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Basic ethical concerns and responsibilities

In its Terms of Reference, the Panel is requested both to reflect on and to promote reflection on ethical issues arising from food production and consumption practices and on agricultural development, including forestry and fisheries. This is to be done in the context of food security, sustainable use of natural resources, the safeguarding of biodiversity and a balanced mix of traditional and modern technologies to increase food security and sustainable agriculture.

At its first session held in September 2000, the Panel set out the main ethical concerns that guide its work. It takes as a basis that the fundamental ethical commitment of FAO is to ensure humanity’s freedom from hunger and the access of everyone to adequate food, as stated in the Organization’s Constitution and subsequent commitments. In addition, the Panel observed that while the aim of conservation and sustainable management of natural resources for present and future generations was not expressly stated in the Constitution, in practice it has become a major concern of FAO.

The ethical concerns related to food and agriculture are thus essentially twofold. One is to promote conditions in which sufficient food is produced and everyone has access to adequate food; the other is to promote policies and measures ensuring ecological sustainability of food production, including in fisheries, and to ensure similar sustainability in the practice of forestry.

Ethics requires that people go beyond self-interest to care for others. There are a number of formal approaches to ethics which the Panel has taken into account. In one approach, ethical imperatives are considered to arise from duties (this is the “deontological” approach). A second approach bases ethical consideration on an analysis of the likely outcomes of actions, and on their positive and negative effects (this is a “utilitarian” or “consequentialist” approach). A third approach is through what is called “contractarian” ethics; this combines duty-based and utilitarian approaches, by positing that ethics may be approached through the agreement of rationally self-interested and socially responsible individuals on guidelines for social interaction and governance.

The most elaborate contemporary ethical guidelines are found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is founded on a careful balance between deontological and utilitarian principles. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights constitutes an agreed global value framework that spans cultures, religions and ideologies, and is in many ways the contractarian reference for ethical assessment.

Taking into account the global commitment of FAO, the Panel has underlined that the implementation of the ethical concern for others must give priority to those in the world who are the most vulnerable and to the preservation of natural resources for future generations. Central to FAO’s mandate is the realization of the right to food. The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 2 (General Comment No. 12, para. 8) considers that the core content of the right to food implies

the availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture. Such food should be accessible in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights.

With these considerations in mind, the Panel has sought to identify positive developments in food and agriculture as well as obstacles and issues that may have a negative impact on the elimination of hunger and malnutrition or on ecological sustainability. It has pointed to the impact of human population growth and demographic shifts, the impact of diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS on food and agriculture, the pressure on natural resources, the serious and often widening gaps in income and opportunities that generate inequities and conflicts, including the gap between the winners and losers in the processes of economic globalization, which at present is characterized by predominantly neoliberal features. It pointed out that globalization in the economic field should be complemented by cooperation between states in ensuring domestic justice and responsible global governance. It has noted the great benefits that can be derived from biotechnological developments if these are combined with social and environmental responsibility and with good governance.

An initial list of recommendations and advice included suggestions for better and more comprehensive ecosystem management, steps to buffer the negative consequences of agricultural intensification and measures to counteract the negative consequences of the ongoing concentration of economic power for agricultural research. The Panel has also called for improvement of information and education to reach those who are vulnerable.

At this second session, the Panel did not seek to adopt specific recommendations, but pursued a more detailed examination of key issues with a view to preparing a set of tentative guidelines at the third session.

2 The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is a body of independent experts set up by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to monitor the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It adopts from occasional General Comments, which serve as an interpretation of, or guidance to, the obligations by states under the Covenant. Such interpretative General Comments have been adopted on, inter alia, the right to food, the right to health, the right to housing and the right to education. The texts of these General Comments are available on the Web site of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights ( ).

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