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Ethical issues
in food and

In conformity with its terms of reference and the considerations set out in the preceding section, the Panel explored a number of areas where ethical considerations may contribute substantially to the alleviation of widespread hunger and food insecurity in the world. The term "ethical consideration" implies that the guiding motivation is not the performer's own benefit but the benefits afforded to others. The "performer" may be an individual or a group, such as a corporation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) or a government. Those whose benefits are taken into account may be other individuals or groups, whether or not they transcend national boundaries.


The impact of human population growth and demographic shifts

The world's population is projected to reach approximately 9 billion by 2050. Global population growth has already contributed to a serious loss of biodiversity and will pose serious ethical challenges to food production and distribution in the future. Family planning measures are urgently needed but should be implemented in ways that are compatible with human rights. The Panel noted with concern that some religious and political leaders remain opposed to effective family planning and related measures.

The Panel observed that overpopulation in developing countries is both a function and a cause of poverty. Reducing the gap between the affluent and the poor within and among countries, and ensuring that everyone has access to education are two ways to assist in controlling population growth. Further measures would also be of help - an important one being to ensure that women are granted equal access to schooling and equal opportunities to participate in the economy. With increased educational opportunities for women, population growth rates have been significantly reduced.

The impact of disease on food and agriculture

Diseases such as malaria and AIDS have a direct impact on the ability of human communities to carry out activities related to food and agriculture. In addition, indirect impacts of disease can result from poor handling and post-harvest processing, etc. in food production, often brought about by intensification and changes in agriculture that may be inappropriate to local conditions and practices.

Pressure on natural resources

In many areas of the world, plant and animal genetic resources and land, air, water, forest and wetland resources - the renewable natural resources on which human life depends - are being rapidly degraded. Pressures on natural resources arise because of conflicts between long-term and short-term interests, economic and social interests, local and regional priorities, and between the needs of present and future generations. There is a propensity to short-term approaches, whereas the management of resources calls for a long-term approach. Furthermore, current market and political forces may not take sufficient account of future generations, as they do not consume or vote. Corrective measures need to be implemented to secure rights for people in the future, for example an ombudsman or similar institution that can safeguard the interests of future generations.

Gaps and differences

The Panel considered many gaps and differences that could generate inequities and conflicts: the gaps between the affluent and the poor; between the food-secure and the food-insecure; between those with access to education and technology and those without; between the winners and the losers in the process of globalization. Cultural differences must also be taken into account. Action aimed at improving conditions for the present generation can conflict with the needs of future generations. Ethics calls for efforts to reduce these gaps and to balance the different interests in a fair way.

Economic globalization requires cooperation in global governance

Far too many of the world's people remain marginalized, and the gap between the poorest and the most affluent groups is growing. The Panel noted there are serious power imbalances arising from the concentration of economic power in the hands of a few. Institutions are not yet in place to ensure that these imbalances are properly addressed and existing international mechanisms are too weak. UN Member States should cooperate through the UN system, including FAO, to develop a rule-based framework for global governance based on ethical considerations. Increased linkages with civil society, facilitated by modern communication technologies such as e-mail and the Internet, can strengthen the decentralized global governance system that is now emerging.

The aim should be to move towards a decentralized global society, where interdependence is recognized but where individuals can enjoy their personal autonomy and dignity and states can preserve their sovereignty within a framework of global cooperation. An ethical food and agriculture system must also move away from unrestricted free trade, in which powerful forces are able to impose their rules in the marketplace, towards an ethics-based trade system that provides for a participatory mode in the establishment and implementation of rules.


Ecosystem management

The Panel noted that agro-ecosystem management is not addressed comprehensively, either in FAO or elsewhere. The different sectors involved are too isolated, and additional problems arise when land use planning is discounted or not respected and when planning is biased in favour of immediate gains. Consequently, there is a need for corrective mechanisms. Multinationals sometimes pressure governments to abstain from enacting or enforcing required national legislation, under the threat of investing elsewhere. The Panel noted the efforts now under way in the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights to develop a code of conduct for multinational corporations, and called upon FAO to assist the Sub-Commission in its work so as to ensure the inclusion of guidelines concerning the operations of such corporations in food and agriculture. The Panel also noted that FAO is continuing to work on a draft Code of Conduct on Biotechnology as it relates to Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, requested by member countries.

