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Who is responsible for ensuring that intensification occurs?

The 1996 World Food Summit recognized that the then world population of 5.8 thousand million had 15 percent more food per capita than the global population of 4 thousand million only 20 years earlier. The productive potential of technological improvement was demonstrated in the green revolution of the 1960s, where improved varieties resulting from scientific breeding, largely in the international public sector, coupled with investment in irrigation, mineral fertilizers and institutional infrastructures, raised food production and productivity, particularly in rice and wheat in Asia. But the uneven success of green revolution technologies, with little uptake in Africa particularly, and its unforeseen social consequences, showed that sustainable intensification was not just a result of technological development but of government policy, and social and economic forces. In the last decades, falling transport costs, together with the development of global markets and growing trade liberalization, have given new focuses to the challenge of ensuring a steady reduction in poverty through securing and maintaining adequate long-term production levels as well as conditions of adequate access to food. There are major new factors to consider, including changes to the biosphere resulting from global warming, the as yet unproven potential of the new biotechnologies, unprecedented urbanization and the reality of a world economy without a global economy or global society.

Utilitarian/consequentialist and rights-based approaches in ethics have tended to portray responsibility in very general terms: everyone has the responsibility for acting in ways that produce the greatest good for the greatest number, or in accord with duties to respect other people’s rights. Thus, if intensification is considered to be a good thing, everyone is responsible for doing whatever he or she can to make sure that it is achieved. Australian philosopher Peter Singer has published a number of essays in which he puts forward this argument exactly, at least with respect to responsibility for ending hunger. However, this view has been the subject of some criticism. It seems to impose an overwhelming responsibility on ordinary people, as if one cannot divert one’s time and resources to enjoy life while someone else is hungry. Furthermore, it creates a situation in which nothing is actually done: if something is everyone’s responsibility in general, it tends to be seen as no one’s responsibility in particular. Singer has acknowledged that this may in fact be a weakness of the utilitarian philosophy that he has advocated.

Intensification: implications for forestry

At present, most wood production comes from natural and semi-natural forests, which cover 95 percent of the world’s forest area. Human interventions in forests may aim at very different objectives, not exclusively targeting increases in industrial wood production, but also non-wood forest products and the provision of conservation, protection, recreational and other environmental and social functions. Total demand for wood products is increasing globally and the yield productivity of forest plantations is higher than that of natural forests. However, a major ethical question regarding the intensification of forests is whether it is acceptable to clear natural forests to establish forest plantations. According to current estimates, about 50 percent of newly established forest plantations relied upon the clearing of natural forests, particularly degraded and/or secondary natural forests. These decisions generally stress criteria of optimization typical of utilitarian ethical decision-making.

In the case of natural forests, intensification is not a common concept or priority. Some of the reasons for this relate to ethical concerns. Natural forests are managed for a multitude of functions to provide a large range of products and services (non-intervention, like absolute protection of a conservation area, is a management option). This multipurpose strategy limits options for intensification and specialization on largely utilitarian grounds, but different groups of people have different expectations of natural forests, frequently seeking to harvest different products of the forest or trying to obtain different services from it. The equation “specialization + intensification” often creates conflicts between these groups. Such conflicts raise questions about who participates in decision-making and when formal criteria for involving affected parties need to be specified. Furthermore, in natural and semi-natural forests, management cycles are much longer than in agriculture and require a series of step-by-step, long-term practices. The purpose of forest management can change markedly over time. Changes in the way that forests contribute to lifestyles, community and cultural identity and the broad patterns of social organization are difficult to articulate in the traditional utilitarian language of costs and benefits.

Ethical ideas that stipulate particular responsibilities for people who have special roles – such as teachers, holders of public office, technical experts and parents – have more typically been articulated in the language of virtue and community solidarity. Thus, community leaders are people who have assumed or been appointed to a particular social station that entails special duties. A virtuous leader therefore assumes duties that are not those of the ordinary person, and in traditional societies such leaders would also have the authority to ensure that these duties are carried out. Consequently, in a traditional society, leaders might be acting rightly even when they order people to do things that might not be consistent with a modern conception of rights. Military leaders, for example, can order citizens to sacrifice their lives for the greater good of the community, and one can easily imagine situations in which changes in land use or farming practice might be ordered as part of a leader’s performance of special responsibilities.

In modern societies, social roles are often highly rationalized so that particular agencies are formed to take over roles that might have been understood as components of a leader’s virtue in traditional societies. Thus organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have been assigned an explicit social mission that entails a responsibility to ensure that food needs are met. The report of the 1996 World Food Summit makes the case for a new round of intensification, and places responsibilities on national governments, with organizations such as FAO having major responsibilities for coordinating and facilitating that work. However, officers within FAO have an ethical challenge in meeting this responsibility. On the one hand, traditional models for interpreting the responsibilities these officers have been delegated to carry out stipulate ethics of virtue, and many expect these people to act as virtuous and authoritative leaders, especially when working in traditional societies. These traditional ways of understanding ethical responsibilities provide an implicit basis for acting ethically to discharge official responsibilities. On the other hand, the rationale for forming organizations such as the United Nations has largely been articulated in utilitarian or rights-based terms, and this language places significant constraints on the authority of officers who occupy posts within these organizations. Thus, the exercise of these role responsibilities requires ethical resources that may exceed those on which the mandate of an organization’s authority is based. ·

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