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When is intensification ethically good? A utilitarian model

Agricultural intensification is a process that occurs when individual human beings, communities or organizations take actions of one sort or another. The ethics framework previously discussed can be applied to the actions of individuals, associations and organized corporate bodies. The framework illustrates three ways in which questions about the justifiability and ethical acceptability of any particular course of conduct might be posed and analysed. Applied to agricultural intensification, these become questions that might be pertinent to the acts of farmers, input suppliers, technology developers, or to any number of public and private agencies whose activities affect the productivity of agricultural inputs. Such questions might be asked by a person or group evaluating their own options and might also be posed as part of a general discussion and debate about what actions should be taken by governments, international agencies or, indeed, any actor in the food system. Since policies are, in fact, actions taken by governments or other organizations, it is possible to evaluate the institution of any policy that would affect intensification in much the same way as one evaluates any ordinary act. The first ethical question is to determine what it is about intensification that makes it a good thing, something to be encouraged or brought about in a particular set of circumstances and, correlatively, what circumstances might make intensification an ethically bad thing.

Consequentialist ethical approaches provide the most straightforward and obvious way to evaluate an entire system of food and fibre production. The consequentialist understands what is right, good and proper to be determined by the impact of the action or policy on health, wealth and wellbeing. Intensification is, in the prototypical case, intended to increase the total amount of food available without increasing the use of inputs. Since food is material to human life and health, the production of more food can be considered a beneficial impact, especially under the circumstances of food scarcity that have been too typical of human history. As noted, intensification is associated with periods of human population growth. Without a correlative growth in food supplies, food scarcity causes hunger, disease and starvation. Using the framework previously described, many individuals and groups consider options and undertake conduct that has the outcome (consequence) of increased food supply. The benefits associated with increased food availability provide the elemental argument for intensification, and this argument is consequentialist in its moral logic. In the simple case where new technology or farming methods allow a farmer or landowner to produce more food, consequential reasoning shows why this is ethically a good thing.

Intensification is associated with periods of human population growth


As already stated, European agricultural intensification immediately prior to the Industrial Revolution was accomplished not only by applying a package of new production technologies to farming, but also by the Enclosure Acts, which disestablished a system of rights and duties that permitted commoners to live on and farm lands as long as their crops were shared according to an ancient formula. The framework applies not only to the conduct of individual farmers and landowners, but also to the political activity that led to this policy change. Was enclosure ethically justifiable? The British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) posited the following argument to show that it was:

... He that encloses land, and has a greater plenty of the conveniences of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left to nature, may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind; for his labour now supplies him with provisions out of ten acres, which were but the product of an hundred lying in common.[1]

Here the disestablishment of the old system of commoner rights and duties is portrayed as justified in light of the increased benefits (conveniences) accruing from enclosure. Although this style of thinking is not typical of Locke, the passage implies that any system of rights and privileges is justified, given the efficiency with which it supplies human beings with provisions.

Efficiency is particularly important in the most common form of consequentialism, utilitarianism. Utilitarians assume that the values associated with consequences can be quantified to produce a ranking system for all possible courses of action (or options) available to an agent. They also assume that the value of benefits and harms can be added and subtracted. Such a ranking system produces a class of optima such that no option in the opportunity set yields greater total value (although there may be more than one option that is optimal). According to the utilitarian standard (e.g. the utilitarian maxim), the right, best and proper action or policy must be a member of this class of optima. This is popularly stated as: Act so as to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Thus, the most efficient approach to producing benefits or avoiding harms is the course of action most thoroughly justified by ethics. Utilitarianism has been an implicit ethical philosophy for agricultural science, which has sought to “make two blades of grass grow where one grew before”.

One critical and often overlooked aspect of the utilitarian approach is the need for a complete accounting of costs and benefits. The green revolution involved new seed varieties that were more responsive to nitrogen fertilizers, which are, in most settings, a purchased input. Hence, a simple utilitarian approach weighs the benefits of increased yields against the costs of seeds and fertilizer. If benefits outweigh costs, the green revolution is justified. Yet other shifts accompanied the new technology, and many critiques of the green revolution can be articulated entirely within the framework of a utilitarian/consequentialist ethic. Within the first decade of the green revolution of the 1970s, which led to aggregate increases in rice production across Asia, large-scale insect pest outbreaks and plant disease epidemics destabilized food production, supplies and prices.

Only after three boom and bust cycles and pest outbreaks did governments begin to move away from simplified, centralized pest control policies that relied on insecticides and vertical host plant resistance towards decentralized integrated pest management that built on local ecological processes to realize production potential. With the concentration of farm animal processing facilities, the chances of large-scale epizootics occurring (such as foot-and-mouth disease) increase exponentially because of the more extensive movements of animals between pasturage, feedlots and abattoirs, and contacts with animal offal and excrement. Feeding livestock with products derived from their own species creates routes for infection by diseases associated with prions.[2] Short-rotation forest plantations increase wood (especially pulpwood) production but at the same time increase vulnerability to specialized pests and diseases. Fast-growing dwarf coconut varieties increase short-term yields but are more frequently at risk from diseases previously found in limited geographic areas. In fisheries and aquatic production systems, exotic species are commonly introduced. These often initially increase total production, but can unexpectedly change trophic relationships and disrupt ecosystems, as did the Nile perch in Lake Victoria. Intensive salmon hatcheries have been criticized for reducing the genetic adaptability of natural populations. These problems testify to the need for completeness in thinking through the costs and benefits of intensification. ·

[1] J. Locke. 1690. Second treatise of Government. In C.B. McPherson, ed. 1980. Indianapolis, USA, Hackett Publishing. Locke’s philosophy is not consequentialist, but contractarian. He believed that people had a natural right to appropriate goods (including land) found in nature, and that others had a duty to respect this property right, which was grounded both in the nature of things and in the social contract forming the basis of civil society. It is thus likely that he understood the phrase “give ninety acres to mankind” in an almost literal sense, and saw the justification of enclosure in terms of a kind of expansion of the commons, rather than in starkly utilitarian terms. Nevertheless, it is difficult to interpret this particular passage as anything more than a consequentialist moral argument.
[2] Prion-associated diseases include kuru, scrapie and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The infection route and aetiology of BSE and the variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease that has been linked to BSE are still a matter of investigation.

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