Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: David M. Kaplan

Agricultural Science and Values

  • Samantha NollEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6167-4_564-1


Agricultural Science Extension Service Local Food Movement Food Ethic Animal Welfare Concern 
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.



Agricultural science can be broadly understood as the application of scientific methods and methodologies to improve agricultural practices, including the harvesting, processing, and distribution of food, fiber, and pharmaceutical products (Noll 2015; Olmstead and Rhode 2008). This field historically focused on a wide array of research topics, such as improving production techniques, controlling pests, minimizing the effects of drought, the selective breeding of plants and animals, and research on various socioeconomic topics. It is a multidisciplinary area of research that includes work in both the natural and social sciences and integrates methods originally developed in distinct fields. Indeed, the process of improving agricultural practice often involves the combined efforts of researchers working out of diverse disciplines, such as agronomy, chemistry, ecology, soil science, and the social sciences (Jacobs and Frickel 2009). For this reason, “agricultural science” should be understood as an umbrella term that includes work coming out of various scientific disciplines, albeit with the singular aim of improving agriculture.

This entry discusses the connections between values and agricultural science largely in the context of the United States. The first section provides a brief overview of the historical development of agricultural science, as this background is imperative for understanding how values influence the agricultural sciences. The next section outlines a definition of “values,” before moving on to discuss how shifting societal priorities and concerns influence the scope of research questions and agendas in agricultural science. The final section discusses how expanding and shifting value claims have impacted current research agendas. Today, agricultural scientists are conducting cutting-edge research guided by goals well beyond increasing production. As this entry discusses, the current needs of the larger community of farmers, citizens, and consumers are often reflected in this work.

Historical Roots of Agricultural Science

The practice of applying empirical methods to improve agriculture has a long history well beyond the context of the United States. For example, Xenophon (444–375 B.C.) and Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) both wrote extensively on agriculture and the Romans developed sophisticated agricultural methods, specialized animal breeds and crops, and conducted experiments aimed at improving farming methods (Kingsbury 2009). However, it was not until the Enlightenment that modern scientific methods and methodologies were applied to agriculture in earnest, with the express purpose of improving crop yields, increasing mechanization, and generally improving agricultural systems, as a whole (Brantz 2011). The Scientific and Industrial Revolutions of the eighteenth century then combined to further this research, with Europe reaping the tangible benefits of a significant increase in the availability of food and the reduction of the numbers of workers needed to work the land (Kingsbury 2009).

In the United States, governmental support kick started agricultural research during the latter half of the nineteenth century (Rosenberg 1997). Agricultural science became institutionalized during this time period with the establishment of land grant universities and federally funded experiment stations (Hillison 1996). Specifically, the Morrill Act of 1862 provided the funds to endow land grant institutions. Unlike many higher learning institutions of the time, these universities shared the mission of training students in practical pursuits, such as agriculture, science, and engineering. Later the Hatch Act of 1887 and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 expanded this effort by providing states with federal funds to establish experiment stations and extension services, with the express purpose of training farmers in new agriculture methods and best practices.

Indeed, land grant institutions and experiment stations form part of what David MacKenzie (1991) calls the Triangular Partnership (or Three-Way Partnership) that has historically supported cutting-edge agricultural research in the United States. Very roughly, this partnership consists of government agencies that fund research projects in agriculture, universities that conduct research aimed at improving agricultural practices, and extension services that pass these innovations on to farmers. Indeed, Rosenberg (1997) argues that the role of experiment stations was apparent since their inception: “It was to perform the experiments which the individual farmer, lacking time and opportunity, could not” (p. 154). In conjunction, the role of extension services is to disseminate the results of these experiments and various other advances that could improve farming practices in regional contexts (Thompson and Noll 2015). It is important to note here that this partnership is not one directional, as farmers can comment on which projects should be funded and often recommend potential research projects to extension officers and researchers in the field. This is a significant point, as agricultural research, especially in the United States, is meant to benefit farmers and society (Rosenberg 1997). The next section of this entry will discuss the connection between agricultural sciences and values. However, it is important to first define what is meant by the term “values.”

Agricultural Science and Values

For the purposes of this entry, “values” should be understood very generally as (1) rules that guide human action and (2) commitments concerning the worth or importance of something (Anderson 1993; Zimmerman 2015). While the first definition plays an important role in moral theory, the second definition encompasses how commitments guide action and decision-making in various contexts including the choice of research agendas (Douglas 2009; Kourany 2010). These commitments predominantly take the following two forms: (1) something is intrinsically valuable or valuable for its own sake and (2) something is extrinsically valuable or valuable because it is a means to a desirable end. For example, one could argue that a domesticated animal, such as cow or a pig, is valuable for its own sake because it is a “subject of a life” or is sentient (Regan 2004). In contrast, one could argue that this same animal is valuable because it provides milk, meat, or another product that we find useful. In the first argument, the person is making an intrinsic value claim, while in the second argument, she is making an extrinsic value claim. Historically, intrinsic value was thought to form the foundation of ethical claims, as individuals with intrinsic value were thought to have ethical standing, while individuals without intrinsic value were thought to lie outside the ethical sphere (Zimmerman 2015). In fact, Plato [428–347 B.C.E.] wrote extensively on this topic, as did Aristotle, G. E. Moore [1873–1958], Kant [1724–1804], and more recently Roderick Chisholm [1916–1999] and many others.

