The purpose of this article is to help all thoughtful agriculturalists, but especially researchers, feel comfortable about the use of ethics, to the extent of even using it using it themselves, in handling the multiple and often conflicting demands, the multifunctionality, which portions of the public are pressing upon agriculture. There is no question that for three or four decades pressures have been brought to bear upon farming and those who serve it in any capacity to widen the list of tasks to which agriculture should be devoted. And one tool sometimes used to press those demands is an appeal to ethics. This appeal can appear to suggest that agriculturalists have been ethically negligent. Every agricultural ethicist (all dozen or so) knows by experience how poorly received that suggestion is.  Agriculture is a vocation or profession which prides itself on the unquestionable value, even nobility, of its work. And without the help of any academic ethicist, they know that it is ethical to work energetically in the pursuit of things of great value to mankind. One readily grants that human medicine needs some sophisticated ethical reasoning. The simplicity of healing has long been lost with the realization that too much medical attention is almost as bad as too little and that HMOs have conflicting goals. And a confusing “multifunctionality” has been pressed on medical science as it is asked for cures for things that aren’t diseases,  help with eternal youth, good looks, good shape without exercise, and better offspring than natural, and finally help with killing the tired of life and the untried of life. And that business and commerce needs ethical re-examination no one doubts. But agriculture? Given the obvious and urgent natural value of food, fiber and forest products, if an academic ethicist so much as clears his or her throat while reviewing the basic business of farming and its allied technology and science, the inferred hint of ethical deficiency in the agricultural enterprise causes immediate bristling.

            The present author sometimes feels that a suitable answer to the ethical confusions which surround medicine these days would be to say. “Don’t take on the new multifunctionality, especially the killing. The value of life and the trust needed to employ its often distressing tools conflict with any permission to kill.”

            But for agriculture?  Is it not abundantly clear and simple that its overarching value and purpose is to grow things for human use? Who needs ethics to complicate that simplicity? Who needs an ethics concocted by a profession, philosophy, decorated with practitioners not especially known for preaching any really self-recommending ethics, let alone practicing them? [1]

            Which brings me to three sub-purposes in this essay, to offer answers to whether agriculture should be multifunctional and how/when the currently disputatious  multifunctionality came into being and finally why did a new discipline of agricultural ethics get selected to organize if not settle the disputes.


A Little History Always Helps

            Contemporary  neo-classical agricultural economists are exasperated by the so-called Jeffersonian ideal, as if it were an ideal farm, overlooking that Jefferson imagined that a principal value of such farms was to underpin an ideal democracy with hard-working independently minded and independently supported citizens who would more easily avoid the vices, civic and personal, of an urban laboring class. In other words, agriculture’s function was dual: to produce solid citizens as well as food. That Jefferson’s own farmers were neither citizens nor independent in any sense was a painful irony he was well aware of. And that one “externality” (a side-effect equipped with a rationalized denial of responsibility) of the economy of enslaved farming would be the near destruction of the nation and civic unrest to this day is a warning: Immunity from ethical scrutiny is not granted agriculture from the sheer unquestioned necessity and nobility of its end products because profound human values may be impacted by its choice of means of production.

·        A theme will emerge from this essay that “multifunctional” value conflicts within agriculture will arise largely out of the means used for agricultural production and not solely out of the ends. And from this we can expect that any mature agricultural ethics will have to offer principles which can guide the choice of means and the policies surrounding alternative ways of farming.

Social Justice in Farming

Although the name “agricultural ethics” might wait two centuries, enough ethically complex good and bad multifunctionalities were born the day our nation’s leaders saw farming as fit topic for deliberate policy. John Adams on his debt-free but not yet large farm at Braintree abhorred the slave-labor and credit--burdened plantation farming of the South.  And in his last Fourth of July speech, written but not delivered, Jefferson showed that he regretted that the ideal of liberty for all had not been achieved on his farms. Borrowing with an unintended irony from Richard Rumbold, one of Cromwell’s lieutenants and substituting faith in science for Rumbold’s faith in God, he wrote:

The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth , that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God. These are the grounds of hope for others….  (McCullough,  2001, 645),  [2]

As a lesson in farm economics, the freeing of Jefferson’s farmers would be a distant hope indeed. At his death 130 of them had to be sold, freeing only five of Sally Hemings relatives, to pay debts totaling $100,000, more than the net value of his entire estate. Adams died with no debts and an estate worth $100,000. (McCullough, 2001, 648)[3]

            As contemporary Midwestern farmers are further displaced by huge pork and poultry operations, many of them are aware that their labor is valued at the price of the minimum wage immigrant worker without health benefits or union protection. Having tax payers pick up the health costs of these workers is one “efficiency” of such operations.  Animal welfare, environmental and community survival advocates wonder whether agricultural economists have given an honest accounting of other such “efficiencies.” Adams and Jefferson would wonder too. Is a socially just farm sector one of agriculture’s  functions?

