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Today, ethical concerns are central to debates about the kind of future people want. This is the result of several profound changes that are affecting virtually everyone on the planet and forcing people to come to grips with the limits of particular cultural perspectives. These changes, or trends, are considered below.

Human population growth and demographic shifts

The global population is increasing to unprecedented levels, posing challenges to food production and distribution. Although fertility rates are declining almost everywhere, global population growth will continue well into the twenty-first century (Figure 1). The world's population is currently projected to reach approximately 9 billion by 2050. As a result of low birth rates, combined with improvements in life expectancy, many developed countries have recorded rapid increases in the proportion of elderly people as a population group and, in some cases, even a decline in their overall population.

Projected population growth

Source: FAOSTAT, 2000.

In contrast, developing countries generally have much younger population structures. Rural-to-urban migration continues in many parts of the globe, leading to a world that will soon have more urban than rural inhabitants. Given that young adults account for the majority of migratory moves, rural-urban migration tends to accelerate demographic ageing in rural areas, resulting in considerable shrinkages in the rural labour force. This will have profound consequences for agriculture, as the transportation and processing of food products and people's ability to purchase them become even more essential as components of food security.

Human populations and their food supplies can both be affected by disease. Although major strides were made in controlling disease during the last century, new and resurgent diseases are a source of suffering and decreased productivity. For example, new antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis strains and dangerous Escherichia coli strains are a threat to human populations worldwide. AIDS is found mostly among people who are of working age, cutting sharply into the agricultural and industrial workforce. At the same time, in tropical nations malaria and other diseases con-tinue to take their toll through illness and death. Food-borne disease is a common cause of morbidity and mortality everywhere. Illness alone is not likely to affect the total food supply but, in an increasingly urban world, it can be expected to reduce many people's access to food.

Pressure on natural resources

The renewable natural resources upon which human life is dependent are being rapidly degraded in many areas of the world

- FAO/18829/I. BALDERI

In many areas of the world, plant and animal genetic resources, land, air, water, forests and wetlands - the renewable natural resources upon which human life is dependent - are being rapidly degraded. In some nations, this is the result of the desperation of poverty; in wealthy nations, it is a consequence of disincentives for producers and consumers to ensure conservation practices.

Ancient systems for the maintenance of common property resources, including fisheries and forestry, genetic resources and rangelands, are under increasing pressure from both population growth and increasing market penetration. In the search for more farmland, huge areas are being deforested, leading to soil erosion and massive flooding.

Overuse of marginal lands continues apace, turning fields into deserts and depriving future generations of vital crop and pasture land. Simultaneously, misuse of irrigation water is depleting aquifers and causing the salinization of fertile lands.

Industrialization of agriculture

Improvements in communications and transportation have now brought most producers and consumers into a global market


Once largely the province of smallholders, today agriculture is an increasingly large-scale business in many parts of the world. Farmers are more and more dependent on input suppliers for seeds, fertilizers, machinery and pesticides. At the same time, they must often be responsive to large food retailers who demand particular agronomic practices and set delivery dates and quality characteristics. Smallholders and farmworkers, particularly women, are often among those to be forced out of activity or bypassed by these transformations. Industrial inputs are often subsidized, replacing farmworkers with machines or exposing them to toxic chemicals. A disproportionately large number of women are displaced and often have great difficulty in obtaining alternative employment.

While increased supplies and declining prices of farm products result in less expensive food for the urban poor, they also cause the displacement of smallholders or reduce them to bare subsistence. Industrialization also brings greater risks, as crop plants and domestic animals become more genetically uniform. Whereas in the past, myriads of smallholders maintained the biodiversity necessary for the continued viability of crops and domestic animals, today national governments and international treaties are increasingly requested to manage the earth's biodiversity.

Concentration of economic power

While global production is reaching increasingly high levels, economic power is becoming more concentrated. The net worth of the world's 200 richest people is greater than the combined income of 41 percent of the world's population. The world's 200 largest transnational corporations now account for a quarter of the world's economic activity. In the food and agriculture sector, mergers and acquisitions are rapidly reducing to single digits the number of companies engaged in input production, food processing and food retailing. In some nations, landownership is also becoming increasingly concentrated. This has occurred simultaneously with the withdrawal of nation states from various activities of the food and agriculture sector. For example, the agenda for agricultural research and extension, once the domain of the state, is now largely set in the private sector.

Thus, much of the research on crops and livestock that does not hold the potential to generate private profit has been abandoned as the presence of the state has diminished. As a result, marginal stakeholder groups, including smallholders, farmworkers and poor consumers, are in danger of losing what little voice they had in research policy decisions.


Although long-distance trade was known to the ancient world, improvements in communications and transportation as well as the liberalization of trade have now brought most producers and consumers into a global market. The interdependencies created in this manner have the potential to generate greater global solidarity. Yet the rules for this new global economy are only partially written and are themselves the subject of considerable contention.

