Ethics in Food and Agriculture: Views from FAO

 

Minakshi Bhardwaj,

Fumi Maekawa,

Yuki Niimura,

Darryl RJ Macer*

 

*Corresponding Address:

Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba,

Tsukuba Science City 305-8572, Japan

Fax: Int+81-298-53-6614 Tel: Int+81-298-53-4662  Email: asianbioethics@yahoo.co.nz

 

International Journal of Food Science and Technology 38 (5) (2003), 565-588.

 

Summary

This paper presents analysis of interviews conducted at the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) during June to August 1999, which reveal the concerns behind the development of the Ethics in Food and Agriculture Program at FAO. Formal interviews with 103 staff members of all positions and across all divisions of FAO, revealed that although ethics as a word was not widely and openly discussed at FAO until the end of the 1990s, as indicated by the nature of the programs and policies, the members had deep ethical motivation for their work.  The results of the key word analysis of the interviews are presented under the general issues of food, rural development, information, genetic modification, private sector and funding, environment, animal issues and personnel matters. Most of the interviewed staff saw ethics as the basis of the constitutional mandate, with the role of FAO being to promote global food security, balanced conservation, management and utilization of natural resources, and sustainable rural development. Information dissemination, and the need for a participatory approach were also raised as major issues by a third of the people interviewed.

 

Interview research was conducted at the Commission of Genetics Resources in Food and Agriculture, Food and Agricultural Organization, Rome, Italy (June-August 1999). Analysis conducted at University of Tsukuba.

 

Keywords: Ethics, FAO, Food, Agriculture, Food policy, Environmental governance

 

1. Introduction

Governments of the world joined together in 1948 to create the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) to work in the service of humanity for food production. Based on the constitutional mandate, and interpretation of the mandate by member countries, the role of FAO is to promote global food security, balanced conservation, management and utilization of natural resources, and sustainable rural development. The mandate can be interpreted as a call to action, based on the ethical principle of beneficence that is seen in the preamble of the constitution (underlines added for emphasis) (FAO, 1948):

"The Nations accepting this Constitution, being determined to promote the common welfare by furthering separate and collective action on their part for the purpose of: raising levels of nutrition and standards of living of the peoples under their respective jurisdictions; securing improvements in the efficiency of the production and distribution of all food and agricultural products; bettering the condition of rural populations; and thus contributing toward an expanding world economy and  ensuring humanity's freedom from hunger; hereby establish the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations."

              "Ensuring humanity's freedom from hunger", is the most commonly cited mission of FAO in documents, and was also expressed in the 7 commitments of the World Food Summit in 1996.  The ethical role of FAO has been interpreted broadly by member countries, and has been reworded in the 1999 Strategic Framework (Article 30) in three inter-related global goals which FAO is dedicated to helping member countries achieve (FAO,1999a):

Access of all people at all times to sufficient nutritionally adequate and safe food, ensuring that the number of chronically undernourished people is reduced by half by no later than 2015.

The continued contribution of sustainable agriculture and rural development, including fisheries and forestry, to economic and social progress and the well-being of all.

The conservation, improvement and sustainable utilization of natural resources, including land, water, forest, fisheries and genetic resources for food and agriculture.

During the twentieth century "bioethics" has emerged as a term to summarize the ethical issues associated with moral dilemmas involving living organisms.  While much recent attention in bioethics has focused on medical ethics and human health questions (Beauchamp & Childress,,1989), but the concepts of bioethics have also long included the ethics of agriculture (Mepham, 1995; Thompson, 1998), and ethics of scientific research. 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".

There are several basic theories of ethics, and the simplest distinction that can be made is whether they focus on the morality of the action itself, the consequences of the action, or the motives behind it.  Another distinction is to consider deontological theories (concerned with duty), utilitarian theories (concerned with achieving the greatest good for the greatest number), and egoism (concerned with achieving the greatest good for the moral agent). In practice people and organizations usually use a mixture of these systems when faced with ethical dilemmas.

              Concerns over ethics have been made more urgent by the fact that the crisis of the environment is touching agricultural production and people in every country.  The objects, and subjects, of ethics can be viewed in terms of ecocentric, biocentric or anthropocentric concerns. The ecocentric concerns, that value the ecosystem as a whole, are used when expressing some environmental concerns.  Biocentric thinking puts value on individual organisms, for example one tree or one animal. We could also use biocentric to describe arguments when the whole species is valued. There is a trend for more ecocentric values to be included in legislation, with protection of ecosystems for their own value.  For example, the concept of maximum sustainable yield (MSY) in fisheries from 1966; the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992) which begins "Conscious of the intrinsic value of biological diversity..."; or Part 3 of the South African water law which separates the concept of the "ecological reserve" from the "human needs reserve".

