Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: David M. Kaplan

Agricultural Science and Ethics

  • Mickey GjerrisEmail author
  • Mette Vaarst
Living reference work entry

Latest version View entry history

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6167-4_257-2


Ecosystem Service Animal Welfare Food System Agricultural Science Animal Production System 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



Humans live in constant interaction with nature. That is part and parcel of being a biological creature on this planet. On one hand, humans exploit the available resources to survive, and at the same time, humans are deeply dependent on the continued capacity of nature to sustain their lives and the lives of their children and future generations. But something has changed over the past 50 years: Never before in human history have so many animal and plant species been made extinct so fast – and 10–30% of mammal, bird, and amphibian species are currently threatened with extinction; freshwater ecosystems are particularly at risk. Never before has humankind been so destructive and exploitative in relation to ecosystems and vital resources as now. Just as an example, in the last decades of the twentieth century, about 20% of the world’s coral reefs and 35% of the mangrove areas were lost (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005).

In the following, the development of agricultural science will be sketched out and the role of ethics in agricultural science will be discussed. Then different views of nature that have shaped agriculture and the role of science in agriculture will be discussed by analyzing some of the presumptions behind the concept of ecosystem services and the way animals are viewed. Finally, the concepts of animal welfare and sustainability will be explored to show how they make vivid the connection between agricultural science and ethics.

The Development of Agricultural Science

Although the first traces of agricultural research can be traced back to the thirteenth and fourteenth century, organized agricultural sciences first emerged in the mid-1800s, primarily with increased mechanization and organization of agricultural production and the possibilities to make agriculture “rational” and the use of different technological inventions to increase productivity in agriculture and food production. In the late eighteenth century, chemical compositions of soil and systematic measures of the growth conditions of different crops started the chemical intervention in farming and hence the development of agronomy. The introduction of chemical and genetic control increased in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The development of scientific approaches to agricultural development can be seen as a contrast to the previous centuries’ practical development of farming, where knowledge and skills were passed on between generations on local context-specific levels. However, more systematic collection of information from farmers and dissemination of “best practice” in agricultural schools or published texts, e.g., initiated by progressive landowners, were also increasingly practiced from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century and improved production and knowledge in relation to agricultural challenges (Jones and Garforth 1997).

A boom in the development of agricultural production happened in the northwestern world in the post-Second World War era, where mechanization of agriculture increased dramatically and the Western European agenda was to ensure food security for the population, as increased welfare was seen as one way to avoid wars and conflicts in the future. In this phase, agricultural research stations and institutions grew and were viewed as necessary instruments to an increased production through a “rational growth agenda.” In the following decades, subsidized farming in parts of Europe and North America became increasingly specialized and industrialized and continued to increase in productivity, while at the same time international trade grew larger. In other parts of the world, e.g., India and Mexico, so-called green revolutions of agriculture involving hybrid seeds, mineral fertilizer, and pesticide use introduced mainly at the larger farms resulted in major increases in agricultural productivity and at the same time had severe long-term impacts on soil degradation and environment (Cullather 2010). In the past decades, agricultural and food systems have been influenced by an enormous growth of transnational food corporations, liberalization of international food trade and foreign direct investments, and increased globalization of the diet (Hawkes et al. 2009). The food and agricultural industry has supported research which influences this development (Lesser et al. 2007), both through establishing own research units and funding to universities and other research institutions through various channels. Out of this, at least two major trends in agricultural research have developed:
  1. 1.

    Research which is more or less guided and controlled by large private companies like Monsanto (Robin 2010) that seeks to develop products such as agrochemicals and patented seeds to agricultural and food systems which meet the demand for huge amounts of cheap food products

  2. 2.

    Research which focuses on critical issues in relation to the industrialized agriculture and food systems and have the potential to inspire changes of farming practices toward a more environmentally and socially responsible agricultural sector


The latter includes: Research in climate change, biodiversity, social aspects of farming, and governance of food chains that have led to a value-based critique of, e.g., growing reliance on experts and increased vulnerability of farmers, science-techno-based farming, intellectual property rights, and labor conditions (Beus and Dunlap 2010; Thompson and Stout 1991).