Soil Fertility, Sustainability and Local Food Security

            More directly production related issues arose early both in Adam’s New England and from Virginia south. Soil exhaustion, from at least a century of exploitation, was dramatic at the birth of our nation. George Washington experimented with marl, gypsum and alfalfa in 1760.( Schreiner, 1935, 39.)[4]  By the 1820’s huge Virginia tracts were reduced to wastelands when Edmund Ruffin began his fertilizer work(Rasmussen, 1960, 72)[5]. What he sought to remedy was a side effect of production, the values he pursued are today, due to abundant fertilizers, sometimes viewed as among those fringe functions: sustainability and local food security, with learned economists suggesting that the U.S. abandon farming entirely. They were more obviously appropriate functions of agriculture in those days so that the earliest experiment station scientists were overwhelmed with the task of assuring the value of commercial manures, with some scientists complaining that such pedestrian work was not an appropriate function of science.

Soil Conservation

Soil erosion concerns and the value to be protected, soil conservation, arose early with terraces appearing in Virginia in the early 1800’s By 1899 the USDA began issuing reports on soil erosion.(Trimble, 1985,163)[6] There is a logic to the birth of new functions in agriculture: It is only when a value is being destroyed that a sense of moral urgency to act in defense of the value arises. Many values are implicit and only need to be actively cultivated when their good is positively threatened. So when “dust-bowl”  farm soil coated the shiny black cars of congressmen in Washington D.C. in 1935 and the Soil Conservation Act passed, the Soil Erosion Service changed its  name to the Soil Conservation Service.(Batie, 1985, 108)[7] A threatened good becomes an explicit urgent function to pursue. Above I called that urgency “moral.”  I could have as well said “urgency derived from practical wisdom”. A formal agricultural ethics had not yet been born, but multifunctionality had been.

Nevertheless the tensions between soil scientists and production scientists are historic. It is not entirely an accident that in many agriculture schools early soil scientists, who originally, due to Justus Liebig[8], referred to themselves as chemists, were housed with their laboratories among the non-ag science faculty.

·        A second theme emerges from this history: Multiple values with the multiple functions they command always have a potential for conflict, no matter how deeply connected and interdependent they are.

Rural Living Conditions

Following the logic of threats to implicit values begetting new explicit functions, agriculturalists were well aware of the nearly primitive conditions of rural life and its frequent grinding poverty. The 1887 amendments to the Hatch Act explicitly allowed research into the social aspect of agriculture beyond its concern for plant and animal production.(Pinkett, 1984, 367)[9] But it was a largely non-rural and religiously motivated compassionate Country Life movement which concerned itself with the arduous character of farm and rural life at the turn of the century.(Kirkendall, 1987, 86) [10] Theodore Roosevelt was inspired by this movement to establish the County Life Commission in August of 1908. It lacked the time and the courage to look at the peonage system in the South as suggested by W.E. B. DuBois,(Pinkett, 1984, 356) [11] but nevertheless its report at the end of January of the following year was, in the words of Clayton Ellsworth, the “first recognition by a federal agency that the production of more excellent citizens on the farm was at least as important as the production of more, bigger and better hogs and cotton, and that the current emphasis upon more scientific production would not solve a host of farm problems.”(Ellsworth, 1960, 156 and Pinkett, ibid.) [12]

Of course what the do-gooders saw was not an absence of research but a starkly distressing rural life only short buggy rides from their homes where no indoor plumbing or electric lights and very little money and health care were the rule. What motivated them was also what inspired many of the founders of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics(BAE) in the USDA, a mix of genuine religious motivation to alleviate human suffering with a social Darwinist view that only improved conditions of rural life and farming could keep the best racial and cultural types on the land.(McDean, 1983,71 and 1984, 392)[13] Henry C. Taylor took over the Office of Farm Management in April of 1919 and by 1922 had formed the new BAE, a process which involved replacing all the old agronomists with top flight academic economists.(McDean, 1983, 73). It was not just new tools and new credentials which were sought. It was a much more vigorous and embracing social/economic agenda, an agenda we might find offensive today in its goal recasting  rural America in the image of  a Lutheran town in Wisconsin, with beautiful farms where Bach could be heard in the evenings. But this Wisconsin boy is more than a little pleased to see that agriculturalists were trying to use the tools of economics to support a decent life for farmers. It is multifunctionlism at its best, whatever its weaknesss from elitist and ethnic biases.   

The rural crises brought on by falling farm prices in the 1920’s and by  the depression  made this concern for farm life a permanent fixture and popular with legislators who still had significant farm populations. The Purnell Act of 1925 explicitly included research to improve farm homes and rural life. Farm population actually grew from 1930 to 1933, but then a steady decline set in. The New Deal’s Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) device of production controls as well as the conservation set-asides of the Soil Conservation Service were both aimed at preserving family farms. Other agencies, such as the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration used other devices to help farmers with too little land or  who did not own their land to improve their lot and stay on the land.