The FAO, as with the other UN organizations, have direct reference to humanity as a whole, not just one member country, or one ethnic population. The UN has a role to emphasize ethical values that may be overlooked in the current global economic system that places highest value on markets, especially in its attempts to eradicate poverty. Practical ethics includes respect for human rights, and we can see this represented by the increasing attention by civil society organizations (CSOs), governments and United Nations bodies to overcoming poverty, gender inequality and better participation of all persons in decision making in society.

This paper presents results of analysis of interviews conducted by us at the FAO during the period of 3 months in June to August 1999. In that period we conducted formal interviews with 103 staff members in all positions and across all divisions of FAO. The purpose was to seek a wider description of the views of FAO staff on the ethical issues facing FAO for development of the Ethics in Food and Agriculture Program of FAO. 

 

2. Methodology of Research

              The concepts of ethics may be described by different terms when applied to different fields.  Before conducting interviews, common phrases used in FAO documents, and by members of the subcommittee on Ethics in Food in Agriculture during a briefing seminar held with the subcommittee and the authors, were compared with common terms in the bioethics literature.  This is shown in Figure 1.

 

Figure 1: Terminologies of ethics

Ethics Literature                                  FAO Terminology

Balancing of principles                         Appropriate advice

Beneficence (love)                                 Hunger alleviation

Justice and solidarity                             Equity, food security, right to food

Respect for autonomy                           Participation

Communitarianism                                Partnership of knowledge

Do no harm, non-maleficence Safety, quality, precautionary principle

Future generations interests                  Sustainability

Conflict of interest                                Conflict of interest, (impartiality)

 

              Following that, a letter was sent to all the Directors of the Divisions in FAO seeking a formal interview with both senior members of their Division, and persons who they suggested.  This letter introduced us, with mention of the Director-General's mandate to investigate the appropriate development of an ethics in food and agriculture program at FAO.  However, the methodology to interview people from every division, was from our desire to be as comprehensive as possible in order to understand the work of FAO and its mandate. 

Interviews were conducted with people identified through this process, with representatives in all divisions, and subsequent interviews were also conducted with persons referred to in this initial round of interviews, and through analysis of the documents FAO had produced. The interviews were deliberately conducted by exploring general issues first, for example, by asking questions, "What is the mandate of the division, and your duties?", "What is ethics in your mind?", "What ethical issues do you face in your daily work at FAO?", "How did you cope with these issues?", "Who did you talk to about these issues?", "How have you and FAO responded to these issues, or how do you deal with them when they arise?", "Can you give some examples of projects, papers and policy that deals with these issues?" Then the interviewees were asked "What are the major ethical issues facing FAO?", and "What do you think is the ethical responsibility of FAO?". The key point was not to introduce any ethical issues until the respondents had raised them themselves.

As specific issues were raised, further questions were asked in order to elaborate so as to obtain as much information as possible.  The detailed interview questions were flexible, with the primary focus being on obtaining information to allow a description of the views of people, that was helpful in providing recommendations to FAO.

Among the 103 people interviewed, all inhabited continents were represented by persons from 36 countries, though significantly 74% of the people belonged to rich countries (Table 1). There were few people from Asia, but many from Western Europe. The interviews were conducted in English and 67% of people interviewed were Anglophones, 20% Francophones and 13% spoke Spanish as their mother tongue. Two thirds of the interviews were conducted for more than one hour, and only 10% were completed within half an hour (because of the schedule commitments rather than lack of interest). Only 4% of interviewees refused to be taped, although 11% made some comment about the recording of the interview that suggested some anxiety over future use of the tape. Approximately 40% the persons had attended a committee meeting on the ethics of food and agriculture inside FAO at least once. 

The gender balance of FAO is male-orientated and 82% of the interviewees were men, representing higher positions of division directors and section chiefs. Two thirds of the subjects were over 45 years old. They covered all departments of FAO. More than half had worked over 10 years in FAO and only about 8% had prior experience of private companies.

The content of the interviews was assessed for keywords and concepts, by analyzing transcripts of the tapes, and interview notes made by each participant in the interview.  The majority of interviews were conducted by the four of us together with one interviewee, but several interviews were also conducted with two or more people at the same time.  To clarify issues raised in interviews, or emergent issues from subsequent interviews, a few persons were interviewed on multiple occasions, but the results referred to in the analysis are for the initial interview made with the person. Based on notes made and tape recordings, each keyword was categorized as either: dominated, high, medium, little, and not stated (Table 2). "Dominated" indicated that the subject was a dominant issue in the interview, and the arbitrary scale was drawn in a scale down to "not stated" at all. "Little" refers to the case when the issues was mentioned only in one or two sentences, for example.