The Role of Ethics in Agricultural Science

The understanding of agricultural science developed above makes it obvious that there is a strong link between agricultural science and ethics, since the goals of agriculture and the choice of strategies on how to obtain them are not themselves only scientific questions but also questions that require answers based on value. These are questions as what kind of foods to produce (animal products or vegetarian), which methods to use (organic, conventional, extensive, intensive, biodynamic), what consequences of human action to accept (landscape, animal welfare, wildlife, environment), and what conditions to provide for farmers, farmworkers, and all others working on the land and in the food-producing sector (health, social status, rights). These questions can only be answered through ethical considerations and reflections and not through natural sciences. The ethical discussions include a discussion of who can legitimately answer these questions. Or, in other words, who should govern the land? Is it a political task, should it be through participation from civil society actors, or should it be left to the market and thus be decided through the often silent negotiation between producers and customers? In the latter scenario, there is a risk that decisions are shaped in the space between a commercialized market and individual consumers left to fight for their values with their wallets. This is not unproblematic as the outcome of this negotiation is also of obvious interest for those who are not part of it and have no voice: the poor, future generations, animals, plants, and ecosystems.

Such questions reach into the area of political and societal structures and are thus often not seen as part of agricultural sciences, despite the fact that the structure and governance of agriculture itself strongly influence the way in which we ask scientific questions and vice versa. This is not surprising, since the perceptions and goals of scientists are just as full of value assumptions as the goals of politicians. Objectivity in science does not cover the goals of science but only the methodologies, where, e.g., data can be described in terms of repeatability and reliability, but the choice of how and which data to collect, focus on, and analyze is still a choice of each researcher or research team and should be communicated as such. Further along these tracks lie the questions of how risks are understood and communicated and how the interpretation of scientific uncertainty influences the way that scientific results are presented (Webster 2003).

Describing the relationship between agricultural science and ethics entails recognizing the ways in which values penetrate agricultural sciences and determine goals and methodologies. The classic notion of an objective science that develops technologies, which the civil society then choose from, is replaced with an understanding where science is seen as embedded within the social framework through which complicated interactions shape the more-than-human lifeworld. Thus, from a moral and social point of view, agricultural scientists have an obligation to be transparent about the assumptions underlying their work as their results and advice are expressions not only of knowledge but also of values.

Agricultural science can enhance understanding of important aspects of the soil and ecosystems on which humans are dependent for food and – to a growing extent – energy. Agricultural sciences participate in collecting, systematizing, and transforming practical knowledge and skills of farmers and agricultural professionals into more time- and/or cost-efficient practices and technologies and in inventing new technologies and machines which can increase efficiency in different ways (Tilman et al. 2002). As long as this is not connected to funds for inventing tools or patents that only benefit few, distort power relationships, etc., and it is clear and transparent; then it is quite simply a generally accepted feature of scientific approaches.

It becomes problematic, however, when there is a move from methodological reductionism and into ontological reductionism. Methodological reduction is a necessary prerequisite of science, by which certain aspects of the phenomena being examined are excluded/deliberately ignored to achieve objectivity or at least intersubjectivity in a group or community of science. Ontological reductionism occurs when the results from a specific scientific inquiry are viewed as the only valid knowledge about a given phenomenon, no matter the context. The context in a complex world (e.g., a farm) can be very different – and hence influence and interact in different ways – from the quite controlled environment in which the phenomenon was studied. In such a case, the world itself is reduced, and every part is seen as a simple sum of smaller parts, which can be studied independent of their context (Fang 2011). This could, for example, be a study of how certain plants grow and thrive being provided with different levels of a certain type of nutrient under controlled conditions in a laboratory. The results of these studies are valid under similar conditions, but plants of the same species and variety may turn out completely different in relation to the same type of nutrient under different on-farm conditions, where they are not only influenced by these studied nutrients but also by, e.g., temperature, seasons, other trees, plants, and management practices which were not present in the laboratory.