Declining Fervor for the Little Farmer

But then, perhaps because farm population became a smaller proportion of the U.S. population, other justifications for continued public support of the farm sector began to be heard. During World War II job opportunities in the city began to open up, and Henry A. Wallace was heard to speak of “surplus farm population.”  Purely economic justifications for an expensive farm policy were heard. The appropriateness of the function of reducing rural poverty was questioned by the Farm Bureau and some of its congressional allies. Mechanization, higher yielding crops, better poultry lines, pesticides and affordable fertilizers made large farms attractive. The irony of AAA funds going  disproportionately to large farms, land-lords instead of tenants or sharecroppers and providing capital for further modernization meant that  appeals to the quality of rural life as a function of agriculture were muted or resisted. In fact one effort to point out the harm of AAA policies to sharecroppers which by chance included Congressman Jamie Whitten’s district actually led to the abolishing of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics. Chastened economists who restablished it years later were instructed by the nearly eternal Whitten to leave policy to Congress and simply provide the facts, the subtext being “not facts showing that policy is hurting poor sharecroppers in Mississippi—or anywhere else.”

So where did agricultural ethics come from amid all this? It was not yet ready to appear. There is no question but that agricultural economics ought to have functioned as the “bridging” discipline in agriculture among its unavoidable  multiple functions and disciplines. It alone possessed the tools, the traditions and motivations to arbitrate conflicts and seek outcomes for the human good. It was too obvious to everyone that over-production was a constant threat, exacerbated by modernization. And agricultural economics ought to have led the way to designing policies which could protect the rural sector, ease the transition to modernity, preserve what could survive in the agrarian ideal and resist policies which gave artificial “pecuniary efficiency” (efficiencies solely on monetary/tax policies and not on any actual farming resource efficiency) to already huge farm operations. The harm to smaller farmers, especially black farmers was clear.(Brown, 1986, 112-119)[14] The shift toward larger and fewer farms became dramatic and received an antiseptic name: “the structural problem.” Of the two values (goals) which Taylor had laid out for agricultural economics: the well being of the farm population and the efficient use of America’s agricultural resources, only the latter was left. Agricultural economics became  mainly a commentator rather than a guide to agriculture, and soon the neo-classicalists among its ranks began to provide rationalizations for some pretty inhumane policies and premises. As one economist whose own father had lost his farm due to a dam building quipped to me: “We assume the infinite mobility of labor.”  It represented no return to the simplicity of focus on production. It was little more than a Whitten imposed surgery which kept them singing on the more delicate octaves.  Critiques of agricultural policy for various reasons continued, but did not coalesce into any “movement.” Scarcely any voice for a balanced multifunctionalism remained within the agricultural establishment, except rural sociology.

Famine and Environmentalism

 But things were happening which would soon require more than that. One of them was the dramatic drop in farm population to around 4% of the nation in the 1970’s down from 23% in 1940. The need for farm kids to stay on the farm dropped with mechanization and so did the need for these kids to go to agricultural schools. But city kids were getting interested in agriculture in the 60’s and 70’s partly because some horrendous famines were occurring world-wide, which along with a devout Hubert Humphrey, they hoped American agriculture could cure.  The schools were happy to accept them. Meanwhile, in 1962, Rachel Carson had begun serializing in The New Yorker what was to become Silent Spring.  This famous attack on the side effects of modern agriculture in its use of pesticides and herbicides was not well received by agricultural academia, which tried to suppress essentially the same information by one of its own wildlife biologists,  Robert L. Rudd in his Pesticides and the Living Landscape.(1964) [15]  Carson’s first installment  made some insightful administrative reader in the University of California nervous who then called the university’s Science Guide and instructed its editor to omit further references to Carson’s series. But Rudd’s work finally was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1964, where its pre-publication review was said to hold the record for the number of reviewers. Rudd, working in California’s Agricultural Experiment Station system for fivc years on vertebrate pest control, was hardly an enemy of agricultural production, but when in the late 1950’s he began to see evidence of the harmful side effects of persistent agricultural biocides in the environment, a process we have seen before began. An agriculturally connected value, environmental health or eco-system stability, which scarcely had a name, was clearly being damaged, and a new function—an active pursuit of environmental values became a candidate function for agriculture. Not that it was easy. As soon as his book appeared in 1964, Rudd was dismissed from his experiment station post and passed over for promotion, a case of “publish and perish.” But the evidence was too hard to deny. Just three years later in 1967 BioScience published an article “Pesticides and the Environment” by Louis McLean of the Velsicol Chemical Corporation. Five years before he had attempted to prevent the publication of Silent Spring. In this unintentionally funny article, he attributed Carson’s obvious success to her “colorful language” rather than the evidence she marshaled,  and launched an uproarious attack on the environmental consciousness growing within agricultural academia, suggesting the Dr. Stranglove facination with sexual potency as the environmentalist motivation. Scientific readers thought the article was a spoof.(Graham, 1970, 167-169) [16]  It was too late. Rudd’s university renamed its ag school, “Agriculture and Environmental Sciences” that same year. Similar hyphenated names appeared on ag schools around the country.  Multifunctionalism had raised its head again. And the city kids filling the empty desks in the ag schools loved it.