 

3. Ethical Issues Raised in Interviews With Staff Members

The study showed that although ethics as a word was not openly discussed at FAO until the end of the 1990s, as indicated by the nature of the programs and policies, the members who we spoke with had a strong underlying ethical motivation for their work. The enthusiasm for their work was also seen by people not formally interviewed. However, there may still be a selection bias in how the subjects were selected for interviews, that means we cannot claim that the results represent the whole of FAO staff.

Table 2 shows a summary of the results of the key word analysis of the interviews, and the results of the keyword categorization as either: dominated, high, medium, little, and not stated. The initial analysis listed around 100 keywords that were identified from the interviews, including many that were not clear before in the pre-interview literature review. The emphasis was to initially be as inclusive as possible, and all the keyword categories were recategorised under the categories listed in Table 2.

The types of issues represented by the keywords in the table are explained by some quotations from interviews conducted with staff members of all positions and across all divisions of FAO below. To maintain confidentiality, which was a condition for conducting the interviews in an uninhibited way, we do not identify the persons making the comments. For simplicity, the second column in Table 2 titled "major issue" indicates the number of persons who gave a "high" or "dominated" rating to that issue. Some of the key issues raised, as presented in Table 2 are discussed below.

 

a) Food

Food security was a major issue being cited by 42 persons, since it is in the constitutional mandate, as discussed above.  A typical comment was: "Not to use or not to modify nature would be the most comfortable advice to give, but it may not take into account a number of realities including hunger and number of people in the world." The right to food in a legal sense as under the United Nations Declaration for Human Rights was a major issue for 19 persons. There are, however, regions of the world where food production is sufficient, which was said to allow those societies to spend more time and money to improve the quality of life of farmers and animals. Another person said, "There is already overproduction of food in Europe but still we continue to push for increased productivity.  It is a crazy idea.  Why modify food or use an artificial way of feeding animals if there is already over-supply of food."

The problem of food security was seen in many contexts. For example, it was related to unequal distribution of food, as well as to people's image of food. The image of what is a food is a cultural concept that changes over time, as someone else said: "What is food? What is considered as food in US is very different from what is understood in Asia and Africa, also in Europe. For example, milk is food in some countries where others don't accept it."  Food quality was also a major issue for 14 persons, and 12 persons saw consumer's health as a major issue.

Also data on food can be difficult to obtain, as the someone in the Statistics Division said, "It is very difficult to get figures from the groups which have very low consumption and also from very high consumption, because they do not report. Low consumption people live on streets and how can we catch them? It is difficult to find them and ask them to fill in our questionnaire. Also, from the people from very high income is difficult to know what they consume and how they consume."

A controversial issue that is basic to poverty and hunger is defining what a minimum standard of life is. Poverty was a major issue for 18 persons, although 28% did not mention it.  As one person said: "One of the major problems with poverty is that it reduces options. You don't have ways of experimenting to solve your problems and find new solutions, and that is part of sustainability."  Poverty was mentioned much more than the principle of justice, suggesting that the first focus for these persons was on dealing with practical issues rather than underlying principles of ethics.

 

b) Rural development

Participation at all levels was considered necessary and a third raised it as a major issue, to meet the demands of poor countries and improve the quality of life. The participatory approach should be effected by stimulation of people at all levels in the recipient countries to be more involved in decisions over the entire food production system. While this is based on the concept of autonomy, the ethical principle of autonomy was not raised directly. To be truly descriptive we need views from a wide variety of persons and cultures. As a person from Codex Alimentarius raised: "The challenges we face in terms of ensuring that there is a balance of perspective on different issues, there is participation from developing world in the discussion and evaluation, and development of advice that we give in the principal key areas, like food quality and safety issues in biotechnology, animal feeding issues to address, BSE or Madcow disease, dioxin contamination, and so on."

Sustainable rural development was a major issue for 18 persons, but the term is difficult to define and encompasses a number of keywords (Table 2). As a person in Sustainable Development department in FAO said: "Environment is the part of everything in FAO and it is related to sustainable rural development, and since it is very broad, it is difficult to define sustainable rural development." Sustainable rural development was viewed as important for sustainability and to provide greater good and economic self-sufficiency to the developing countries. It is also reflected in many of FAO documents.

Farmer's life quality was raised as a major issue by 15 people. If we are going to serve humanity we need to consider ways to make farmer's lives better, as one person said:  "Farmer's life is not easy. Making that life easy is part of FAO's mandate."  Nine people said that life is becoming more difficult given the rapidity of change, as typified by the comment: "The major problem right now is that the massive change that is occurring, which is not particularly selective. For example a television channel reaching persons in an African village has much more impact on that culture than a television show seen in a developed country.", where they are used to modern society and media. The transition from small to large farms was a major issue raised by 12 people. More philosophical comments that agriculture is part of nature were raised by 15 people (Table 2).

