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Calling for a revolution - ethical priorities for future agrifood research

Ben Mepham

Ethical reasoning must be a crucial element in decision-making on science and agriculture policy, says Ben Mepham 

Calling for a revolution - ethical priorities for future agrifood research


This is an edited extract from Ben Mepham's article 'Ethical priorities for future agrifood research' featured in 'For whom? Questioning the food and farming research agenda'.

Significant difficulties in making plans for research priorities lie in adequately understanding the present situation, and accurately forecasting the resulting developments. Given these imponderables, and uncertainties pervading the Brexit debate, I adopt here a radical 'visionary' approach - hoping that if the analysis proves useful, appropriate policy implications will emerge for, while ethical deliberation clearly does not exert the clout of legislation, arguably it can exercise a significant influence by informing sound judgments. 

In Food Ethics (1996),1 my chapter on research policy began with this quotation from an article by the social scientist Howard Newby: “Agricultural science has indeed transformed the practice of agriculture. Discoveries made by people in white coats ...have been transferred into farmers’ fields in a bewilderingly short space of time, assisted by a wide network of institutions ... aimed at speeding up the process of technology transfer.” Given Newby's “bewilderingly short space of time,” and the dramatic acceleration of ‘technology transfer' over the last 20 years, it is pertinent to enquire whether ethical analysis has assumed more, or less, significance in formulating research policy over that period.

In my chapter I suggested, with reference to farm animal welfare, that three types of question should be posed for 'rigorous' ethical auditing: i) are issues assigned a priority commensurate with their ethical significance? ii) is the research addressing appropriate questions? and iii) is the research conducted in ways that respect consumers' rights to know about the processes and products employed in food production? In brief, my conclusions suggested that in no case had these ethical issues been adequately addressed. 

Over the last 20 years, the notion that 'ethics' is relevant to assessment of the activities of governmental and commercial organisations, and not just to personal standards of behaviour, has assumed a high public profile. Now, almost all organisations dealing directly with the public have established ethics committees, and codes of ethics. But this ‘privatisation’ of ethics led to abolition of many government committees with clearly-defined ethical remits, such as the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC, of which I was a member) and the Farm Animal Welfare Council. Moreover, as noted by the renowned US agricultural ethicist, Paul Thompson,2 “while people ...think of medical ethics as a field where normative assumptions and disagreements are analysed and debated, ‘food ethics’… [including its agricultural dimensions] … tends to be associated with personal conduct” e.g. concerning consumers' choices to eat foods they consider raised under ‘good welfare’ conditions or ‘additive-free’. So, in the agri-food context, “the norms distinguishing right from wrong are presumed obvious and noncontroversial” because for many people it is not the role of food ethics to specify, analyse or debate normative commitments. Yet, arguably, this is precisely where ethical deliberation is necessary.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which funds the UK government sponsored agri-food research, describes its mission in a ‘core narrative’.3 In essence, this amounts to providing support to the bioscience base, in order to underpin the bioeconomy, and build a more prosperous nation. But wider concerns, such as global environmental sustainability (adversely affected inter alia by intensive agriculture) and malnutrition (due to inadequate and/or inappropriate food supply) are not mentioned in the BBSRC’s narrative. 

Much basic research in the biosciences, when conflated with biotechnology (with which it is inextricably entwined in BBSRC programmes), aims to address economic objectives. But when this focus is to the detriment of environmental, animal welfare and public health considerations, it is hardly compatible with the aim of achieving universal prosperity. What seems necessary is a much more joined-up, holistic analysis of the ethical implications of research programmes, to guide sound decision-making on research priorities.

Ben Mepham was a founder and Executive Director of the Food Ethics Council (1998-2003). Formerly a reader in physiology at Nottingham University, in 1993 he founded and directed the Centre for Applied Bioethics, and was subsequently appointed to a ‘special professorship’ in bioethics. Since retirement in 2005, he has held an honorary professorship at the Centre. He co-founded the European Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics, and was a member, as a bioethicist, of the UK government’s Biotechnology Commission.

1 Mepham B (1996) Chapter 10 and Chapter 7 Food Ethics (ed. Mepham B) London Routledge
2 Thompson P B (2014) Agricultural Ethics: then and now. Agric Human Values DOI10.1007/s10460-014-9519-1
3 BBSRC (2017) Core narrative [link] Accessed 27/11/2017

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