And so did some farmers, who found the costs of pesticides and herbicides skyrocketting. There must be some way of farming which can reduce those costs, and since production is not their economic goal, but rather net income, some reduction in yield is bearable. Pressure from legislatures had to be brought to bear on some ag schools to find ways to reduce toxic chemical applications through a more scientifically informed  approach which received the name “integrated pest management” (IPM). Early IPM programs were no more easily accepted than soil science was before and constant accusations of the work as being “soft science” (a earlier, less frantic form of  “pseudo-science” attacks today) were heard.

Healthy Food means Non-toxic Food

Environmental values, like all values, might as well not exist if they do not have a strong constituency and in short order the nature lovers were joined by consumers as EPA mandated animal feeding tests of popular biocides showed considerable chronic as well as acute toxicity for vertebrates. The EPA set up the Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) in 1970 to oversee the  safety evaluation of agricultural chemicals.  The short story is most of the chemicals are not safe, they are toxic and therefore risky to use, to have in the environment or on our food. So, as the National Research Council (NRC) summary, Regulating Pesticides (NRC, 1980) puts it, the issue is one of weighing those risks against the benefits. Economists, at the time, were drafting some rather unconvincing  formats for risk/benefit analysis and evaluation. To be fair, it is hard to imagine how any format would have been workable even if a  convincing one were found. As the NRC described the issue: “The benefits are largely, but not entirely, an increase in the availability of foods and natural fibers and a reduction in the amounts of resources needed to produce them. … The benefits, for the most part, are the monetary equivalent  of economic resources.”  These benefits  are to be weighed against the risks of pesticides which include “increases in [human] mortality and morbidity and impairment of environmental vitality and amenities of all kinds.”  Wisely this NRC report recognized that this would not really be an “economic” calculation, as it goes on to say, “[T]he risks concern depends partly on the [EPA] Administrator’s personal scale of values and partly on his or her perception of the values held by the society in whose behalf he or she acts. That is to say, it is partly a moral and partly a political judgment.” [Emphasis added.](NRC, 1980, 3) More than one reader would summarize this as: “They are asking us to accept small amounts of poison in our foods to save themselves production costs.” And to admit to such thoughts is to be identified as an “activist.”

Without needing any ethicist to point it out, agriculturalists always knew that their moral, i.e. ethical,  responsibility in their vocation was the production of healthy (nutritious and not poisonous) food, in the same way that doctors knew they should not cause sickness in curing. But now, like doctors who became convinced, after Semmelweis and Lister,  that clean looking hands could carry deadly infection and needed careful washing between each patient,  agriculturalists  now had a new explicit value to pursue: food cleanliness. But unlike medicine’s decision to avoid any and all known sources of infection danger, agriculture was allowed a different standard which quickly dropped any effort to measure benefits and simply tried to minimize risk by a system of tolerated levels of toxicity on foods. The benefits, successful suppression of pests, were assumed to both exist, and to be known by farmers. Among the benefits was not seriously included any social need for increased production, but only reduced production management/costs.

That the food-safety issue is a kind of uncomfortable multifunctionality (which is not to suggest that farmers don’t care whether their food is safe) is illustrated by how the benefits to farmers were treated. EPA abandoned fairly early on any mandatory reporting of the “efficacy”(whether it killed the pests)of compounds , and when, in testing for safety under EPA contracts, university researchers who discovered little or no efficacy found no ear at EPA. EPA was not interested in benefits, which left economists nothing to calculate and ethicists much to wonder about (NRC 1987, 32). Meanwhile the foundations for organic agriculture had been laid.

Sufficient Food means Affordable Food

As early as the mid sixties, even fairly unsophisticated agricultural school adminstrators became aware that the nobility of USAID task of agricultural development in developing countries which their institutions were leading were often not justified by the motto “Teach a man how to fish and you alleviate his hunger for life.” Too often it was “Lend a man a lot of money to buy a huge net and soon he will be shipping fish back to the U.S. and his neighbors will be starving.”  USAID tried to bring in social scientists, especially anthropologists,  to deal with the problem that mere focus on production can be destructive. If the means of increased production produce poverty in the country-side no one will be able to buy the food. A little history would have helped avoid this problem. Both Hilgard in California and Henry in Wisconsin at the turn of the century (1898) when starting their state extension programs stated that little they could do would help the poor farmers. The problem with USAID’s task is that the poor farmers they impacted were the people in a way which was not true in California or Wisconsin. It became fairly common for political scientists to assist or even lead the international agricultural development programs in ag schools. No one really liked the idea of agriculture causing hunger, but the  changes needed to produce an agriculture which could really relieve poverty and hunger were often beyond the capacity of our land-grant universities. This is not merely due to their being familiar only with capital and energy intensive agriculture, but also because the kind of learning required was not something land-grant university faculty had time for. Peace Corps kids  or faculty from non-land-grant ag schools could often do more because of their freedom from publish-or-perish pressures. But there were many other obstacles, both in the way the big foundations worked and  in the way USAID justified its expenditures to Congress which threw up barriers to really effective development assistance. Perfectly rational bureaucratic structures in foundations (Korten, 1980, 1982) and perfectly rational structures of “accountability” in government foreign aid projects (Tendler, 1975)were demonstrably (and demonstrated) destined to cause development projects to fail in reducing local hunger or increasing “effective demand” (the ability to buy) for food. Given the human suffering at stake, it became impossible not to judge in stark moral terms the need for agriculture to innovate far beyond mere production goals (Dundon, 1991b). Agriculture without social science was positively dangerous to the hungry of the Third World.

