons" is important.
The concept of common property has a different nuance in ethics and in law, but societies have developed methods to balance the competing interests of individuals over common property throughout history (Ostrom, 1990; Kaul et al., 1999). Arnold (1998) considered how to manage forests as common property. Global ecological problems addressed today include climate change, biodiversity and genetic resources, desertification, and transboundary water pollution. These are universal problems of the commons for all countries, and need joint efforts by all member countries to resolve them.
Another issue is direct and indirect export of pollution, including direct dumping of unwanted farm chemicals in third world countries as well as ecologically damaging production practices in the South to produce products for the North. There are other general issues, such as the value of individual human lives exposed to occupational hazards, and the extent and content of regulations and laws in these areas.

E. Resolving cultural and religious differences in the use of animals

Many Hindus and some Buddhists do not accept the consumption of some animals, which highlights the religious differences in the accepted ethics of the use of animals. Other religions like Judaism and Islam exclude certain animals and fish from those that can be eaten. The ethics of animal agriculture is a controversial issue that has further been highlighted by the intensification of agriculture. Many countries are developing intensive agricultural systems especially for chickens and pigs. Policy advice should be based upon humane concern and a biocentric ethic to consider the impact of interventions on the animals. There are some NGOs, for example, Humane Society International, that focus on animal welfare, and their links with FAO aid the protection of animals.
Practically, there are significant differences between rich and poor countries in the facilities they can provide for animal housing and transport. The presence of resources and wealth may make our ethical attitudes more generous, not only to human beings in social welfare, but also to the environment and animals. We can see this by the growth of animal rights in richer countries. De Waal (1996) considered morality as a floating pyramid with the buoyancy of the concept determined by the resources available, but always with the order from top to bottom, self, family/clan, group/community, tribe/nation, all of humanity, all life forms. The exception, however, is religious prescriptions against killing of animals, seen in Hindu or Buddhist countries, or Eastern countries where some parts of nature in religious temples or sanctuaries are preserved despite immediate human needs to harvest them (Macer, 1998).
Promoting animal welfare can enhance food security. Some highly selected genetic lines of domestic animal are more sensitive to rough handling, making good transport not only an ethical goal but an economic necessity, as bruised and dead animals mean lost earnings. Some guidelines in rich countries would lead to better conditions for living, and transport for animals, than for the local people. Still, poor handling can be improved by simple measures, as long as there is flexibility in implementation, and this is culturally appropriate.
There are important values for international guidance in how animal welfare can be improved beyond economic efficiency arguments. An initial survey of national practices and values used in animal husbandry, transport, and slaughtering is needed to consider the core ethical values for this area. There are some methods already established for measuring stress that animals suffer (Broom 1995). Opportunities for work include how to develop welfare concerns in the move to industrialization and intensification of agriculture; and how to develop global principles to be used for guidelines for protecting animal welfare, in husbandry, transport, slaughtering, and recreation that reflect shared human values. While universal guidelines may be difficult, at least a set of principles for humane treatment of animals could be developed. Most issues associated with the use of marine mammals were passed to the International Whaling Commission upon its establishment from FAO, but are related to fisheries practice. FAO did make effective measures to reduce the accidental catch of birds from fishing lines.