              The rapid change due to modernisation and intensive agriculture in terms of environmental changes, was also noticed among the interviews as a major issue by 7 persons. The intensification and modernization debates highlight differences between North and South and countries with different population densities.  This includes the questions of use of high yielding plant and animal varieties and external inputs, and pesticides were mentioned as a major issue by 7 persons (under the Environment heading in Table 2).  The Green Revolution was targeted at increasing production and was particularly successful in the short term, but has now been recognized as having created environmental and social problems. There are some examples of alternative agricultural methods that generally reduce external inputs and improve productivity.

We need research to serve humanity not just for the profits of companies. An example of this is integrated pest management (IPM) which has been supported as an initiative of FAO since 1967. Agriculture has a multifunctional nature and there has been a call to look at the causes of environmental and social problems arising out of new applications in agricultural production.

 

c) Information

Information dissemination is central to the modern information society, and viewed as a major role for FAO by a third of the people interviewed.  As one person said, it has to be responsible: "One of the problems with technologies like GMOs is that they have the potential to make tremendous changes.  Media has made GM technologies like Frankenstein monsters, and ordinary people, who want to live their life peacefully, are not surprisingly frightened. So some type of ethics is involved in informing people at community level and at country level. Giving balanced information about the impacts of these technologies, means that overtime they could give themselves, or might be given, the opportunity to learn about them and make good decisions." However an integrated communication policy was only released in 1998 (FAO, 1998).

Another central role for FAO as the United Nations Secretariat for Food and Agriculture is being a forum for debate and an honest broker in the discussion of issues, which often involve conflict, which was also raised as a major issue by a third of all persons interviewed (Table 2).  The exchange of views can be considered to be a sharing of information.  Transparency was viewed as essential for being a credible international agency. Independence and academic freedom, the freedom of expression, which are parts of scientific ethics, are important in the eventual resolution of controversial and difficult problems. For example, we give quotations below from persons raised on three different continents:

"Is it ethical to eat pork or beef? We are working for a diverse supermarket. We need provisions for all. Most important is to take note of what stakeholders need. Our role is to try to catalyze and provide a forum for discussion as codex. If needed, set standards and those standards have to be followed by members of the organization."

"FAO should become a platform for exchange of information in agriculture research system, at national, international and regional level."

"The usual way of FAO to deal with burning issues is to let them calm down and then take a position."

Eventually descriptive information gathering may morally call us to prescriptive action, to follow our professional responsibility in whatever our vocation is, because we are human beings.  However action should be coordinated, as another person said: "We should not undermine the national and international efforts which are going on on their own. Why should FAO be competing and funding, and bringing in experts instead of developing the local ones. That is the question."

Project design is a prerequisite for many researchers who work to help international aid. It should be coherent and relevant to the needs and capabilities of the nations. As one advisor in the FAO Technical Cooperation Department said, "A project is stopped only when money is not flowing in, not when it is bad. Usually we don't come to know the project is doing badly until mid-term because it takes so long to start the project, so the problems do not come up in the first year."

Freedom of speech and integrity are basic human rights that may be difficult for some persons in an industrial setting or as government spokespersons. One person who had varied work experience, made this comment: "The good thing working for FAO rather than working for a private company is that I have never been forced to say something, write something or propose something against my mental judgment, and that is a big luxury I think, compared to working with private company." Access to information, technology transfer, and the safety of technology are associated major issues seen by the interviewees.

Consumer choice is one of the virtues applauded in modern society, and issues like labelling and increasing participation of consumers in deciding what products are sold in the markets were emphasized. Information including shelf-life, and content, respects the consumer's right to know what is in their food, empowering them to make more informed choices. For example, a few persons said, "We have the duty to give appropriate or correct information to people to make their choice." It remains a matter of research how much information is a benefit and when too much is a hindrance to choice, but we should note that choice and labelling (both GM food and ecolabels) were not major issues raised in these interviews.

 

d) Genetic Modification (GM)

GM food and GM issues were a commonly cited major issue by over a third of the persons, but was perceived to be a particularly important future issue for FAO to deal with. The issues can be confused, as a member of the Codex Alimentarius Commision remarked, "Part of the GM food debate is deliberately muddied because people mix environmental issues with food safety issues." Public opinion studies show acceptance of GM food has fallen in the past few years. The concerns people have include their own health, lack of controls, no labels, fear of the unknown, and some think it is unnatural. The environmental concerns are important also, as a FAO staff member said, "GM crops and their effects on environment and genetic diversity is a major issue because any farmer who is offered a very good variety that exceeds the one they have, will abandon the land races that we have and we might loose the variability that we need."