Fantasy of “Value-Neutral” Progress

            One way to excise multifunctionality from the soul of agriculture would be to declare its tools and policies “value neutral.” The “value neutral” approach was common, as noted above, by economists. Dealing with the issue of farm size, the literature on new farm technologies and policies contained claims to “scale neutrality”, i.e. not favoring large farms over smaller farms.  Family farmers did not see it that way. In domestic agriculture the “structural” shift continued unabated. Eventually small farmers and farm workers sued the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources in the early 1980s to restore some attention to their needs. Agricultural engineers working in the sheds which produced the famed tomato harvester knew it would eliminate farmers on rolling land (in fact ending 9 out of 10 tomato operations ) and worried about whose responsibility that was. To which the Vice President for Agriculture of their university would answer, in court, that  no one within the public agriculture system had that responsibility and to assign such a responsibility would “stifle creativity and innovation.”(Madden, 1991, 286). This struggle is clearly an effort to shake off nagging demands for greater multifunctionality in agriculture. But the effort was not totally successful even in California, where small farms are far more numerous than large farms, even if cumulatively their product is only about 15% of the state’s total.

 A thriving statewide “Small Farm Center” exists within the structure of the University of California to serve this added function. But as evidence of the theme of resistance to such broadening, it was only by legislative mandate that it came into existence in 1979. 

What this history reveals is that values implicit in agriculture or impacted by its tools become “new” values to be positively pursued as explicit functions of the agricultural enterprise when those values are clearly endangered, or at least clearly obvious to some adequately vocal constituency. Such multifunctionality would produce tensions and conflicts in any profession or vocation, so it is not surprising that annoyance and nostalgic desires for greater simplicity are expressed in agriculture. Current events mirror this historic pattern, as consumer constituencies oppose genetically modified foods and/or seek their labeling, environmental constituencies press agriculture to protect clean air, animal welfare interests press for more humane living conditions for meat animals, or on the other hand, corporate constituencies enlist  the USDA in producing genetic infertility in farmers’ seeds in the pursuit of the value of “intellectual property.” In one way or another exquisite reasoning will find infertility of a food crop an agricultural value.  Like the earlier capturing of agricultural biotechnology research by corporations interested in enhancing  their pesticide market, detailed by Martin Kenney (1988), “terminator technologies” simply reveal what can hardly be considered a scandal, namely that new functions are effectively introduced by new (or old) constituencies who have means and motives to make those functions congruent with the institutional or personal needs of those who will have to work at those functions. And, as we have seen, the motives can range from the common sense of maintaining  the soil and keeping food clean  to deeply religious convictions about social justice, environmental integrity and animal welfare. But all too often the only effective means to increase or decrease multifunctionality is  politics resulting in legislation or financial incentives which promote or sustain research and development in certain directions.

What Does Ethics Have to Do with This

This review is not aimed at a cynical acceptance of policy chaos in agriculture but rather to finally raise the point of whether there are tools to introduce some reasoned order into this chaos. Astute social scientists warned me, in the early 1980’s, not to become co-opted by those who hoped to construct the perfect risk/benefit analysis into the toxics issue, and cost/benefit analysis into the “structural” (family farm) question. Such schemes were efforts to resolve serious social conflicts with “bureaucratic rationality” which too often meant simply arbitrary removals of the losers from the debate. Others, like Lawrence Busch and William Lacy, went in a more humane direction of full negotiations concerning conflicting values with the broadest representation of truly impacted parties.  Agricultural Economics needed to play a role, but “efficient use of resources” was way too limited in its ignoring  of flesh and blood as Patrick Madden liked to point out.(Madden, 1991 PAGE?)[17]  And that “negotiations” could fail in that way too, I realized in Congress in 1981 as I and some idealistic lawyers stood with dropped jaws as a representative of a pesticide lobby argued with a congressman over whether it was fair to legislate for a full  medical investigation in a pesticide incident where only one farmworker went “down.” He proposed instead that six “downs” was  more fair, and called the lawyers’ shock simply evidence that they had not been out of law school long enough and did not know how “democracy” worked.

