Exploration of the Ethical Basis for Agricultural Sustainability

Final Report for EW01-021

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2001: $26,772.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $8,331.00
Region: Western
State: Colorado
Principal Investigator:
Robert Zimdahl
Weed Research Lab, Colorado State University
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Project Information


Five workshops were held in Colorado with a total of about 130 Cooperative Extension personnel, growers, and other participants. One workshop was held in Santa Fe, NM with 35 attendees. Each workshop included an introduction to ethics, the challenges of achieving agricultural sustainability, the group’s description of the characteristics of a sustainable agricultural system, and discussion of the ethical reasons for decisions in a case study that was distributed to the group.

Project Objectives:

1. To provide a three- to four-hour educational workshop designed to explore the ethical foundation (the reasons for ethical choices) of views of sustainability held by Colorado State University and the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension specialists, Natural Resource Conservation Service personnel, invited farmers, and invited agricultural community group personnel.
2. To increase participant’s awareness of the issues involved in agricultural sustainability (e.g., saving family farms, manure disposal, pesticide use) and to present and discuss the ethical foundation of the views presented.


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  • Jessica Davis

Education & Outreach Initiatives



Five workshops have been conducted in four places (two in Durango) in Colorado. Two of the workshops were held as part of a regional meeting of Colorado State Extension personnel. One invited people from the region but was held at a county extension office, and the fourth and fifth were arranged by the same County Extension specialist in La Plata County (Durango), CO. Each of the La Plata County workshops included people from the local four-year college (Fort Lewis college), farmers, and a few other Cooperative Extension people. Each meeting was quite different from the other because of the people that attended, their interests, their willingness to engage in discussion, and the differing views of sustainability the group developed.
Each meeting accomplished its primary goal – to encourage the participants to think of the ethical dimension of what they do and the ethics of sustainability. Each group developed a better understanding of the contrast between what is and what ought to be. Each came to understand that what is does not equate to what ought to be (the most desirable) and that the reverse is also true.
Two additional workshops were planned in 2002 but too few people were able to attend on the days scheduled and the workshops were cancelled. The proposal’s original intent was to hold a workshop with interested members of the Cooperative Extension staff of the University of Wyoming. We were unable to schedule a workshop in Wyoming because Wyoming Cooperative Extension did not hold a Statewide meeting in 2002 and their 2003 meeting was held jointly with Colorado Cooperative Extension in Fort Collins. That workshop was presented in February 2003.
After many e-mails and phone calls a workshop was held in Santa Fe, NM in September 2003 with representatives of the Northern New Mexico Cooperative Extension group.
The primary disappointment of the workshops has been the lack of attendance by farmers (except for several organic growers in the Durango area) and Natural Resource Conservation Service personnel. It is my view that those scheduling the meetings are among the many who are already over-scheduled and were unable to reach out to people from other agencies and encourage attendance. Secondly while those who did attend enjoyed the workshop and were willing to engage in ethical discussion, it is not a topic that readily attracts busy people to another meeting. Workshop evaluations show that many of those who attended think that agriculture does not have any ethical problems. Those who have this view think that the problems agriculture faces are primarily matters of bad government policy and a detrimental economic situation. Agriculture’s problems are economic not ethical. It is a view that shared by students in our agricultural ethics class.

Outreach and Publications

One paper was prepared and submitted to the Journal of Extension. It was rejected but with a recommendation for revision and resubmission. I plan to do that this year.