The same move can be seen within agricultural science when the basic ethical relationship between humans and nature is denied on the basis of the results of an agricultural science that from the outset looks away from this relationship to enable a scientific inquiry. How agricultural science is done both from a teleological and methodological perspective is thus very dependent upon the view of nature presupposed in the scientific work.

Views of Nature

Humans have lived with, in, and from nature for thousands of years and increasingly transformed what formerly was “living on the mercy of nature” into “taking control and shaping agricultural systems.” This has happened in different ways: In some cases, it has been based on a rather interaction-based view and practical approach, such as shaping systems which build on or mimic the mechanisms of natural ecosystems, e.g., permaculture and certain agroforestry systems. In other cases, it has been based on a more control-based view, where humans aim at getting the full control over land, plants, animals, and agriculture and use the resources around them. These different approaches are built on different views and values related to “what nature is” and how the relationship between humans and nature should be seen.

A dichotomy between “nature” and “culture” is often taken for granted. However, “nature” and “culture” are mixed into new forms as new hybrids are produced in agriculture and agricultural sciences. For example, in the meeting between the farming landscape and nature, “nature” is guided and restricted by agricultural activities. Yet the existence of a “nature” which can be distinguished from “culture” is often emphasized.

Within environmental philosophy, a distinction between views that are mainly anthropocentric, pathocentric, biocentric, and ecocentric has been developed – the latter also sometimes religiously inspired from especially animistic traditions (Abram 1996; Griffiths 2006). Each viewpoint describes the kind of entities that are seen as members of the ethical community (Krebs 1999). These basic views influence the ways farmed landscapes and animals are perceived and shape the understanding of which responsibilities humans have and how to interact with nature. “Nature” is a complex concept with many layers of meaning. Some of the qualities linked to nature are, for example, described as (a) wilderness, e.g., the quality of natural processes not disturbed by human interference including pollution; (b) continuity, e.g., that a habitat is allowed to exist over long time; (c) authenticity, meaning that “nature” is not constructed or planned; and (d) originality, understood as nature with native species and habitats (Tybirk et al. 2004). Different basic views on nature can be described, for example, a “naturalist view” (where all four described dimensions are present and humans should protect natural areas and manage seminatural areas very carefully); an “ecologist view” in which humankind can interact, structure, and “enhance” natural processes also in relation to agricultural activities; and a “cultivist view,” where nature is only found outside farmed land areas.

The concept of ecosystem services vividly illustrates how farmed and nonfarmed land is viewed within an anthropocentric framework. If humans do not interact with or “use the services” of nature, then it is basically without interest, as it is of no “service.” The microbiological life in the soil can be viewed as such an ecosystem service: Without this life – which consists of “natural microorganisms” – cultivated plants cannot grow well. The goal from an anthropocentric point of view therefore becomes to control and preferably improve the microbiological life in the soil to enhance the ecosystem services that it provides. This can be seen as a contrast to the deep ecology philosophy, which insists on the inherent value and worth of every living organism in their own right.

Pollination is another example of an ecosystem service, on which agriculture is deeply dependent – about 70% of the global plant production relies on pollination, so if the bees die, food production will be gravely challenged. Scaringly enough this has been the case since the beginning of this century. The phenomena – labeled as colony collapse disorder (CCD) – were first reported in the USA and then spread to Europe. The reasons behind the vanishing of bees are still not entirely understood, but human actions, especially the use of pesticides and herbicides, are suspected as major factors (Suryanarayanan and Kleinman 2013). One response to the increasing threat to bees has been a suggestion to invent “robot bees” (Anonymous 2012; Steadman 2012). Such an attempt to “repair” a problem that is most likely created by human action clearly comes from the anthropocentric and cultivist side of the value landscape. The role of science (agricultural, biological, and engineer sciences) is seen as inventing such robot bees, and the role of the industry is to market something which before was an “ecosystem service.” From a more ecocentric view on agricultural sciences, solutions would aim at creating agricultural systems which respect animals and the living communities that they are embedded in and help create conditions, allowing and supporting the pollinators to work and live as part of an organically sustainable system.