When short-term interests take precedence, the result can be a loss of long-term benefits and the need for costly restoration work in the future. But short-term and long-term benefits may be compatible if both receive adequate recognition in the management of the resource. Natural resources must be managed for multiple objectives, including economic, social, ecological and dietary factors. Another problem arises from the fact that decisions are often made remotely by persons who are not directly dependent on or knowledgeable about the resources concerned. Ethical considerations require that, to the extent possible, those who are affected by decisions should participate in the decision-making process, which must be open and transparent. Such considerations may need to be enforced by international agreement. In this case, FAO's work on criteria and indicators for sustainable forestry could serve as an example.

Buffering the negative consequences of agricultural intensification

Once largely the province of smallholders, today agriculture is becoming an increasingly large-scale business in many parts of the world. Among the many issues involved in this process is the concern that input providers may gain too much control over the rights of local farmers. The improvement of sustainable production in agriculture, including forestry and fisheries, should generally be beneficial to all. In this respect, the Panel pointed out that the way in which intensification is undertaken is critical. Participation in the overall process, including decision-making, needs to be broad and equitable.

During the process of change, various factors need to be addressed. For example, alternatives for displaced workers and other community members need to be found. In the face of unpredictable environmental changes and human needs, traditional and modern farming methods need to be reconciled in order to maintain indigenous knowledge of diversified farming systems and biodiversity.

If they are properly empowered, farmers can make their plant varieties and animal breeds more competitive. Data banks may be developed to record cultural traditions of agriculture. Traditional technologies may be combined with new technologies so that farmers can advance beyond subsistence farming in a sustainable manner. Ethical guidelines for decision-making during the process of change are needed, and ways should be sought to make productive use of available human resources. There should be more direct links between farmers and policy-makers; in this context, the Panel referred to the text on Farmers' Rights, agreed on by governments during the current negotiations for the revision of the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources. The text stipulates that States Parties shall take measures to protect and promote Farmers' Rights, including the right to participate in decisions on matters related to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.

It is important to recognize the additional values arising from farming beyond the monetary gains, but which regrettably are sometimes neglected in the intensification of agriculture: farming contributes to the conservation and development of biodiversity, and to the adaptation of biodiversity with changing conditions.

Counteracting the negative consequences for agricultural research of the concentration of economic power

Economic power is becoming more concentrated - the world's 200 largest transnational corporations now account for a quarter of the world's economic activity. The Panel noted that this huge disparity in economic power negatively affects funding for development. Resources are moving towards private interests and away from public institutions. There is even a growing risk, strengthened by contemporary policies in many areas, of public resources being diverted to support private sector priorities. An example is when limited funding from industry leads to changes in the priorities of university research, while the university continues to use the infrastructure and professional staff paid by the government. The Panel also expressed concerns about the concentration of proprietary rights and the overextension of intellectual property rights (IPRs).

Economic power is accompanied by power over, and access to, technological development and research. To an increasing extent, research supports economic rather than social interests, and the results achieved are sometimes made exclusive through excessive claims of intellectual property. It is essential for FAO to continue to promote and safeguard Farmers' Rights and to encourage equal distribution of the benefits of research related to genetic resources in developing countries.

The public sector needs to receive more funding in order to secure broad coverage of open and generally accessible agricultural research. Furthermore, research should not be focused solely on topics where economic profits are foreseen. Social issues also need to be addressed in agricultural research. Research and development should be directed more towards food production and distribution in developing countries, and the benefits generated should be shared with poor farmers in these countries. Farmers should also be enabled to participate more actively in such research, and information should be shared widely - the Panel noted that there is a lack of North-South cooperation and sharing of resources and information.

The Panel called upon FAO to encourage greater investment of public resources in agricultural research and to increase countries' awareness of the advantages in carrying out research that will enhance economic development of the poorer sections of agriculture and make it possible to share the results achieved. Given that changing the concentration of power will be a difficult task, continued efforts are needed to raise the alarm and awaken multinationals to their social responsibilities. A suggestion was made to consider taxing multinationals in support of more balanced research. The Panel also recommended that FAO should encourage rich countries to fulfil their commitment to increase their development assistance to 0.7 percent of their gross national product (GNP).