In this story you see the birth of an agricultural ethicist. Negotiations are critical in a civil society, but are there not some universal principles about what is right or at least what is least harmful? Ethics does not create values, nor does it mandate the priorities among them. But as one of many “definitions” of ethics, the science of those actions which tend toward human happiness, indicates ethics does recognize values and proposes norms to secure them. Clearly an agricultural ethics will not normally be so broadly conceived as to take on the responsibility of leading a society toward happiness. Its ethics will deal with its values: food and the means of production. But if someone proposes that the convenient use and regulation of agriculture requires that we treat seriously serious harm and death in farm workers only when six have been harmed in a single incident, a norm will have been established which will make all of us very unhappy in the long run, to say nothing of the workers’ families in the short run, as the outcome of tolerating enslaved farm workers made clear. Denying any formal status to the investigation and systematization of norms in agriculture, such as that invoked by the Supreme Court in 1980 in its Benzene Case : Part of the cost of doing business is the cost of doing business safely, suggests some sort of “moral inferiority” in agriculture. When an agriculture dean came to review an agriculture ethics course we were building in the mid 1980’s he asked:  “Why agriculture? Why now? Is there some special scandal you and your colleagues (a soil scientist and an institutional economist) are focusing on?” I answered truthfully if disingenuously “Any mature discipline or enterprise has its professional ethics.” Disingenuously because agriculture is the most mature  profession/vocation and it has wended it way through a myriad of value conflicts without an explicit ethics until now. The problem is that the religious norms which worked powerfully in the past were felt by many as ill suited to the “pluralism” of public education, on the one hand, and on the other the economists seemed to claim access to a neutral, “objective” norm not requiring ethics.

But  about this same time Glenn Johnson, an agricultural economist,  was calling to the attention of his colleagues that all their “factual” and quantitative arguments contained at least one normative (“ought”, “should”, “must”) premise if there were to be any policy recommendation in the conclusion, and that there is certainly no self-evident reason why all those normative premises should be trumped by considerations of efficiency. That this insight into the structure of policy argumentation was remarkable and disturbing was itself remarkable to us who were not wedded to neo-classical economics and had some experience in applied ethics. Glenn was not a “red” and definitely not what we would call a “green” today. He just wanted to end the pretense that anything significant is accomplished in agricultural policy argument without some normative justification. Unspoken and therefore un-inspected premises, especially normative ones, will come back and bite you. Apart from any human kindness, “A living wage for full-time agricultural workers is not obligatory” will lead to  rural counties burdened with a huge poverty class, costly public health problems and a generally depressed local economy, all in the form of a subsidy of slightly cheaper food in some distant city. But human kindness counts too. Or does it? As Cesar Chavez’s successful grape-boycott in the mid 60’s revealed, long before there was an “agricultural ethics,” significant portions of the U.S. population held to the normative premise: “Agriculture should organize itself so that it can pay its workers decently.”  Liberal atheists and very conservative churches could find that premise among their principles. It is interesting to review Chavez’s intellectual history and realize how multifaceted it was. The motivation was love of his people and workers and the spiritual example of St. Francis,  but the basic, middle level and strategic principles came from Papal Encyclicals on labor, from secular sources with Saul Alinsky, and from Gandhi’s  writings.

The situation in the 1970’s and 80’s was one of a profusion of values being both recommended to agriculture and being injured by it. Rural churches were convening regional and national convocations to state  solid consensus theological and scriptural principles for maintaining family farms and  rural community life. (Dundon, 1991a, 63). The Kellogg Foundation leadership also felt that the urbanization of America endangered public support for agriculture and hit on the idea that if liberal arts programs taught more about the history and multiple values which agriculture provides society, a serious political neglect of agriculture could be averted. Somewhat dangerously they chose philosophy departments to spearhead this effort to teach city kids about the wonderful values of agriculture. “Dangerously” because, for all their faults, philosophers who were sensitive to the values of agriculture were too often aware that establishment agriculture was as much a threat to some of those values as a tepid political devotion to agriculture. When the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society and its journal Agriculture and Human Values were formed in the early 1980’s with Kellogg’s help, there were already a small number of philosophers, and not a few rural sociologists,  prepared to help the agricultural establishment engage itself in a little self-reflection.

None of these sources of the ferment was in the possession of an organized  treatise on the applied ethics of agriculture. To be effective, they needed no more foundations in some fancy ethical theory than medicine did. The values involved were all that mattered. Public university philosophy departments, wags in the 1960’s said, had killed God and anything else humanly relevant in philosophy, including ethics. “Applied philosophy” was like “square circle.” And about ethics the question was whether it exists, given that no sensory experience corresponds to the word “should” or “ought.” At least one prominent American philosopher considered the ability of philosophers to convince trustees of major universities to fund philosophy departments one of the best evidences of their intellectual agility. This was not a group likely to mine documents from the Church of the Brethren or the United Church of Christ for some ethical principles on the defense of family farming. Yet only the churches had a credible voice in the countryside on normative matters.