Views of Animals

Through domestication and breeding, humans have for thousands of years increasingly shaped animals to more efficiently produce meat and other animal products. This development has escalated since the intensification of animal production in the 1950s and raises a range of ethical issues. In intensive animal production systems, animals have been bred to grow faster and produce more, leading to a range of production-based welfare problems (Gamborg and Sandøe 2005). Discussions of sustainability within animal breeding clearly show that the narrow focus of production efficiency has been a mistake – although the long-term goal of breeding is still to ensure the economic sustainability of the production. Thus, economic concerns and not environmental or welfare concerns rule the day. Only to the extent that environmental considerations or animal welfare concerns are compatible with this overall goal, a growing interest in the environment or welfare of the animals can be expected.

Besides breeding the animals to fit the production facilities better, the animals are also “shaped” by more direct methods: They are cut and shaped so as to allow farmers to keep them under very restrictive conditions – cows are dehorned; pigs have their teeth, tail, and testicles cut; and poultry have their beaks trimmed. All this is done to ameliorate the physical damage which they can make on themselves and each other – often as a result of the stress caused by the inability to perform their species-specific behavior: The animals still have basic needs such as need for a certain space around them, for territories, for foraging, for a hierarchy, and for sexuality, just to mention some. Agricultural animal research has to a large degree been directed toward developing animals that fit into predefined production systems and at the same time yield and grow at a maximum rate. “Farms” have turned into production facilities and the understanding of the animals changed so that they are seen as production units and described in terms of kilograms rather than living individuals (Anneberg 2013). This process has been most visible within the poultry, egg, and swine industry, but the production of milk and beef is following the same tracks.

Farm animals, even though they have been selected and bred during many generations to fit as smoothly into the production systems as possible, still have species-specific behaviors that are not possible to perform in the intensive production systems. They compensate by showing stereotypical behavior. An example is a sow’s needs to build a nest before farrowing: She shows this behavior even when completely restricted between iron bars on concrete floor, where she does not have the physical material to build this nest. The compromises between the needs of the animals and the degree to which these are met in production systems are thus partly guided and informed scientifically through a wealth of studies on animal diseases, production, behavior, and other things. Agricultural sciences have participated in the development of the concept of animal welfare and have developed a number of different schools and definitions of animal welfare (Haynes 2008). This science can be characterized as a mandated science, meaning science with the purpose of informing political debates and decision-making (Fraser 2008). Scientific studies have also participated in the development of so-called animal welfare assessments, which is part of the development of the current animal production systems. The concept of animal welfare is thus used and shaped by a huge number a different stakeholders as a marketing tool, to formulate regulation and to influence the public debate.

Animal Welfare as an Example of an Agricultural Scientific Field

The concept “animal welfare” can be viewed as an example of a scientific approach to handle the increased industrialization of animal production and the increased concerns about this production and the well-being of the animals. “Justice” to animals was discussed already back in the ancient Greece, and animals have been “subjects for protection” in legislation for a couple of centuries, mostly in terms of “unnecessary cruelty to animals,” e.g., beating horses. However, the type of suffering linked to restrictions in not meeting the animals’ natural needs and allowing them natural behavior, access to space, and systematic mutilations such as beak trimming, tail docking, and dehorning has become an issue both in the public debate and in science from the 1950s and onward. One of the first books on the effects on animals of intensive farming that lit the spark to the debate was Animal Machines: The New Factory Farming Industry by Ruth Harrison in 1964 (Harrison 1964), which among other things led to the so-called Brambell Report, on which some of the animal welfare principles were built.

The concept of “animal welfare” is an interesting example of a mandated science, where scientific factorial knowledge, e.g., about animal behavior or the presence of disease, is constantly intertwined with ethical considerations and understandings of “what is good or bad for the animals.” This is obviously perceived differently in different historic and cultural contexts.

