Michiel Korthals

The agricultural and food engineering profession looks with horror into the societal mirror and finds its reflection split. Professional ethics and its discontents

Michiel Korthals

A comment on Ibo van de Poel Engineering Ethics as Professional ethics.

Van de Poel wants in his paper to describe both the professional and applied ethics approach to engineering ethics and assess the merits and shortcomings of these approaches. In order to undertake this evaluation, he first sets out very shortly certain criteria that delineated the special nature of engineering.

The five criteria are based on the idea of ‘engineering as the use or application of knowledge of the physical world in order to transform or use nature’. Although I am aware of many merits of Van de Poels paper, I must confess that with this characteristic of engineering and the five features I started to lose interest in his argumentation. In the field of food and agricultural engineering, where I have done most work the last ten years, this general characteristic and the list of five features is not a very fruitful way of approaching the issues of ethics of engineering. Indeed, the core characteristic of agricultural and food engineering is n’t covered by his characteristic. These types of engineering cover also the use of knowledge of the social world, be it in sophisticated or naïve form, and is not only used in transforming nature, but also in maintaining and amending existing systems of natural and social transformation. Working on seeds, cows, harvesting machineries or genes means working on social organisations. These aspects are not small details: they concern the main features of engineering that Van den Poel lists, and turn them from five rather innocent features in five societal bones of contention, at least in my field. It is very common in professional ethics that my field, agricultural and food engineering, are totally neglected. E.g. in Harris 1999 only scant attention is paid to these professions; e.g. the management of agricultural animals is even excluded (see Harris, 1999, page 222/223).

Let me comment the five features that Van de Poel lists. Yes, agricultural and food engineers claim to have special responsibilities, but society doesn’t trust them anymore; yes, engineers are practising forms of social experimentation, but many refuse to be anymore the guinea pigs of engineering; yes, society is transformed by engineering, but again, many do not agree to participate in that grand transformation; yes, design is important, but many feel excluded from making design priorities.

What has happened in the agricultural and food engineering branches that I can make these harsh comments? Since the seventies agricultural and food engineering are in a constant crisis. This crisis is not an internal affair, but it has everything to do with an increasing disagreement between the agricultural and food engineering professions and society at large, because of the global realization of the technological system that was for long cherished by these professions. As Beck would say, in the age of reflexive modernization, these professions are backfired by the grand scale institutionalization of their most cherished ideals and the members of society at large and many members of these professions look in horror to this abyss: modern engineers have transformed agriculture and food into one monotonous, deadly landscape, full of herbicides, pesticides or gene spliced organisms, out of which all cultural and biological diversity has been excluded, in which the obese and bored to death humans move around with hamburgers and genetic modified drinks.

This disagreement between the food and agricultural profession and society is partly internalized by these professions, which means that the professions are split up in rivalling parties, that maintain sometimes radically different technological systems. However, for the professions in general it means that first, they are confronted with a lack of trust form the side of their end users, society. Secondly, the food and agricultural engineering profession is confronted with a split between two or more realized technological systems, that are partly at odds with each other and with which different types of engineers are connected. The challenge of the profession is to manage the peaceful coexistence of these two competing technological systems.

Let me illustrate these two radical theses. Although the recent criticisms started with the environmental alarming messages in the sixties with the book of Rachel Carson, the biotechnology wave, from the beginnings of the seventies, really sparked off a booming wave of discontent with the general goals, standards, skills, research priorities and values of these professions. Damage to the environment in the form of pollution, or decrease in (agro-)biodiversity, deteriorating of the aesthetic quality of the landscape, increasing animal welfare problems (like broiler chickens or factory pigs) were attributed to a large scale intensive technological system, in which agricultural and food scientists and technologists play a crucial role. Because of the gap between producers and consumers with respect to food production, it took some time before consumers realized what was going on in food production. Since the nineties, after several food crises, mass media paid attention to these circumstances, and made many consumers conscious of the material and immaterial cost of this large scale intensive farming system. They questioned the aims, standards and professional competencies of a profession that contributed to these developments.