There have been several FAO publications on the subject of biotechnology (FAO, 1997). It is rather interesting to note that the issues related to genetic modification like cloning and terminator technology, which are generally raised in public debates and media were not such high priorities to FAO staff, as 80% of people did not mention them.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission (1999) had approved guidelines in June 1999 on organic food. However, it was mentioned only by a few persons, generally who were internal activists for the organic movement through an internal FAO organic food mailing list, and 82% did not mention it.        As an active supporter said, "Organic agriculture was very difficult to push into FAO's agenda, as nobody wanted it. When put into the agenda, it was with the intention that it was going to be turned down by the countries. Now it has become an official act in FAO, but there is a lot of resistance to it still. The official line in FAO is the New Green Revolution, which was based on high inputs, in terms of technology, irrigation and organic agriculture are given low priority because of the GM issue, which is big noise in FAO. There is a big momentum around the world for organic food, which made Codex to develop guidelines."

The internal debate is reflected in what one FAO staff member said regarding another widely debated issue, food irradiation, and the organic food debates: "Codex Alimentarius recommendations regarding organic food, that organic food should not be irradiated is very strange, because irradiation is the only treatment which leaves no residues at all. But it is a good example because on one hand organic is supposed to be natural and because the term "irradiation" is frightening for everyone and we felt that it is not compatible with it. On the other hand the use of manures to fertilize organic foods without any controls in the Codex indicating that the manure has to be sterilised. It is a clear indication that not very much authoritative thought has gone into this issue, in fact we are starting to see in the last 5 years, food borne diseases of animal origins on horticulture products and that is because of the organic food movement. In the past, I was very cynical because there were many food manufacturers and many were frauds. They traded with the name organic food but when the analysis of the food was done, it was found to be contaminated or contained additives. There is nothing wrong with the concept, but there are certain conditions when products go to the market. One of them is that they have to be safe. If they are not safe, you have to declare that they are a hazard, and let the consumer decide if they want to risk that hazard. But organic foods unfortunately do not have that sort of scrutiny as other foods and they are becoming more and more responsible for food borne diseases."

 

e) Sponsorship, Funding and the Private Sector

 Some persons, even at very senior positions were not sure how to deal with the private sector, "One of the main problems is how to deal with the private sector, because they are part of work, but they are so big that we never can tell whether we are dealing in the right way or not." This issue was raised by 19 people, with a full spectrum of opinions for and against FAO association with private industry. A reflection of the division is seen in the fact that the policy for projects with NGOs including private sector was formalised in 1999 (FAO, 1999b, 1999c), and a separate administrative unit on this issue was not established until the mid-1990s. Corruption in general was raised as a major issue by 15 people, and from the private sector by 13 people.  Sponsorship by FAO was also a major issue that was raised, and relates to maintaining the view of FAO as a honest broker.

Quality of life is affected by economics, and cash cropping may substitute money for food, as another said: "Developing countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe say that tobacco production is an important economic activity for the lives of many poor people. So you have made a judgment that is basically working against the interests of certain poor constituencies. So people just tend to look at the multinationals and forgetting the other private sector (poor farmers) who don't have another choice."

The developing and developed country divide was raised by 15 people. Big multinational companies are dominating many decisions and will affect the quality of life in different parts of the world, shifting resources from the poor to the rich.  One economist said, "The idea of putting a competition between very small farmer families with very little means and rich farmers of the United States and Europe with huge production means is almost criminal." 

Globalization is taking control away from small breeders, as one person said: "Recent understanding shows that plants are more genetically similar than we thought through species, and the only big difference is in the change of regulatory genes. That might be helpful to explore the shifts in genetic variability, and allow changes without going to transformation across species and across kingdom. So these might be exciting opportunities for developing countries to give them new tools that are not under the control of big companies like Monsanto or Novartis."

 

f) Environment

The environmental concerns due to biodiversity loss and the need for sustainability of genetic resources were expressed in the interviews. The farmer's rights to access to genetic resources and their ownership was considered an urgent issue by 21 people, given the global privatization of agriculture taking place. Genes are the building blocks of the varieties of plants and animals.  They are protected under the Convention on Biological Diversity, if gathered after that time.  However, much more ethical debate is needed on this subject, including farmer's rights. Many persons attempt to protect the poor from losing intellectual property rights, as one person said: "As an agricultural economist, for me, ethics is more on the economics side. It is more related to protect the rights of people in third world, developing countries. Ethics is also the rights of farmers to own the ownership of the local varieties, which they are producing for centuries, which is written by international seed business."

Natural Resource Management was a major issue raised by 8 people, and includes different parts of the environment. Access to land and its management is a basic issue, for a farmer the soil is the beloved medium of their food and livelihood, across all cultures. "When you address the problems associated with unequal distribution of land, the land being concentrated in few hectares and a number of inhabitants having no access to land. May be it is a problem of economic efficiency, or a problem of market, but it is also a problem which should be considered from an ethical point of view. Ethically it is not legitimate that you concentrate thousands of hectares, at the same time when a lot of people are looking for land, for food, labor opportunities, employment, or even to die, which is seen in Africa where the idea is that each person belongs to the land, so each person needs a piece of land. Those are ethical concerns."