Within the “animal welfare science,” different animal welfare assessment systems are developed. The choice of focus and detailed parameters in such assessment systems are made with scientific studies as background. This scientific knowledge can be “delivered” to inform and give arguments for ethical considerations and decisions of what is acceptable for animal farming and to create certain norms within the context in which the systems are being used. However, this does not remove the choices of the scientists: These choices are inevitably taken partly on background of their perceptions of what animal welfare is. Studies have been made to develop “animal welfare assessment” in caged hens systems focusing on advantages and disadvantages of different cage systems, where some researchers will study feather coats and egg production and relate “animal welfare” to such parameters, and other actors will claim that it is not possible to talk about “animal welfare” in a system which restricts natural behavior and ask whether it would not make more sense from an animal welfare point of view to question whether caged systems are “fair” to living animals at all. Here the question also becomes what the relationship is between the fields of “animal welfare” and “animal ethics” (Yeates et al. 2011).

The welfare of farm animals must be understood as both a normative ethical concept and a scientific field of inquiry. It is a clear example of a field where the methodological choices made before the research can be done are strongly dependent on the ethical values of the researcher (Fraser 2008). Some have claimed that “animal welfare” can be seen as a social technology, which participates in a basic “scientific legitimation” of industrialized farming systems and that a focus on “animal welfare” among the involved professionals can help create trust among nonprofessionals (consumers/citizens) that “animal welfare is taken care of” (Anneberg 2013).


The concept of “sustainability” has been more or less intuitively understood and practiced during centuries by people who were living closely in and dependent from the surrounding nature, as “the responsibility to act so that the seventh generation from now could still sustain itself.” The concept of “sustainability” as used today arose in the forestry industry more than 200 years ago and has since grown almost organically into a multifaceted and complex concept (Wiersum 1995). In 1987 the United Nations placed the concept in the middle of discussions on environmental management through the Brundtland Report. Here sustainability is understood as “… a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (United Nations 1987).

Since then the concept of sustainability has been developed and discussed scientifically and in societal debates as a response to the challenge of feeding an increasing population of humans in an ecologically responsible and just way at the same time significantly reducing our short- and long-term environmental impact. Clearly, this debate is closely interlinked with how food is produced and distributed. To an increasing degree, this happens in the light of the changing climate that is both a threat to current production and to a large extent a result of it (Steinfeld et al. 2006).

In most currently used definitions of sustainability, at least three pillars are acknowledged as constituting the concept of sustainability: an economical aspect, an ecological (environmental) aspect, and a social aspect. Recently, a fourth distinct pillar has been included by some authors, namely, the institutional aspect. The understanding of the concept – including the pillars and their interconnectedness – is nevertheless hugely disputed because different actors and organizations can define, understand, and use it in different ways and place weight on the pillars differently and in accordance with specific interests (Valentin and Spangenberg 2000).

The whole issue of designing agricultural and food systems to be sustainable is extremely complex and involves many players – in the end everybody, because everyone eats food, and all humans can be considered citizens. Agricultural sciences typically focus on the production aspects, based on the argument that there is a need to feed nine billion people in a few decades. This has, however, been criticized as too narrow a view of the issue as it seemingly ignores that food production per capita has never been higher and issues of distribution, the complex picture of food trade systems, food waste, ethical considerations related to industrialized agriculture, land rights, and a steadily increasing consumption of animal products are not seen as part of the context of the problem (Mepham 1996). What sustainability is and how to balance the emphasis on the four pillars in a given context thus need to be decided on an ethical and political basis, before agricultural science can begin to provide answers. Science is a tool, but before using it, it needs to be decided what it is to be used for.


Discussing sustainability and animal welfare within the context of agricultural science entails a lot of ethical reflection as many of the assumptions about what the concepts cover, how they should be scientifically examined, and what goals they should be directed against are based on values. Agricultural science is, as any other science, performed in a social and cultural context and therefore embedded in values. Agricultural science is a very important factor in the current situation where a growing population, increased pressure on resources, climate change, genetically modified plants for human consumption, production of plant-based biofuels, and further intensification of animal production with growing welfare problems as a likely result challenge societies. But it is important to realize that the way these issues are approached and the solutions that are suggested by scientists are part not only of a scientific inquiry but also a societal and ethical discussion on how human beings should relate to animals and the rest of nature.



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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Food and Resource EconomicsUniversity of CopenhagenFrederiksberg CDenmark
  2. 2.Department of Animal Science – Epidemiology and ManagementAarhus UniversityAarhusDenmark