Raising an Ethical Issue in the Farming Technology Debate

Maize field in Zimbabwe



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.

Main Points

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

The Controversey

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.


  1. russ

    What people often forget is that the radical green cares less about ethics or peoples welfare.

    Ethics are only of concern if they help the cause.

    If someone doesn’t drive a Audi or Mercedes they aren’t worth worrying about all that much seems to be their mantra.

    They are the original ‘my way or else bunch’.

  2. russ

    Right Steve – To demonize a group is always silly and incorrect – just many in a the group. I am not referring to greens in general but the extreme fringes.

  3. Stuart Orr

    Steve — very thoughtfully written. I’m not out either to demonize those who oppose technology for feeding the poor. However, some remind me of Marie Antoinette sitting in her palace eating cake while the poor were dying from lack of bread. Her solution was also politically correct.

  4. Richard Boult

    Just stumbled on sustainablog. Great reading, whole new realm of informatiion for me.

    re: the ethics discussion. The general population have good reasons from the past to distrust big business and big agri-business when it comes to ethical, safe and sustainable practice. And even from today. (Why are GM crops often not producing viable seed, so all seed stock must be brought annually from “the company” ?)

    Where sustainable, safe and ethical practice is being followed, then the business should be working hand in hand with enviromental/green groups to publicize the facts as good news stories, to counteract the still lingering images of destructive agri-business practices.

    And where agri/food-business is still using unsafe, unethical, unsustainable practice (large parts of the third world are paid a pittance for their crops, so cannot afford to invest in sustainable practice), then the agri/food business should, through it’s institutions, be far more outspoken in condemning the bad practice that sustains the lingering bad image of food/agri business.

    Science and Best Practice and Ethics are not enough to turn this around. Believeable, ethical PR is also essential.

    And perhaps it may be necessary to start pointing out that a high meat diet is a high greehouse gas diet, neither good for us nor good for the planet. We don’t all have to be vegetarians, but we sure could eat a lot less meat. If there are tehcnologies out there that can make meat less harmful to greenhouse, let’s hear more about them, and let’s ee some pressure to ensure a rapid changeover to those technologies.

  5. Steve Savage

    The thing about GM crops not producing viable seed is just a persistent myth. The origin of it is that the USDA tried to develop a “terminator gene” (their unfortunate term) for use with something like a crop that made a pharmaceutical protein. That was once licensed by Monsanto when they had a biopharma program. They dropped that program and the USDA technology didn’t actually work. GM crops produce perfectly viable seed. Corn is a hybrid crop so there is a need to buy new seed each year, but the advantages of being hybrid have made that routine since the 1930s. Monsanto did require growers not to replant their soybean seeds which was controversial in 1996 but not at all now because the technology is so attractive to growers.

    The companies try to do PR, but it tends just to be dismissed as self serving because the anti-corporate and Organic PR machines are so powerful.

    I agree with you that just reducing meat is a good idea. We don’t have to get extreme to do a lot.

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