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Building a more
equitable and
ethical food
and agriculture

FAO has constitutional obligations to raise levels of nutrition and standards of living, to secure improvements in the efficiency of the production and distribution of all food and agricultural products, to better the conditions of rural populations, and thus to contribute to an expanding world economy and to ensuring humanity's freedom from hunger.
In addition, FAO is mandated by the international community to provide the instruments and mechanisms for an international forum in which to address and take action on the balancing of interests while aiming to protect and enhance global public goods that are relevant for food and agriculture (FAO Constitution, 1945; Rome Declaration on World Food Security, 1996). Moreover, FAO has an ethical obligation to ensure that its actions are responsible, transparent and accountable as well as to provide a forum for debate and dialogue on ethical issues and unethical behaviour with respect to food and agriculture.

These instruments and mechanisms can be employed to build a more equitable, ethically-based food and agriculture system that addresses the issues and challenges described above. It would be efficient, safe and solidary, while respecting the diversity of value systems. Building such a system does not and should not mean merely creating a blueprint - a detailed plan that risks becoming an end in itself. Instead, it must be a participatory process as well as one that evolves over time in response to new scientific data, changes in goals and objectives and new ethical issues raised by FAO and its partners.

A more equitable, ethically-based, food and agriculture system must incorporate concern for three widely accepted global goals, each of which incorporate numerous normative propositions: improved well-being, protection of the environment and improved public health.

Improved well-being

Poverty remains the single most important cause of human misery in the world today. Participants in an equitable, ethically-based food and agriculture system would work towards the reduction and eventual elimination of poverty by enhancing economic efficiency and effectiveness in food and agriculture worldwide. In so doing, production efficiency (the most efficient means of producing a given good) must be balanced with distribution efficiency (the most efficient means of distributing goods). Moreover, efficiency cannot be judged solely in terms of relative cost within a particular economic system. It must also include study of the system of rights, privileges and institutions according to which efficiency is defined. Similarly, effectiveness cannot be defined merely as the ability to accomplish a particular task; it must also be measured in terms of the appropriateness of the means selected in light of ethical concerns such as fairness and justice.

In addition, efficiency and effectiveness cannot be promoted at the expense of economic interdependence, individual freedom, human rights or state sovereignty. Instead, efficiency must contribute to these goals. In other words, an ethical food and agriculture system must help citizens, communities, nations and the world as a whole progress from a global economy towards a truly global society.

In such a society, interdependence would be recognized as inescapable, each individual would be granted personal autonomy and dignity, and states would be able to maintain their sovereignty. An ethical food and agriculture system must also move from free trade, in which powerful interests are able to impose their rules in the marketplace, to an ethics-based trading system that comprises a participatory mode for establising and implementing rules.

Protection of the environment

Viewed from a global perspective, food is not currently produced in the places or ways that best conserve natural resources. In the past, global agricultural production tended to mirror the dietary patterns and living standards of local populations. This pattern is rapidly changing worldwide, with increasing urbanization, market penetration and international trade. In order to maintain an equitable, ethically-based food and agriculture system, biological efficiency (through enhanced production, processing and distribution of food and agricultural products) and agrobiological diversity must be reconciled with economic efficiency. This would allow food to be produced with a minimum use of resources, thus limiting the pressure on the environment and making food affordable for the poor. Careful consideration needs to be given to the management of the trade-offs between the objectives of food security and environmental protection. Integrated pest management and integrated resource management in agriculture, forestry and fisheries should not be considered luxuries; if an equitable, ethically-based food and agriculture system is to be passed on to future generations, they are necessities.

Improved public health

Despite some improvements over the last several decades, far too large a portion of the world's population suffers from poor health brought on by hunger, malnutrition, poor diet and unsafe food and water. These problems diminish the ability of people to participate fully in the daily affairs of their community or nation or of the world. Moreover, large-scale industrialization of agriculture and food processing poses new health threats when it is not properly monitored and controlled.