The ethics of the conservation, management and utilization of natural resources for present versus future generations is a fundamental and crosscutting issue, and has been considered within a variety of legal instruments, and in academic literature. The ethical issues from the question of what are common and shared natural resources in this generation was also raised for a number of natural resources, and it represents the dilemmas of the commons. The commons was mentioned as a major issue by 4 people, whereas biodiversity loss was mentioned a major issue by 12 people.

While 41% mentioned future generations, it was not a major issue raised, and there was little agreement on the timescale.  One person said "Intergenerational ethics can't be applied for infinity, But should apply 2 to 3 generations at the minimum."  A sceptic said, "We should really talk about passing sound measurements and sustainability from one generation to another. The people who are not agriculturists want short run solutions. People want to feed the world, green the land or dispose the weeds without really counting what is really going to happen in future generation."

 

g) Animal Issues

Animal rights is sometimes said to be a concern of rich countries, but it is found everywhere. In Table 2 we see separate issues of capture, husbandry, transport and killing that were raised.  Some put the dilemma like: "There are concerns of intensive farming especially in the FAO perspective of the West, but it is not a luxury to allow this. We have to be careful in animal health, in balancing the nutritional supply of food. For example, for happy chickens versus malnourished children." Animal welfare is a controversial issue and it has also been highlighted by the intensification of animal agriculture, especially chickens and pigs. As one interviewee said:" Practically, there are significant differences between rich and poor countries, so that the conditions expected in housing or slaughterhouses for animals in rich countries can even be better than the people's houses in poorer ones".  It was considered the duty of the FAO to offer guidance to farmers and countries that wish to implement better ways of handling animals rather than presuming that all poor farmers only want to increase production.

Animals relation in work was raised by 20% of the people, but only 3 mentioned it as a major issue.  As a person in the animal division said: "We are conscious of the suffering of animals as individuals. When we are involved in projects which have the development of the farm animal labour, before designing we have to take into account the safety of animals. Because, for example, we have invested a lot of resources into an oxen and we do not want to lose it. If we look at the economics of the enterprise, if the animals are fed well, it is safe." A holistic view is needed, including not only immediate concerns of animal welfare but also the risks for spread of disease and pollution.

 

h) Personnel Issues

              These issues were not the object of this study, however due to the non-leading approach to asking people to give ethical issues, some people raised these issues (Table 2). These issues are important for representatives of international organizations who work in a range of cultures, where practices such as giving gifts to guests are common manners. There is a specific Personnel Division that has a mechanism for consideration of these issues.

 

4. Discussion and Conclusion

These interviews give us an insight from inside FAO secretariat of their role in seeking ethical solutions to the issues raised in global food and agriculture. The emphasis on food security is ethically justified given the number of people who face starvation.  If we ask philosophically what are the origins of this, we could say it stems from the love of others, the basic ethical principle of justice. However, we also see the argument that food security promotes socio-economic stability being used, both nationally and internationally.  Similarly, the work to ensure access to food for all, stems from beneficence and justice.  The ethical imperative is urgent, given the number of lives lost, the loss of quality of life, the substantial environmental impact of satisfying food needs, and the availability of natural resources for present and future generations. 

FAO's mission is targeted to "ensuring humanity's freedom from hunger". This role is based on the principles of ethics that could be related to the terminologies used in FAO interviews and in the documents (Figure 1). All of the subjects used at least one of the terms participation, hunger alleviation, justice in allocation of resources, and sustainability in the course of their interviews; which clearly tells the fundamental ethical principles motivating their work. 

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 have not been discussed widely in a global dialogue, and others not even foreseen at present. The dissemination of scientifically correct, unbiased information and the role of an honest broker were clearly thought to be major objectives of FAO's staff. There needs to be public information in order to allow the public to make informed decisions about food (Thompson, 2001). In addition to this, most staff saw it as their role to be a type of global think tank for ways to accomplish the mandate of FAO.

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, support for integrated pest management (IPM) since 1965, the Peasant's Charter in 1979, the World Soil Charter in 1982, and the range of agreements on protecting plant genetic resources, that lead to the formation of the Intergovernmental Commission for Genetic Resources in Food in Agriculture. This study showed that although ethics as a word was not openly discussed at FAO until the end of the1990s, many of the programs and policies were founded from the principles of ethics, and the unspoken agenda for many of the staff was based on ethical principles. 