F. The need for forums to address controversial issues like the GM debate

Intergovernmental bodies have a role as a forum for discussion of controversial issues, however, member countries can postpone or delay debate on issues by UN bodies because of the very nature of the UN system. One striking example is the delay in involvement of FAO in the general debate on genetically modified (GM) food. One strategy for avoidance of issues is to claim that the issue should be dealt with by another UN organization or committee. Such attempts to evade the issues were even made in bodies specifically set up to deal with GM foods, like the CAC Task Force on Foods Produced from Biotechnology. It is clear that FAO has a mandate and moral obligation to consider GM food under the theme of food security, as well as food safety under CAC. In 1999, the CAC established the Four Year ad hoc Task Force on Novel Foods Produced from Biotechnology, to properly assess the GM food issue. Two other CAC Committees, on Labeling and on General Principles, also have to deal with controversial issues, on the labeling of GM food, and whether "ethical" concerns are included in so-called "Other legitimate factors" for consideration in international food trade. The task force has, however, faced up to some of its responsibility and produced guidelines (CAC, 2002) for approval by the governments of CAC. However they have excluded the consideration of what ethical factors might be important in GM food regulation beyond the safety of such food.
We found that almost all the issues that were conflicts in global society were also a matter of some debate within the FAO secretariat. Conflicts between divisions at all levels can arise, as noted by one staff member. "This is the conflict between individual and sectorial interests versus the collective interests. And FAO's responsibility is for collective interests. The level playing field is crucial for information." There are strong forces involved in the global food trade, and strong opinions expressed about genetic engineering, so this area was the one that we saw having the greatest internal conflict within FAO. However, all agreed that forums should be held, and that a balanced case by case approach is needed to be made to go beyond the impasse of moratoriums and politics.
Because these issues may be complex, an approach to dealing with these issues is to break up what is often a chaotic debate into its component parts, and tackle manageable areas. The preparation of a policy paper on GM issues was recommended to FAO by Macer (1999), and this was accepted, and in the year 2000 a policy paper was developed to discuss these issues under the theme "Genetically modified organisms, consumers, food safety and the environment: some key ethical issues" (FAO, 2001b). Ethically the need of developing countries to use any technology that is safe and productive to guarantee food security should be supported. Part of this ethical duty, however, is both to provide technical knowledge and to examine the social and environmental consequences of technology, in terms of what has recently been called the precautionary principle.
There are some areas where the genetic engineering debate is being dealt with in FAO conferences and forums, for example, the workshop on ethics and equity for the CGIAR in 1997 (IPGRI 1997), and FAO Technical Meetings on the benefits and risks of transgenic herbicide resistant crops in 1998, and on use of cloning for animals in 1999. Some parts relate to the Code of Conduct in Biotechnology being developed under CGRFA.
While there have been international instruments dealing with human cloning, such as the ban imposed by Article 11 of the UNESCO Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights (1997), that Declaration did not mention animals. Cloning technology is now being applied to animals for food production, and use in research.
Internationally, there has already been a large amount of research on both human health and environmental issues of biosafety, but there is more uncertainty regarding the second area. There is a need for international cooperation in the research on the environmental aspects. General initial goals would be to develop consensus on time needed for long term studies, and coordination; to discuss what is genetic "pollution," and to establish thresholds; to gather data from studies in member countries (e.g., FAO, UNEP, UNIDO); and to gather experience under a wide range of environmental conditions. There is also an urgent need for international guidelines and assistance in helping countries monitor field trials and farm trials of GMO crops. Because of uncertainties of ecology, it is imperative that each intervention be tested in that range of ecological conditions, and then these examples be stored and shared in a common database.

G. Private sector issues

One of the most frequently cited general concerns of FAO staff was the pressure faced by non-industry associations at a time when agriculture is under growing domination by multinational corporations. There are polarized views on the involvement of the private sector in UN bodies and a number of non-for-profit NGOs, for example, RAFI and GRAIN, are campaigning against corporate control of agriculture, which they claim may ignore the traditional human relationships with nature, and the societal implications of loss of small farms. However, industrial experience in marketing and supply may aid member countries that are struggling in the globalization of markets, as well as in basic problems, such as delivery of seed or equivalent raw materials to the right place at the right time. The issue of involvement of the private sector in policy has to be considered on a case by case basis.


The concept of an ethics committee has been one of the instruments that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century in medical ethics. There are a wide range of committees, and some play roles in policy formation, some in development of guidelines, and others in resolution of specific ethical cases. They have been useful in medicine, and can be useful in the future in resolution of ethical issues in food and agriculture.
The most well known ethics committee in the United Nations system is the UNESCO International Bioethics Committee (IBC) that was created in 1993. It was an external ethics committee, functioning as a forum for debate and reflection, and for the elaboration of UNESCO's normative actions, for example, the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights (UNESCO, 1997). The UNESCO IBC also produced one report on ethical issues in food and agriculture (Macer, 1997).
In 1998, the Director-General of UNESCO created the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST). COMEST is currently looking at four major areas: water, energy, outer space policy, and the information society. In particular, the work of COMEST on water is a priority issue for agriculture, and FAO is making inputs to this work. Until now, FAO has taken an international lead on water laws in cooperation with UNEP and WHO.
WHO has hosted several external committees that have addressed ethical issues related to medicine, and medical genetics. There is work on equity and health, which is not directly related to the ethics of food and agriculture. WHO also is the joint partner with FAO in international work on food safety in the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), and in animal diseases databases in the joint FAO/OIE/WHO reporting of notifiable animal diseases, and on other public health and occupational health initiatives.
FAO placed greater emphasis on internal ethics committees than did UNESCO, focusing on the ethics of food and agriculture. There are separate roles for external and internal committees.
External committees like the IBC or COMEST of UNESCO, or the Panel of Eminent Experts in Ethics of Food and Agriculture established by FAO in 2000, are also bodies that can be used by UN organizations to discuss controversial ethical issues, and provide recommendations, without committing the organizations to accepting a position.
Internal ethics committees can work as think tanks on ethical issues in an open and transparent style. The minutes should reach all divisions of an organization, expecting feedback in return. There is a need for a formal secretariat with sufficient time allocation. Ethical issues should be mainstreamed and openly discussed. One of the principles of ethics is transparency, and true public reflection should be open to observers, and, when appropriate, to outside input as well. There are different possible roles for ethics committee, but they could be viewed as progressing through phases:
i. As a think tank, moving towards specific issues after considering general ones;
ii. overseeing the development of the organization's framework on ethics;
iii. identifying work for experts including consultants that can be usefully co-opted for work on specific issues;
v. deciding when to move from descriptive to interactive to prescriptive approaches;
vi. identifying and resolving specific issues for public positions and policy;
vi. as a crisis response team when urgent cases arise that need an immediate public response; and
vi. supporting internal decision-making towards the fundamental goal to mainstream organized ethical reflection into the organization, and collectively build upon the experience and ideas of all persons.