Doing Agricultural Ethics Today

The truth be told, there was not then and is not now much in agricultural ethics which gives a philosopher center stage for his/her philosophic agility. The philosophers who first began to engage in agricultural issues seemed not the slightest interested in choosing between varieties of ethical systems, varieties of utilitarianism, deontology, or rights theories. They were moved  by the values they saw threatened or in conflict with other values of importance in agriculture. They worked from the values out. One can find in the literature an occasional effort to find a system, e.g. utilitarianism with Tweeten(Tweeten, 1987, 246)[18],  and some innovative uses of other systems included in Charles Blatz’s anthology Ethics in Agriculture (1991) including his own. Those systems are frequently aimed at the somewhat intellectualized goals of philosophers such as simplicity, unity and consistency, and, for some, quantitative measurability. The early agricultural ethicists were intensely pragmatic, meaning committed to saving what they regarded as the most critical values impacted by agriculture. Ethics would be subservient to the preservation of those values. Hardly a debasement of ethics, this pragmatism is a recapturing of the medieval “first principle of ethics” which always seemed circular to undergraduates, but obvious to their parents: “The good is to be done.” Or “Harm is to be avoided.”  The good or harm are not moral good or moral evil but some kind of natural good/harm, including physical, social, psychological, emotional, or economic. Policies are morally good because they protect or create  what is physically good. Jeff Burkhardt in struggling with the warring values of an agricultural clientele that now includes chemical companies and machinery manufacturers makes one of these pragmatic efforts in saying that everywhere (and a fortiori in agriculture) the first criterion of the [physical, non-moral] good is serious human need. All other human pursuits presuppose that needs fundamental to human life have been met. So those fundamental needs are the first in the order of urgency.

 Such needs include: (1) adequate, affordable…nutritionally adequate food; (2) adequate, affordable, or at least available, clothing and shelter; (3) a livable environment; (4) secure means to provide one’s livelihood; and (5)accessible educational opportunities.(Burkhardt, 1986, 35) [19]

An intensely  pragmatic agricultural ethics writes, endorses, or advocates those normative principles which protect those values, principally the ones listed in (1) in Burkhardt’s list. Each profession/vocation dealing with basic needs has a conventionally assigned portion of human needs as it basic goal values for which it is responsible. No one professional enterprise is responsible for the whole of the human good. But other ethical norms arise, as we have seen, when the means by which the profession attains its goal values begin to impact on important  other values. Farmers, farm workers and their families and the conditions in which they live and work because of their involvement in agriculture  are among the principal values which arise with production values and conflict with them. The “rural life” values are equally urgent with production goals as we discover in any other profession when the rewards are so bad that the professionals leave the profession in large numbers. It would have been impossible to find a philosopher in those days who eyes would not have opened rather wide  upon hearing the principle of “the infinite mobility of labor.”  It struck me at the time that many agricultural economists were like doctors all of whose patients were dead or dying and who then decided they were not doctors after all. With the exception of a few mavericks, the profession was of little help to the philosophers. And it was not as if they did not care about multiple values in farming. It was simply that the idea that a distinctly ethical set of norms might direct them seemed odd. When I would announce to my ag economist colleagues that I had received an NSF fellowship to study the ethics of agricultural economics, slow, gentle smiles would spread over their faces as they would ask: “What ethics?”

Burkhardt’s pragmatic focus on basic needs values is one of the things which makes doing agricultural ethics easy because those needs are so obvious and basic that there is not a lot of debate about them. A realization that the Golden Rule includes people who are distant from us in time as well in space gives us a way to call for sustainability in food supplies as well as in our choice of agricultural tools. But it was not as if reflective agriculturalists did not intuit the moral wrongness of wanton destruction of non-renewable agricultural resources.

So what do you need to do agricultural ethics?

·        Be governed by the human needs which are agriculture’s goals to satisfy:

1) Sufficient, 2) healthy and 3) sustainable food (fiber) supplies.

·        Then incorporate all the legitimate multifunctional elements under the rubric:

4) by means which respect the rights and dignity of all the participants.”

·        Then express normative, ethical principles which protect and provide a reasonable prioritization among those values, keeping in mind that absolute priority and  priority due to urgency in point of time are separate issues. You can see some of this done at where the process is used in the defense of family managed farming. Industrial agriculture which could satisfy the norms there would be   much more ethically defensible.

·        Don’t hesitate to use traditional Judeo-Christian normative principles regarding farming, land use, the dignity of labor, care for animals, since those can be stated without appeal to religious authority and since they are principles which are culturally strong in the country-side. (Dundon, 1991a)

·        Don’t hesitate to use the Golden Rule. It is hardly sectarian. Or Kant’s: “Treat all persons as if they are also ends, not as if they are purely means to your ends.”

