Raising an Ethical Issue in the Farming Technology Debate
The Image above is corn growing in Zimbabwe.
There was a scholarly article published late last year by Dr. Robert Paarlberg entitled “The Ethics of Modern Agriculture.” I would encourage anyone concerned about both the environment and about feeding people to read it. It raises some important questions about the ethics of even well intentioned anti-technology activism.
Paarlberg is a professor at Wellesley and also an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard. He has no ties to agricultural interests or technology companies, but he has spent a lot of time thinking about the ethics of opposition to technologies that could help feed the poor people of the world. His book “Starved for Science” is a detailed review of how the precautionary principle thinking of the rich countries (particularly in Europe) has largely kept agricultural technologies out of Africa including ones that would help feed poor people there.
In his ethics paper (which is a precursor of a book that will be coming out soon), Paarlberg makes the following points (among others):
- Science has made agriculture in the developed world highly productive, good for farm incomes, and has freed up the labor force for other activities
- These advances are largely unavailable to small holder farmers, particularly in Africa
- Civil society groups in prosperous countries that campaign against technology advances in the third world are effectively enforcing continuing poverty and food shortages
- Organic farming methods constitute an extremely small part of world agriculture, are really only an option for the wealthy, and are environmentally undesirable because more land is required to produce the same amount of food
- Study after study indicates that chemical use in agriculture is well regulated so that any safety advantage of eating organic food is insignificant
- International groups from rich nations telling poor African farmers not to use fertilizers and pesticides is “ethically dubious”
- Any form of Agriculture can be damaging to the environment, but modern, technology intensive farming is less so than pre-modern farming because of innovations like integrated pest management (IPM), “precision farming” and no-till farming. It is steadily getting better on a per unit of output basis
- Biotech crops increase yields, and reduce pesticide use. They have been shown to be safe in multiple scientific reviews and years of practical experience. Denying these to poor countries is unethical
So why is modern farming so heavily criticised? Paarlberg concludes that, “In prosperous modern societies where few people know farming first hand, citizen misunderstandings regarding the science and economics of agriculture tend to proliferate.”
Paarlberg is right to approach this as an ethical issue. It is not as if there is a purely good option and a purely bad option for how to feed the world. There is a certain risk of unintended effects from technology adoption, but there are also negative ramifications of being overly cautious about technology adoption. The ethical problem is that if people in rich countries drive the mistake of over-caution, it is not they who will suffer. It will be the poor.
Image of Maize Field in Zimbabwe by Susan E. Adams.