As the above outline of the history of agricultural science in the United States intimates, extrinsic values play an important role in guiding agricultural sciences. For example, since the Enlightenment, scientific methods were applied in earnest to agriculture with the express purpose of bringing about some improvement or “good,” such as the improvement of soil fertility, effective use of cover crops, or the development of a four-course rotation system, for example (Brantz 2011). In turn, these research goals ultimately contributed to the achievement of larger societal goals, such as making food more readily available to citizens, increasing available capital in rural areas, or freeing up labor from the land, so that workers can pursue other pursuits. In fact, the development of the Triangular Partnership in the United States was guided by the expressed view that social resources should be used to support various social goods (Rosenberg 1997).

As argued by Paul Thompson and Samantha Noll (2015), in this context, “the influence of publicly organized research conducted at experiment stations… provide the basis for viewing agricultural science… as an applied science with explicit value commitments” (p. 1022). One of the basic commitments of early agricultural scientists is the view that we should increase agricultural production (Rosenberg 1997), as food, fiber, and pharmaceutical products are of paramount importance when meeting basic human needs and thus have extrinsic value. This commitment to increase agricultural production also illustrates how intrinsic values play an important role in guiding agricultural research, as food and fiber products have extrinsic value because they play important roles in sustaining human life, which is often understood to have intrinsic value or value in itself. As food is imperative for human survival, it is important or is a “public good” to use science to increase food production.

Current Impacts of Values on Agricultural Sciences

Just as the agricultural sciences were historically guided by the goal of increasing production, society is increasingly accepting expanded intrinsic and extrinsic claims (such as that ecosystems and animals are worthy of consideration) and agricultural research goals are shifting to include a wide array of new research questions and goals. These influences predominantly stem from (1) social movements surrounding food that influence food policy and (2) social and ethical critiques of agricultural sciences (Noll 2015). For example, the local food movement, “locavore” trend, and similar social initiatives surrounding food systems have increased the economic demand for “organic,” “sustainable,” and environmentally responsible agricultural products. These social movements are guided by various value commitments, such as a concern for the environment, animal welfare concerns, the desire to support local farmers, food access issues in urban areas, and health and food contamination concerns (Feenstra 2002; Lyson 2004). Changes like these in social contexts often impact current agricultural science at land grant institutions, as the explicit goals of these institutions include performing research useful for local farmers (who are impacted by consumer choice) and supporting rural economies (Rosenberg 1997; Noll 2015). For these reasons, an increased demand for such research, when voiced by farmers and consumers, can justify new research on alternative methods of production, such as organic and small-scale production, and agricultural systems that cursorily meet current consumer standards and values. When translated into research agendas, such work can be understood to be impacted by the social and economic forces that brought it about.

Additionally, this research trend can also be seen as at least partially the result of growing critiques of the agricultural sciences. Indeed, entire fields of research developed in response to growing criticisms of the research priorities and impacts of agricultural science (Thompson et al. 1991; Johnson 1984; Dahlberg 1988). Especially prominent debates include those on the potential impacts of genetically modified crops (Doyle 1985), various environmental impacts (Jackson and Jackson 2002; Shiva 1992) of industrial farming systems, animal welfare concerns (Regan 2004; Rollin 2003), the plight of local farmers (MacKenzie 1991; Hightower 1975), and a plethora of other social concerns (Hightower 1975; Jackson 1980). In each of these examples, the previously unproblematic goal of increasing production was challenged, as this mandate came into conflict with other values, goals, or potentially caused problematic consequences. While one of the dominant themes guiding agricultural science is still improving the availability of food and fiber products and lowering the costs of these staples (Thompson et al. 1991), researchers have become increasingly interested in determining whether or not the above critiques are accurate and, if so, the extent of the various impacts.

This shift in agricultural science, from focusing on increasing production to doing research on social and ethical impacts, began in earnest around the 1970s, with scholars such as Glenn L. Johnson (1918–2003), Wendell Berry (1977-), and Rachel Carson (1907–1964) publishing articles calling for greater attention to normative and environmental issues surrounding agricultural sciences. More recently, research on wildlife conservation on farmland, biodiversity management, and mitigating human-animal tensions is on the rise, with the Rodale Institute and the Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (Macdonald et al. 2015) running long-term experiments in these areas. There is also a plethora of work examining normative concerns, such as that which focuses on local food initiatives (Delind 2011; Sbicca 2012), selective breeding and genetic modification (Boyd 2001; Greger 2011), and the impacts of policy changes on farming practices (Fairlie 2010). This trend in agricultural research illustrates how many research administrators and scientists have accepted the call for agriculture research to address a larger spectrum of social goals beyond the increase of production.


As discussed in this entry, agricultural science is an applied science guided by implicit and explicit value commitments. Historically, this translated into research on increasing agricultural production and reducing the numbers of people needed to work the land (Rosenberg 1997). In contrast, today agricultural scientists are conducting cutting-edge research guided by social goals well beyond crop yields, such as improving the sustainability of farming practices, fighting desertification, mitigating climate change, and conserving biodiversity. As the history of agriculture science illustrates, this field is unique as it often applies modern scientific methods to help meet the needs and goals of the larger community of farmers, citizens, and consumers.


This entry provided a detailed overview of how values inform agricultural science. As discussed, “agricultural science” can be broadly understood as the application of scientific methods and methodologies to improve agricultural practices, including but not limited to food production, processing, and distribution. It is a multidisciplinary area of research that involves the combined efforts of researchers working out of diverse disciplines. This entry was broken down into succinct sections, each outlining an important aspect of agricultural science and values. In particular, section one provided a brief overview of the historical development of agricultural science. Section two includes a definition of “values,” before providing a description of how shifting societal priorities and concerns influence the scope of research questions in agricultural science. The final section discussed how expanding value claims impacts current research agendas. Today, agricultural scientists are conducting cutting-edge research guided by values and goals well beyond production concerns, such as the current needs of farming communities, citizens, and consumers.



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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Peace, Justice, and Human Rights Haverford CollegeHaverfordUSA