While it can be useful to isolate distinct issues as we have done in Table 2, they must be considered as a whole.  For example, it is not realistic to separate the relationship of a farming practice to the natural environment and the social system. Production of food through agriculture, as with almost all of human life and activity, is not an isolated activity of a person but is a social activity involving many relationships with people and the ecosystem. One piece of advice that calls for holistic interpretation was given to us by an assistant director-general at FAO was: "If you try to embrace all the fields of ethics, you will get very easily lost. If you try to see all the linkages between food and agriculture, morals of societies, you can go very far, going to all problems together." Often the problems seem too complex but specific issues can be identified and incorporated in policy, planning and action. Rather than viewing the issues as problems a positive view would treat them as opportunities for resolution.

              Specific opportunities can be identified to tackle some of the ethical issues identified through these surveys, and these should be 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 constitutional mandate and the needs of the people.  There is an ethical imperative for such bodies to be involved in areas where they can be a productive partner in achieving the general goals of their member parties. Often these general goals are expressed in a constitution and in ongoing general conference reviews and future work plans. Taking a stand may mean, for example, to say a given technology is good or bad under a given case, to express a neutral position, or to decide not to comment. Perhaps the most controversial of all issues was the use of genetic engineering in agriculture, which finds a variety of views between staff interviewed, as well as between member countries.

We would argue that rather than viewing these issues as problems as some staff also did, FAO would progress further if difficult issues are taken up for debate, learning about different views, with the goal of reaching mutual understand that is a prerequisite for resolution. The role of FAO to promote global food security, balanced conservation, management and utilization of natural resources, and sustainable rural development is based strongly on ethical principles. 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.

 

5. Acknowledgements

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. Jose Esquinas-Alcazar, Mr. Clive Stannard and Ms. Margret Vidar for their constant advice. We appreciate critical comments made by Dr. Ralph Early on this paper.

 

6. References

Beauchamp, T. L. & Childress, J. F. (1989) Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Codex Alimentarius Commission (1999). Guidelines for the production, processing, labeling and marketing of organically produced foods. Rome: Codex Alimentarius Commission. CAC/GL 32.

FAO (1948). Constitution, http://www.fao.org/legal/basictxt/

FAO (1997). Biotechnology and Food Safety, FAO Food and Nutrition Paper 61, Rome: FAO/WHO.

FAO (1998). FAO Corporate Communication Policy and Strategy. FAO. Rome.

FAO (1999a). The Strategic Framework for FAO for 2000-2015. Rome: FAO/WHO. http://www.fao.org/strategicframework/

FAO (1999b). FAO Policy and Strategy on Cooperation with Non-Governmental and Civil Society Organisations. Rome: FAO/WHO.

FAO (1999c). Principles and guidelines for FAO Cooperation with the private sector. Rome: FAO/WHO.

Macer, D. R. J. (1998). Bioethics is Love of Life: An Alternative Textbook, pp.1-4. Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute.

Macer, D. R. J., editor in chief, (2002). UNESCO/IUBS Bioethics Dictionary. Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute.

Mepham, T.B., Tucker, G. A. & Wiseman, J., eds., (1995) Issues in Agricultural Bioethics. Nottingham: Nottingham University Press.

Potter, V.R. (1971). Bioethics: A Bridge to the Future. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Thompson, P. B. (1998). Agricultural Ethics: Research, Teaching and Public Policy. Des Moines: Iowa State University Press.

Thompson, P. B. (2001). Risk, consent and public debate: some preliminary considerations for the ethics of food safety, International Journal of Food Science and Technology, 36, 833-844.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (1992). Convention on Biological Diversity  Geneva: UNEP.  http://www.unep.ch/conventions/

 

Table 1: Details of interviewed FAO staff members (N=103)

 

Period at FAO

%

First year

8

1-3 years

9

4-6 years

16

7-10 years

11

Over 10 years

56

Prior work experience

UN organization

12

National government

17

University

16

Company

8

International Aid Agency

9

World bank etc.

2

NGO

2

None

5

Not stated

28

Global region

West Europe

45

East Europe

2

Australasia

6

Canada

4

USA

12

South America

10

Africa

6

MiddleEast  / North Africa

7

Japan

5

Asia

5

Rank in FAO

Assistant Director-General

7

Division Director

25

Section Chief

24

Other Permanent Positions

37

Short term

7

Department inside FAO

Agriculture Department

30

Economic and Social Department

9

Fisheries Department

7

Forestry Department

16

Sustainable Development Department

8

Legal Office

5

General affairs

6

Technical Cooperation Department

11

Personnel Division

2

Office of the Director General

8


Table 2: Importance of ethical issues raised in interviews

Issue

Major Issue (N)

Rating of the importance given by interviewees (%)

 

 

 