·        Respect, while using them, the inherent goodness of animals and the environment

·        Consult trained ethicists when dealing with complicated conflict issues involving “middle level principles.” One example is the“ precautionary principle.” A not very significant elaboration of “look before you leap”, it is astonishing to see serious players in agriculture maintaining that one does not need to look before leaping unless one has solid demonstration that a cost effective looking is called for.  Some common sense ethics is called for if someone proposes a substitute “principle”: If delay for looking  is costly, leaping without looking is o.k. because risk-taking is the price progress. Even if the risk is imposed on uninformed and unconsenting parties.

·        Don’t be afraid of hokey sounding but effective  principles like: “If you don’t want to see it in the newspapers after some suitable time, don’t do it.”

·        Avoid ethical bad habits by, for example, a comparison with medical ethics principles of informed consent when dealing with the issue of labeling genetically modified (GMO) foods. Informed consent is treated with great care in medicine where the benefit is to the patient, why not in agriculture where it is not clear who benefits?

·        Become acquainted with the history and philosophy of the sciences involved in any question. The less mature the science, the more astonishing the dreams of  future novel products and methods, the more risk is likely to reside in regions “not sufficiently understood” where all risk resides.

·        Note the potentially corrosive character of the claim: “There was no other way.” An adequate search for alternatives to costly or risky technologies is of the essence of good ethical policy making.

·        Be wary of the tendency of institutions and agencies to sanctify the means over the ends. The ethical agent allows the ends to determine the means however much that may mean that his/her professional tool box may not be needed in this case or must be loaded with new or different tools.

·        Your conviction that the best science available must guide our practical decisions should be shored up with wariness about today’s world where speedy action, huge profits, skilled public relations firms and “proprietary” knowledge are often involved. It must be kept in mind that there is no a priori quality that assigns the name good science or junk science to any proposition. It is only patient, thorough and carefully replicated testing by many parties, and open debate of all the results by objective critics that leads to science. And therefore if it is secret, it is not science, no matter how true and well established it seems to be to the holders of the secrets.



[1] At least one well-known philosopher has given approval to a rather odd use of agricultural animals, which fortunately has not been included among the functions of agriculture by any other commentator. In the defense of this philosopher, who shall remain nameless to allow him time to recover from his utilitarian fever, he did note a need for compassionate restraint with respect to chickens, thus protecting his voice in the field of agricultural ethics.


[2] John Adams, by David McCullough, p645,  (Simon and Schuster, NY, 2001)

[3] Ibid. 648-49

[4] Oswald Schreiner, “Early Fertilizer Work in the United States” Soil Science, 40, 1935, p39

[5] Wayne Rasmussen, 1960, Readings in the History of American Agriculture, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1960 p. 72

[6] Stanley W. Trimble, “Perspectives on the History of Soil Erosion Control in the Eastern United States”, Ag. History, 59,2, Ap. 1985, p. 163

[7] Sandra S. Batie, “Soil Conservation in the 1980s: A Historical Perspective”, Agricultural History, 59,2, April 85, p. 108

[8] Liebig was an early German expert on plant nutrition who determined the needs of plants by chemical analysis of their tissues. This approach, for a long while, offered the seductive hope that agricultural soil science could become a white-smock laboratory science appropriate even to Harvard dons and rarely requiring trips to muddy fields

[9] Harold Pinkett, “Government Research Concerning Problems of American Rural Society”, Agricultural History, 58, 3, July 1984, 367.

[10] Richard Kirkendall, “History of the Family Farm” in Is There a Moral Obligation to Save the Family Farm? Ed. By Gary Comstock, Iowa State Univ. Press, Ames, 1987, p. 86

[11] Harold T. Pinkett, “Government Research Concerning the Problems of American Rural Society” Ag. History, 58, 3, July  1984, p. 356

[12] Claton S. Ellsworth, “Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission, Ag. History 34, 3, October 1960, p. 156, cited in Pinkett, loc.cit.

[13] Harry C. McDean, “Professionalism, Policy, and Farm Economists in the Early Bureau of Agricultural Economics,” Agricultural History, 57,1, Jan. 83, p. 71, Also his “Professionalism in the Rural Social Sciences1896-1919, Ag. Hist. 58, 3, July 84, p. 392                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

[14] Adell Brown, “Economic Factors Affecting the Survival of Black Operated Farms, in Human Resources Development in Rural America—Myth or Reality, ed. By Thomas T. Williams, Tuskegee, 1986, pp. 112-119.

[15] Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.

[16] Frank Graham Sr. 1970 Since Silent Spring, Boston, Houghton-Mifflin, 1970 pp. 167-169

[17] Patrick Madden, “Values, Economics and Agricultural Research” Ethics and Agriculture, edited by Charles Blatz, Univ . of Idaho Press, Moscow, 1991

[18] See, for example, his “Food for People and Profit” in Is There a Moral Obligation to Save the Family Farm?, ed. by Gary Comstock, Univ. of Iowa Press, Ames, 1987, 246.

[19] Jeffrey Burkhardt, “The Value Measure in Public Agricultural Research”, The Agricultural Scientific Enterprise, A System in Transition, ed. by Lawrence Busch and William B. Lacy, Westview Press, Boulder, 1986, p 35.