Outcomes and impacts:
Impact and Contributions/Outcomes

Each workshop has requested the participants to complete the following seven-question evaluation.
1. Based on learning during this workshop, briefly describe the ethical/moral dilemmas that agriculture faces.
2. If agriculture has problems related to sustainability or lack thereof, what are they?
3. Explain why we (individually and collectively) do or do not have an ethical/moral obligation to achieve agricultural sustainability.
4. If your attitudes and thoughts about agricultural sustainability have changed as a result of today’s experience, describe how they have changed.
5. What, if any, decisions you encounter in the course of your normal duties require
consideration of the ethics of agriculture?
6. Did this workshop affect how you may deal with these issues? How?
7. Please suggest other agricultural ethical issues that you would be interested in
The purpose of the workshop evaluations was to examine views of ethics and agricultural sustainability offered after the workshops by extension agents and others who attended. Appraisal of the workshops was mixed. Most thought what we did was interesting and challenging, but some thought it was not particularly useful. We believe we accomplished the primary goal of introducing ethical thought into agricultural questions.
For the majority of respondents, ethical considerations in agriculture were always superseded by economic considerations. Whether or not a farmer or extension agent considers the ethical implications of their actions in daily production decisions is intimately related, in the view of those who attended these workshops, to how profitable a farm is. Thus, the incorporation of ethics in solving agricultural dilemmas depends on economics. If the economic situation is satisfactory, then the participants thought ethical considerations were appropriate and could be employed. If economic matters were unsatisfactory, then, in general, participants thought ethical questions were not considered, which, of course, is an ethical decision.
When asked the question: What moral/ethical dilemmas does agriculture face in these times, the responses included:
Are sustainable agriculture practices ethically correct?
Are family farms more morally responsible than corporate farms?
What is our value system regarding production agriculture?
There is no ethical/moral problem with agriculture.
A persistent question was whether profit should be the main motivation for sustainability or should concern be more about things that involve what may have intrinsic value (not a term used by participants) as opposed to instrumental value. Items mentioned were the environment, family farms, animal rights, and food safety.
One evaluator commented that there is no evidence of sustainability being compromised by present agricultural practice. He argued that there is no lack of food in the world, only distribution problems. There were also problems related to sustainability or the lack thereof, but many questioned the exact definition of sustainability. What exactly is sustainability? A few said it because it was such a vague concept, it was impossible to achieve. There were many diverse characteristics offered to define sustainability. A list of the terms offered from all workshops follows.
A capacity to create durable communities
Achieves a diversity of farming systems and nurturing farm communities
Achieves a proper work ethic (undefined)
Capability for farms and ranches to be passed on to future generations
Challenging to achieve
Different quality of products
Environmentally friendly
Environmentally sound – maintains the environment
A family farm model
Healthy soils
High quality of food
High quality of life
In harmony with nature
No change (a static system)
Lasts forever
Less expensive (in terms of inputs)
Less waste
Lower quality of products
No negative effects on natural resources or the environment
Not corporate agriculture
Organic agriculture
Politically correct
Profitable, over the long term – but that is probably not possible and may
not equal socially acceptable. However, profit is required.
Renewable inputs
Requires desire and commitment from individuals and society
Resource conserving
Responsible consumption
Restores competitiveness and openness of markets
Small-, mid-size farms
Too subjective to define
Traditional agricultural practice from before 1950 (a nostalgic view)
Others said it cannot be just going back to the good old days, which may not have been that good.
The definition accepted by most participants was that a sustainable agriculture must be economically viable, environmentally sound, socially acceptable, and politically achievable. The diversity of terms above clearly implies little agreement among those who attended these workshops on what sustainability is or how to achieve it. All seemed to agree that it is a worthy goal but most thought it was not something that demanded large, rapid changes in present agricultural production systems. Much could be achieved by tinkering at the margins of the present system.
Other participants felt that the question of how to achieve sustainability was directly related to the role of Cooperative Extension and Land Grant Universities in helping agriculture. Some felt that the Land Grant Universities had done their job so well that the consequent over-production has helped drive family farms out of business and made agriculture less sustainable. This process has enabled large corporations to produce cheaper food and not be required to even try to achieve sustainability. Several participants expressed the view that the ag/urban interface also needs to be addressed. The majority of the U.S. population does not understand where their food comes from or how it is grown, harvested, and marketed. There is a feeling that the lack of knowledge on the part of some growers and a lack of understanding by the public of the interdependence of the many links in the food production system, reduces the likelihood of achieving agricultural sustainability. Improvement of farming’s profitability was repeatedly mentioned by nearly all participants as an essential step before ethical considerations would enter discussions of agricultural sustainability. Ethics and economics go hand in hand for the majority of responders but the order is reversed.
A question asked of each group explored if we, individually and collectively, have an ethical obligation to achieve agricultural sustainability? The majority of responders felt that we do because if we do not, the resources available to future generations will not be sufficient to produce enough food to feed the world’s people. In addition, a sustainable agricultural system would help preserve local communities and encourage environmental stewardship. The consensus view was that we have an obligation to challenge ourselves and others to act morally. Without agricultural sustainability, the participants thought, humans will not survive. If populations cannot survive, then agriculture could be held accountable for a lack of foresight.
When asked if their thoughts and attitudes regarding agricultural sustainability had changed as a result of the workshop, a majority stated that their views/ethics had not changed. If anything, the workshop seemed to affirm their frustration with the current agricultural system and mistrust of the government and its policies. There were several participants who thought that thought-provoking issues were raised. However, they were frustrated because they perceived it to be so hard to change existing agricultural practices. There were also a few that felt this workshop focused too heavily on agriculture and there needed to be more focus on the social issues of family/consumer sciences. Most participants agreed that more education about sustainability and a greater understanding of the moral/social conflicts in the system was needed. Overall, most thought the workshop was beneficial and examination of the ethics of agriculture should occur more frequently.
When asked if any decisions the respondents encounter in the course of their normal duties require the consideration of ethics in agriculture, most replied yes. All decisions should consider the moral implications and repercussions of actions. Some felt that they deal with ethical issues everyday, others felt it was on a case-by-case basis. There were a few who felt that agriculture does not deal with ethical dilemmas at all, except in the classroom. There were several who felt that ethics involves the use of pesticides (reading the label), the noxious weed act, Meat Quality Assurance practices, and antibiotics/hormones for livestock. But, they asked, if these are really ethical dilemmas or merely responses to sustainability issues? They asked if these were the kind of issues where the ethics of sustainability might begin? Most of the respondents thought about these issues on a daily basis, however there were a few who thought they needed more information than this workshop was able to provide. They are surely correct.
This workshop helped introduce people to other points of view and encouraged inclusion of ethics as part of daily thought. The workshops offered a brief view of agricultural ethics and sustainability. More of agriculture’s ethical dilemmas could be discussed but not in one short workshop. Is farming a business or a way of life? What should be done about urban sprawl onto prime farmland? Do animal rights advocates have valid arguments? Should we diminish pesticide use in agriculture? These are but a few of the issues facing Cooperative Extension and the American public today. Other concerns include biotechnology and the impact of GMOs on agriculture, product labeling issues and how to slow the trend of small farm decline. But the participants always concluded that ethical considerations will only enter the debate when agricultural profitability has been achieved.
The organizers of three workshops indicated the participants would enjoy continuing discussion of ethical issues at another time. No firm invitations have been received.


Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.