Dominated

High

Medium

Little

Not stated

FOOD

Food security

42

9

32

18

24

17

Right to food

19

3

16

13

22

47

Justice

6

0

6

14

31

49

Poverty

18

0

18

24

30

28

Overpopulation

2

0

2

9

23

66

Emergency food aid

3

0

3

11

19

67

Food quality

14

3

11

11

22

54

Antibiotics

0

0

0

1

5

94

Consumer's health

12

1

11

13

23

53

RURAL DEVELOPMENT

Sustainable rural development

18

7

11

21

26

35

Dependency on experts

10

0

10

27

38

26

Scientific ethics

11

2

9

18

26

45

Participatory approach

30

8

22

34

17

20

Gender issues

10

4

6

8

16

67

Youth labour

0

0

0

2

19

79

Intensive agriculture

7

3

4

11

18

65

Small vs large farms

12

3

9

18

12

59

Farmer's life quality

15

2

13

12

21

52

Farmer's health

7

1

6

7

20

67

Toxic dumping

1

1

0

1

7

91

Rapid change

9

2

7

16

17

59

Urbanisation

7

2

5

17

28

49

Agriculture part of nature

15

2

13

8

21

54

Cultural differences

10

3

7

13

29

48

INFORMATION

Information access

13

6

7

18

38

31

Information dissemination

32

11

21

30

25

14

Technology  transfer

17

5

12

15

30

38

Project  design

8

0

8

15

37

41

Project  evaluation

6

0

6

18

22

55

Safety of technology

16

2

14

13

19

53

Can I speak my mind vs. FAO

3

0

3

15

15

68

FAO honest broker

35

5

30

34

20

11

Transparency

14

2

12

18

26

42

Consumer choice

4

1

3

10

32

54

GENETIC MODIFICATION (GM)

Organic food

3

1

2

5

10

82

GM food

22

6

16

15

32

31

GM labeling

3

1

2

9

22

67

GM environment

12

5

7

13

16

60

GM ethics

17

5

12

17

21

46

Biosafety training

7

1

6

15

15

64

Terminator

7

1

6

4

11

78

Monsanto

2

0

2

4

4

90

Animal cloning

1

0

1

2

12

85

Human cloning

0

0

0

0

5

95


Table 2: Importance of ethical issues raised in interviews (continued)

 

 

Dominated

High

Medium

Little

Not stated

SPONSORSHIP AND FUNDING

FAO sponsorship

18

2

16

17

18

48

Corruption

15

3

12

14

33

39

Company money is corrupt

13

2

11

9

29

49

World Bank

4

0

5

7

12

76

Private sector

26

7

18

22

20

33

Developing/Developed divide

20

4

16

33

16

32

Donor  vs. recipient demand

13

0

13

26

24

37

Governments

6

2

4

38

22

34

International laws

12

3

9

24

37

28

Over regulation 

2

0

2

12

31

55

Trade barriers

7

2

5

18

26

50

WTO

3

0

3

3

11

84

Product substitution

3

1

2

1

18

78

ENVIRONMENT

Biodiversity loss

12

4

8

19

26

44

Sustainability

7

2

5

35

32

27

Future generations

2

2

0

2

37

59

Liability

8

1

7

8

28

56

Commons

4

0

4

10

16

70

Water access

3

1

2

1

10

86

Water quality

2

1

1

1

10

87

Land access

4

1

3

6

14

77

Land management

6

3

3

12

16

67

Roads

1

0

1

1

3

95

Energy

1

1

0

2

14

84

Ecosystem damage

7

0

7

18

24

52

Ecolabels

2

1

1

7

9

82

Air pollution

0

0

0

1

4

95

Genetic resource access

21

3

18

12

25

43

Genetic resource ownership

15

2

13

20

22

44

Genetic resource benefit

8

1

7

10

30

52

Genetic resource conservation

11

4

7

14

34

41

Exotic species

1

0

1

6

16

78

Natural resource management

8

1

7

16

30

46

Fertilizers

3

1

2

3

12

82

Pesticides

7

4

3

7

22

65

Herbicides

1

1

0

3

5

91

ANIMAL ISSUES

Animal capture

3

1

2

3

3

91

Animal husbandry

11

3

8

1

24

65

Animal transport

2

1

1

4

4

90

Animal killing

5

2

3

4

4

87

Animal relations in work

3

0

3

6

11

80

Long life is a value

2

0

2

6

8

84

Animal protein revolution

0

0

0

6

9

85

Cross species disease

1

1

0

7

13

79

Vaccines

0

0

0

2

4

94

Hormones in animal feed

2

0

2

4

6

88

Religious views

2

0

2

7

25

67

PERSONNEL ISSUES

Personnel employment

11

2

9

11

19

59

Personnel gender

4

3

1

4

19

73

Personnel gifts

1

0

1

0

7

92

General behaviour

9

2

7

15

25

52

 

 


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