One of the conclusions of the interviews conducted at FAO is that there is already a shared vision of the mission of FAO across all sectors, and a number of ethical values are used in project selection and formulation. However, there is scope for making this simpler, and more open. Some of the possible core elements are discussed in this paper. The purpose of this paper is as a general overview of the range of issues in ethics of food and agriculture related to environmental ethics. All of the issues raised can be treated in more depth, and it is the intention of the authors to stimulate scholarly thinking into the areas presented here, as well as to highlight some of the practical difficulties of governance of these areas. The ethical mission of FAO can fully develop only when these issues are viewed as opportunities for resolution.
A call for comments on ethical issues should be made to all countries in the world calling for their input and experience in identifying opportunities for constructive work on ethics. There is still not a global list of activities of different countries' work in this area. Some existing activities may provide such information if reconsidered. For example, the reporting format for monitoring the implementation on the World Food Summit Plan of Action (CFS, 1999) includes several items on ethics in a simple check list that could be used to follow up on by subsequent contact. The headings include many relevant issues: Political problems (issues concerning human rights and fundamental freedoms, issues concerning transparent and accountable governance, issues concerning participatory practices in policy-making, legislation, and implementation); Social problems (especially gender and discrimination); Economic problems (uneven distribution and access to land and other resources, degradation of natural resources); Possible problems preventing the poor from maximizing their income; Problems constraining access to food by the poor; Problems preventing the poor and vulnerable groups from strengthening their capacity for self-reliance. All of these should be monitored and collated. The countries are called on to list the identification of the problem and national objectives. FAO thus has a mechanism that could be expanded to provide global reporting on ethical issues raised by food and agriculture, and the related human values.
Forums that specifically aim at identifying differences and diversity could be held, by inviting CSOs (both not for profit and for profit) and experts on diverse opinions. On a subset of issues, consensus would thus become possible, and these forums would be useful to negotiate towards common approaches. Forums are important to gather information, and such descriptive work should precede possible prescriptive decisions. While debate on some issues will not produce consensus, mutual understanding could be argued to be a greater goal if we respect all persons and cultural diversity of the human family. In some areas, consensus is possible, and FAO is in a unique position as a neutral intergovernmental forum to arrive at consensus.
A wealth of ethical activity and concern was identified in the literature, but this was exceeded by the results of the interviews with FAO staff, which is a very positive reflection on the FAO secretariat. In resolving ethical issues, staff generally follow a case by case approach, and are culturally sensitive. However, the relatively low proportion of Asian persons in the staff of the FAO headquarters compared to the world population, as well as the tendency for international aid organizations to be European or American based, could mean that alternative cultural values to the dominant Western values may be overlooked. On the other hand, there is a much more conscious and obvious focus on gender issues and participation of persons in the local community in the UN bodies, which may mean that the perspectives of both genders are less likely to be overlooked.
The main barrier to progress in resolution of ethical dilemmas is the perceived complexity of issues and confusion that ethics equals problems rather than being a positive element to generate new options for advice. Therefore, complex issues need to be dissected into specific opportunities that can be identified and incorporated in policy, planning, and action.
Some recommendations made by us (Macer, 1999) to FAO in August 1999 have been implemented. For example, the internal committees on ethics in food and agriculture have proceeded with the preparation of two working papers on ethical issues, which have been discussed by a Panel of Eminent Experts in Food and Agriculture in the years 2000 and 2002. One was on the GM issue and one is on general Ethics in Food and Agriculture. There has also been discussion of ethical issues at regional offices of FAO. However, others seem to be still waiting for implementation, including a general call for comments on ethical issues that should be made to member countries, CSOs, NGOs, and interested persons, to introduce their input and experience in identifying opportunities for constructive work on ethics. Ethics cannot be separated into one domain, but should be incorporated into all areas and developed together in a transparent manner. In order to reach this goal, a secretariat devoted to focusing on ethical issues within FAO would be desirable, and the need for this will grow in the future if FAO is to be seen to be an effective global player in the ethics of agriculture, fisheries, and forestry. FAO is bound by the policies of member governments, however, as more member governments establish programs on ethics, and as most claim to take the ethical issues seriously, FAO has a mandate to play a greater role in transferring normative ethics to practical action to help members make more ethical decisions.


The warm welcome and frank comments of FAO staff are gratefully acknowledged. The members of the Sub-Committee on Ethics in Food and Agriculture and the Committee on Ethics in Food and Agriculture were helpful, and we acknowledge the invitation and support of the Director-General of FAO to D.M. under the visiting scientist program, and the invitation to the other three authors under the Volunteer Program to FAO. The authors are particularly grateful to the FAO Staff members, Prof. Josˇ Esquinas-Alcazar, Mr. Clive Stannard, and Ms. Margret Vidar for their constant advice.


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