These criticisms became more or less standardized in the nineties during events of frequent crises in the food production, like the swine fever, foot and mouth disease, BSE-crisis, avian flu, bird pest and dioxine scandal. The trust of consumers in the reliability of the people directly involved in the food chain, be it industrialists, government agencies or food professionals working for food industries is sunken to a record low. On the other hand, the trust in non-food organizations, like Greenpeace, Natuur and Milieu, is increasing. Integrity, Transparency, Elsification, three PPPs, corporate responsibility (CRS in Dutch MVO) are some of the reactions of business and sciences circles. Large scientific organisations, like my university and the alumni organisation of agricultural and food professionals try to rewrite their codes, and to pay attention to professional ethics. In teaching and education agricultural and food engineers learn competencies to tackle social and ethical dilemmas. All these developments make one thing clear: the values, standards and competencies of the food and agricultural profession are n’t sufficiently underwritten by society at large. What should agriculture, food, plant, animal technologists, engineers and scientists do? The relationship between these professions and society is under severe strain;

K. K. Schillo, a well known animal scientist, stated this in his yearly speech, J. Anim. Sci. 2003 81: 2880-2911: ‘The specialist world is now under challenge’ (p. 2892).

In reaction to these critical developments, many engineers took the criticisms seriously, and started to think in new ways. Small scale agricultures, with tailor made technologies in eliminating pests and viruses and enhancing yields with local participatory organizations were institutionalized. Both in the developing and in the developed world traditional ways of farming and producing of food are transformed in this extensive way. In many developed countries these systems are a small minority, but in others still the dominant form.

These developments occasion my second remark, on the co-existence of at least two different agricultural and food systems, which the professions are confronted with and urged to look for answers. This coexistence is not always a peaceful one. Be it GM- agriculture versus non GM-agriculture (and food) or intensive farming versus extensive farming systems, all of these systems have different types of crop protection and soil protection, different types of zoönoses (veterinary diseases that can also affects humans) and different types of what can be called ‘contamination’. Non-GM crops can be contaminated by GM-seeds; organic farming feels threatened by pesticides of non-organic farming and non organic farming is contaminated by organic technologies (the case of phytophthora in Flevoland recently). The use of Bt-genes in maize or potato makes it for both systems more difficult to stay ahead in the race against bugs, because resistance is faster built up. The struggle between ocean fishing and aquaculture (farm fishing) is another example of the not very peaceful coexistence of different systems. These systems use all kinds of rivalling technologies, which exist simultaneously but often causing great social and natural conflicts. The EU has now special regulation on co-existence, but nobody exactly does n’t understood how to tackle these issues. In the food end of the chain we have similar systems that are connected with different types of consumers: the obese for the fast food sector, the more conscious consumer with the others. Anyhow, the existence of two of more agricultural and food systems is one of the most intriguing challenges for the professions, and it makes value conflicts the core issues of their undertakings. I assume that engineers can contribute to make the warlike aspects into peaceful coexistence.

Because of the dynamics of technologies and the dynamics of societies in which these technologies are realized, we should look for new kinds of interactions between professions and society. The relationship between the two will become more and more unclear and we meet ethicists, but not only them to map the grey zones.

It is not possible to fix once for all what the aims and quality standards of a practice or a profession are. But we should look for new fluent ways of dealing with ethical-techno problems. The most urgent problems are not on the micro-level, like whistleblowers etc; the real challenges are in this grey zones, where no one is or feels responsible.

Both Professional ethics and Applied ethics have not much to deliver in tackling these problems. So, let’s look to elements we can use, not only in these ethics branches, but also in others, but not forget the ethical components: value dilemmas, future scenarios with varying value-technology dimensions, ethical stakeholder analysis, public consultations and other deliberative methods of empirical philosophy. Core question should be, how engineering practices should respond to societal values, and how technologies can contribute positively to life world values.