NGOs are often strong advocates of balanced agricultural research. FAO should document alternative methods and approaches and disseminate this information widely. Although it may be difficult to influence economic policy, history has shown that, with time and commitment, dramatic changes can take place and situations gradually be improved.

Information and education

The universal human right to education is essential for the achievement of food security. Information flows and education can be harnessed to meet the ethical imperative of empowering those who are currently vulnerable. Access to information is highly unequal at present, but it can and should be broadened. In this respect, education institutions can be of great help. Although education is important, it is rarely neutral, and usually has aims and directions built into it. However, provided ethical considerations are taken into account in the structuring of its content and methodology, education may influence people to make the right ethical choices later in life. It also has an important role in helping people to make informed decisions regarding new technologies. Education needs to be adapted to different cultural contexts, and it is important for local communities to have more voice in the planning of education systems.

Farmers' field schools can contribute to the exchange of information among farmers. As part of its responsibility to promote agricultural education, FAO can assist in enabling local communities to produce a greater variety of crops and to use more efficient methods, since a diversity of farming systems and crops is conducive to greater food security. FAO should encourage the formation of technological research institutions in developing countries and enhance these countries' capacity for technological independence.

FAO can play a role in promoting local species that offer increased productivity and it can provide information in support of food and livelihood security and dietary diversity. Documentation is needed on different farming strategies for in situ conservation and on ways to minimize risks, thus building on the existing knowledge of farmers.

In the transmission of information and the facilitation of education, certain ethical considerations should be kept in mind:


The Panel endorsed the following guidelines and measures, directed at the national and the international level, for implementing the recommendations discussed in the previous sections:

Creating the mechanisms necessary to balance interests and resolve conflicts. The Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture was mentioned as a useful example: the Commission has been successful in providing a forum for discussing difficult issues, including the compatibility and complementarity between Plant Breeders'and Farmers' Rights. In the Codex Alimentarius Commission, governments negotiate difficult decisions relating to food standards. The framework for sustainable fisheries management, conservation and development is provided by the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.

Supporting and encouraging broad stakeholder participation in policies, programmes and projects. Ways must be found to ensure involvement at the national level by all sections of society, including poor farmers and vulnerable groups in developing countries, and also to ensure that their voice is heard in international bodies, through wider participation by NGOs and in other ways.

Designing incentives that will encourage individuals, communities and nations to engage in dialogue and, ultimately, to do what is ethical. This also requires the preparation and wide dissemination of information and analyses necessary to make decisions that are wise and ethical in character.

Ensuring the transparency of information and decision-making. It is essential that decision-making procedures in international food and agricultural policy as well as the content of deliberations be well understood and open to public scrutiny. Public scrutiny and understanding of decision-making processes and the content of actual decisions will contribute to the development of a more ethical and effective global food and agriculture system.

Fostering the use of integrated and empirical science and technology in the service of a more just and equitable food and agriculture system. Multidisciplinary approaches, combining social and natural sciences, are required. Furthermore, technical and social expert knowledge must be reconciled with cultural beliefs and values. Experts can to some extent inform others about the level of risks connected with a given activity, but only those affected can determine whether the risks are worth taking, based on their own cultural values and their assessments of the risks and benefits expected.

Encouraging cooperation and solidarity among institutions engaged in research and development, making it possible to take appropriate action more quickly.

Ensuring the incorporation of ethical considerations in all programmes, policies, standards and decisions, thereby contributing to improved human health and well-being and environmental protection. Certain activities may be beneficial for some people and negative for others. This has to be spelled out so that all those affected can make their own assessments and be heard before decisions are made. Additionally, a given line of action may increase productivity but degrade the environment or carry a risk to human health. These are factors that must be clarified so that, whenever possible, the necessary compromises have the support of all those affected.

Developing codes of ethical conduct where they do not currently exist. Individuals, states, corporations and voluntary organizations involved in building an ethical global food and agriculture system need guidance as to what constitutes appropriate behaviour. Codes of conduct can provide that guidance.

Periodically reviewing ethical commitments and determining whether or not they are appropriate on the basis of new knowledge and changes in circumstances. Even when decisions and actions are based on ethical considerations as spelled out in this report, they must be ethically reviewed at a later stage in the light of their consequences, new evidence in general and new ethical demands.

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