C 99/INF/22


Thirtieth Session

Rome, 12-23 November 1999



1.     Major changes in the fields of food and agriculture in recent years, including accelerating technological development, changes in the resource base and economic and market developments, have brought to the fore a variety of ethical questions, of direct relevance to countries' ability to realize food security and sustainable rural development. Similar developments have occurred in a number of other fields, in particular in relation to human health and medicine, and, in the latter case, a variety of ethical review processes have been established, at national, regional and international level. For example, within the United Nations system, UNESCO created an International Bioethics Committee in 1993, and the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology in 1998; and WHO has hosted several external committees that have addressed issues related to medicine and medical genetics. At the same time, public interest in, and the public debate on, such matters have grown enormously.

2.     Although issues of specific relevance to food and agriculture have arisen in such fora, there has as yet been little systematic consideration within agriculture's own fora of ethical issues in food and agriculture. Such a situation can lead to issues of importance to food and agriculture being debated solely in terms established in other sectors. The Director-General is of the opinion that agriculture needs itself to identify the relevant questions that concern it and develop its own process of ethical reflection.

3.     The Constitution of FAO gives the Organization a mandate with clear ethical imperatives. In keeping with this mandate, the Organization has been at the forefront in developing and promoting international agreements and codes of conduct for the sustainable management of agricultural resources and agricultural inputs, and health and safety within food products, although the specific ethical component of such activities has not always been identified. The World Food Summit, in 1996, underlined the Organization's commitment to achieving humanity's freedom from hunger, which is clearly an ethical objective.

4.     The Director-General has therefore launched a process of reflection within the Organization, by establishing an internal inter-departmental Committee on Ethics, to advise him in identifying issues that need to be addressed. The Committee is composed of the Assistant Directors-General of the Technical Departments and the Legal Counsel. As part of this work, FAO will initiate a series of publications on ethical issues in food and agriculture within the forthcoming biennium. These will be directed both to policy makers and to the general public throughout the world.

5.     The Director-General also intends to establish, under Article VI.4 of the Constitution, a Panel of Eminent Experts on Ethics in Food and Agriculture. The Panel will be composed of eight members appointed in a personal capacity, with due regard to regional representation. The Panel will reflect, and promote reflection, upon ethical issues arising out of food and agricultural production and consumption, , including forestry and fisheries, in the context of food security and sustainable rural development, against the current environment of rapid global change. The Panel will promote an overall sense of international responsibility for ethics in food and agriculture and seek to increase the awareness of States, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, civil society and public opinion worldwide. The Panel will also advise on possible international, regional or national action or the preparation of instruments, as appropriate, and encourage exchange of information on all issues of an ethical nature arising out of food and agriculture.

6.     The Panel, which will meet once in the next biennium, will report to the Director-General on its deliberations. The first meeting of the Panel will be called in mid-2000. The Director-General hopes that the deliberations of the Panel will focus a wide-ranging and transparent debate of ethical issues in food and agriculture, which will enrich deliberations in other fora, inside and outside FAO, and in particular the Governing Bodies and Technical Committees.

7.     Provision for the meeting of the Panel, and for the publications on ethics in food and agriculture, has been made within the proposed Programme of Work and Budget 2000/2001, under continuing programme activity, 212P4.