In an equitable, ethically-based food and agriculture system, issues of hunger, malnutrition, diet and food safety would be aggressively addressed, so the world would rapidly reach a stage where everyone had access to an abundant, nutritionally adequate and safe diet. Achieving this will require: i) policies that provide incentives for distributional changes to reduce inequalities in access to food; ii) scientific research to develop more efficient, safer means of food production, processing and distribution; iii) rural development to promote and develop sources of clean drinking-water and to encourage the use of safe food handling practices; and iv) the use and enforcement of adequate safeguards and safety standards in the deployment of new products.

First step

No single set of ethical principles is sufficient for building a more equitable and ethical food and agriculture system, given that it is the conflicts and contradictions among these very principles that are at issue. But individuals, states, corporations and voluntary organizations in the international community can help progress to be made through the following actions:

Creating the mechanisms necessary to balance interests and resolve conflicts. This can be accomplished by establishing fora in which controversies can be discussed and carried towards a resolution. For example, the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture has been successful in providing a forum for discussing difficult issues, including compatibilities and complementarities between plant breeders' and farmers' rights. Further examples are the agreements achieved on food standards by the Codex Alimentarius Commission or principles contained in the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (1995).

Supporting and encouraging broad stakeholder participation in policies, programmes and projects. Diverse standpoints should be represented on all international bodies. New means for participation by non-governmental organizations as well as by interested and informed citizens should be invented.

Encouraging individuals, communities and nations to engage in dialogue and, ultimately, to do what is ethical. Incentives that will encourage behaviour that promotes the values presented above (e.g. fair trade) are desirable, while incentives to engage in unethical behaviour must be removed. This process will be an iterative one, learning from past experiences with particular incentives and modifying future incentives so as to avoid unintended consequences.

Developing and disseminating widely the information and analyses necessary to make wise and ethical decisions. Information must be timely, relevant, accurate and easily accessible to all stakeholders. It must reach diverse audiences through various media, including print, television, radio and Web-based publications.

Ensuring that decision-making procedures in international food and agriculture policy as well as the content of deliberations are well understood and open to public scrutiny. No matter how democratic and fair decisions are, without public scru-tiny or awareness of them, their fairness and appropriateness cannot be judged. In contrast, public scrutiny and public understanding of decision-making processes as well as the content of actual decisions will contribute to the development of a more ethical, robust and effective global food and agriculture system.

Fostering the use of science and technology in support of a more just and equitable food and agriculture system. This will require the reconciliation of expert knowledge with indigenous knowledge and with diverse, deeply held cultural beliefs concerning priorities and values as well as appropriate action. In particular, it must be recognized that while science may inform us about levels of risk in a given undertaking, it cannot tell us whether a risk is worth taking. This question can only be addressed through dialogue among parties likely to be affected.

Ensuring that programmes, policies, standards and decisions always take ethical considerations into account so as to lead to enhanced well-being, environmental protection and improved health. Included here is an obligation to draw attention to situations and trends that decrease well-being, degrade the environment or constitute barriers to health. At the same time, it must be recognized that these three goals are not always congruent. Consequently, even if all parties agree on the ethical goals, an ongoing dialogue must take place to reconcile those goals in particular settings. That dialogue must necessarily involve negotiations and compromises as well as different means of resolution in different places.

Developing codes of ethical conduct where they do not currently exist. In a diverse and interdependent world, considerations for ethical conduct must be clear to all. Just as is now common in various professions, those individuals, states, corporations and voluntary organizations involved in building an equitable global food and agriculture system need guidance as to what constitutes ethical behaviour. Codes of conduct can provide that guidance.

Periodically reviewing ethical commitments and determining whether or not they are appropriate, in the light of new knowledge and changes in circumstances. The world today is changing rapidly. What is taken to be true today may be found to be false tomorrow. What is considered ethical today may be considered unethical tomorrow. Thus, no definitive blueprint for ethical behaviour and action is possible. What is necessary is that ethical positions be reviewed regularly to see how they might be improved on the basis of new evidence, new requirements and new demands.

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