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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Lesson Eleven

Eating and Agricultural Ethics

Keith Douglass Warner OFM and David DeCosse

Rachel Carson is credited with launching the modern environmental movement with her landmark book, "Silent Spring" (Carson, 1962). She documented and decried the widespread harm caused by pesticides ("the elixirs of death") to birds, other wildlife, and ecosystems. She explained how expert scientists had developed pesticides, and how despite their expertise, they failed to consider the unintended impacts on creatures other than insect pests. The final chapter points to "the other road," of alternative means of pest control, based more on biology and ecology, and less on chemistry. She effectively argued that these alternatives were environmentally, socially, and ethically preferable. Thus, she argued for choosing these alternatives on the basis of implicit ethics. Her book provoked a national debate about pesticides, but also about environmental ethics, government regulation of industry and the appropriate uses of technology. Her work cast light on the cozy relationship pesticide manufacturers had with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which had regulatory authority over pesticides. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created in part to address the problems she brought to the public eye, including pesticide regulation.

Although she did not reference Aldo Leopold, she extended some of the ethical ideas he proposed in his land ethics, such as human duties to the natural world. Previous expressions of environmental concern associated with agriculture had emerged during the Dust Bowl, and resulted in soil conservation initiatives. Topsoil is a finite resource, and easily eroded if a farmer is careless. Carson's description of pesticide problems captured the concerns of a broad section of American society, which had largely assumed that they were safe, whether they were use used on farms or in cities. Worries about pesticide residues on food occasionally irrupt and remind eaters of our essential relationship with agriculture.

Social justice for farm workers

During the 1960s, César Chávez launched farm worker union and social movement to address a grave injustice in agriculture: the exploitation of farm workers. California is home to the most sophisticated industrial agricultural practices, growing more than half of our nation's fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts. Ironically, it employs more farm workers than any other state. Farm workers were -- and some still are - among the least paid laborers in the country. Chávez confronted an enormously powerful set of agricultural institutions (including financial and legal institutions) plus racism, and started a non-violent movement to create a society more favorable to union organizing. This movement developed and practiced non-violent strategies, pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi, to create more just wages and work place conditions. When labor strikes did not bring growers to the negotiating table, the farm worker movement created a very successful boycott of table grapes, which invited eaters to express solidarity with the farm workers. Chávez and the United Farm Workers were concerned about pesticides and their effects on field workers dating back to the early days of the union, and successfully negotiated restrictions on their use through labor contracts.

Eating is an agricultural and ethical act

In "The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture" Wendell Berry described the general exodus of people from farms to cities and its implications for society and agriculture. He critiqued the wide range of social and environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, and decried modern society's alienation from the farm and environment. He argued that the kind of farming people do reveals their assumed land ethic, their environmental values. In a short essay titled "The Pleasures of Eating" he argued that eating is an agricultural act, meaning that all humans are involved in agriculture, whether directly or indirectly, and that how we eat shapes how land is treated. Berry was one of many people who criticized shallow thinking about the environment, the assumption that "pure" nature is only in parks and wilderness areas. He explained how social and environmental values were incorporated in agricultural institutions (scientific, government, private industry) and patterns of thought about agriculture.

Agriculture (farming and grazing) takes place on roughly one-third to one-half of the land on Earth. When combined with other food collection activities (fishing), they have tremendous impacts on the natural environment. Many of the world's two billion poorest people are farming, generally in marginal environments where topsoil or water are scarce. Few of these people are integrated into a capitalist economy, and when their crops fail, they depend upon the world's charity to provide emergency supplies. Thus, global hunger and environmental stewardship ethics are necessarily related. Environmental degradation can undermine the ability of the poor to feed themselves.

The U.S. sustainable agriculture movement developed during the 1980s to conceptually link the economic crisis caused by farm bankruptcies with the environmental problems of agrochemical and soil pollution. This movement has advocated for farming practices, governmental policies and economic markets that support alternatives to the environmentally problematic industrial farming model. This movement adopted the three fold approach of concern for environmental protection, economic development and social equity. The movement has used sustainability ethics argue for more environmentally friendly forms of farming (e.g., organic), greater economic opportunities in farming and rural communities, and the health and safety of workers and eaters. Social equity concerns most frequently include economic justice for farm workers, and access to food for the poor. One of the simplest ways to put agricultural ethics into practice is by buying locally grown, seasonal food from the producer, such as at a farmers market.


1. Do you think of eating as an agricultural act?
2. What ethical values do you already incorporate into your food choices?
3. Does the scope of your environmental concern include farming?

For more reading

Michael Pollan. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin, 2007.
Wendell Berry. 1977. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club.

Keith Warner, OFM, is the Assistant Director for Education, Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University and David DeCosse is the Director of Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

May 1, 2009