Global competition may result in lower prices, but it also erodes cultural values and national identities. It may also foreclose options for future generations. Moreover, while textbook accounts suggest that trade liberalization will lead to greater overall welfare, some actors have the wherewithal to take advantage of global markets to a far greater extent than others, owing to their access to capital, expertise, technologies and policy-makers. Conversely, others benefit much less and even suffer losses, often through no fault of their own. Furthermore, only in a few situations are people who are unfairly denied access to these means compensat-ed or provided with alternative opportunities to help themselves.

Human-induced change

Human-induced environmental changes may contribute to "natural" disasters

- FAO/20669/E. YEVES

Today many, if not most, of the emergencies (famine, crop failure, floods, drought and war) faced by nations and regions are at least partially the result of human-induced change (Figure 2). Humans' abil-ity to modify the global landscape, together with an increasing population, enable them to engage in actions that transform societies and the natural world in unintended and/or unforeseeable ways. The most obvious consequence is what is now defined as global climate change - the raising of the earth's temperature as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, generated by the burning of fossil fuels in power gen-eration, industry and transport. Less ap-parent are the ways in which human activities, such as deforestation, building on floodplains, depletion of groundwater supplies and even responses to disasters themselves, may contribute to "natural" disasters. Often, those who bear the brunt of these emergencies are the nations with small developing economies, the rural poor, women and children. These groups are also the least able to become self-reliant without external aid.

Trends in causes of food emergencies, 1981-1999

Source: FAO, Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture.

New biotechnologies

For millennia, the food and agriculture system has made use of biotechnologies in the form of fermented foods such as bread, cheese and beer. But the new biotechnologies, at once a collection of tools for research and new means of generating food and agricultural products, hold even greater promise - and some risk. Biotechnol-ogies could help to increase the supply, diversity and quality of food products, reduce costs of production and processing and reduce pesticide use and environmental degradation. They could also be used to develop new animal vaccines, improve food safety, prolong storage and change the nutritional content of foods.

Certain biotechnologies have been used to generate food and agricultural products for millenia; the new technologies are expanding that capacity even further

- FAO/20193/G. DIANA

Biotechnology includes a wide range of different techniques, many of which are not controversial, as well as the process referred to as genetic engineering. Central to this process is the ability to select and manipulate genetic material with great precision and to transfer traits of interest from one species to express them in an-other. Biotechnology also encompasses the creation of cloned organisms, such as Dolly (the renowned cloned sheep), and the modification of reproductive mechanisms. However, the ability to transfer genes in no way infers knowledge of which genes should be transferred.

Given the trend of state withdrawal from agricultural research, most successful applications developed with genetic engineering to date have been those that are profitable for their predominantly private sector developers. This is true of herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, for example. Combined with restrictive intellectual property laws, such applications may become means for further concentrating economic power. In addition, although there is little empirical evidence as yet, these products may pose new risks, both for the environment and human health. Examples include the transfer of herbicide tolerance to weeds, leading to more aggressive or more competitive weeds; the transfer of food allergenic compounds to products that did not previously contain them; and the replacement of diverse native populations with more uniform and aggressive genetically engineered varieties. An extreme scenario could be the use of the new biotechnologies for bioterrorism.


Information technology today is transforming the speed as well as the ways in which people communicate with one another in much the same way as the telephone and telegraph did a century ago. In principle, with a small amount of equipment, anyone can communicate with another person on the planet at any time. In the food and agriculture sector, modern information and communication technologies have enormous potential for wide and rapid knowledge sharing at all stages of the food chain. For example, it allows precision farming - farming guided by detailed environmental information so as to minimize the use of water, agrochemicals and labour. When combined with emerging nanotechnologies (which permit manipulation and manufacture at the molecular level), informatics may permit vast increases in production efficiencies as well.

However, access to the new information technologies is highly unequal. Even in the industrialized nations, the poor lack access to the new media. In much of the developing world, only a few have access to telephones, and only a minute élite can afford the new technologies. In addition, just as informatics can speed up constructive political, commercial and familial communication, it can also facilitate com-munication for destructive purposes. Generally, these new technologies can intrude on the private lives of citizens in ways that were never possible before.

Each of the points briefly discussed above raises profound ethical questions that FAO must address in carrying out its mandated activities. The points covered are inextricably connected. Urbanization and industrialized agriculture have massively enhanced world trade, increased the world's total material wealth and prosperity, greatly expanded the scope of people's diets, reduced the cost and increased the abundance of basic cereals, and shifted value in the food and agriculture system from the farm to the input and post-harvest sectors. At the same time, however, these transformations have posed new problems - problems that are at once material and ethical.

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