Unpacking the ethics of food sustainability: health, harmony and beyond

The Nuffield Council of Bioethics runs a number of events and activities as part of a horizon-scanning programme to help identify topics that the Council might investigate. One useful tool is the convening of a diverse group of people from academia, business, policy, and civil society groups to explore a broad societal challenge. The most recent issue we chose for such an exploration is that of food sustainability, and specifically of the ethical and social questions raised by research and innovation that seeks to meet sustainable food challenges.

The Government’s recent consultation Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit (which received 44,000 responses, and is described as “the most significant development in…UK agricultural policy since the passing of the 1947 Agriculture Act”) was the backdrop for our discussion. Participants were asked to consider:

  • What are the key sustainable food challenges and opportunities for the 2020s and beyond? (led by Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, City University)
  • How is biological and cross-sector research and innovation seeking to meet sustainable food challenges? (led by Alison Bentley, Head of Genetics & Breeding Research, NIAB Group)
  • What might be the ethical and social issues raised by these research directions? (led by Jennie Macdiarmid, Professor in Sustainable Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen).

It was immediately apparent that different models of desirable agricultural systems, often assumed rather than explicit, are critical to any discussion. In summary, a fair and ethical approach to food sustainability requires taking a systems-level approach, i.e. one that takes into account the logistics, storage, distribution and value chains involved in the production and supply of food, and locates this within the social, economic and political context. This will require the consideration of policy at different levels (local, national and international) and in different arenas (agriculture, research, public health etc). People from a range of disciplines and sectors should be involved in the development of food and farming policy.

On the basis of discussion at the workshop, the ethical values relevant to food sustainability are likely to include:

  • Health – providing access to food with sufficient nutrients, and ensuring food safety.
  • Autonomy, choice and diversity – creating a food system that provides choice and diversity to enable people to express their personal, moral, religious, ethnic, regional and class identities and preferences.
  • Fairness and equity – fair access to food and nutrients; fair sharing of the risks of technological innovations; fair treatment of farmers and others working in agriculture; global and intergenerational justice.
  • Environmental sustainability – preserving the environment for future generations and/or because of its intrinsic value.
  • Food and nutrition security – secure and reliable access to food and nutrients.
  • Animal welfare – upholding high welfare standards in farm animals.
  • Democracy – giving people a say in the design of food systems and the direction of research in order to foster public support and political legitimacy.
  • Responsibilities – consideration of the roles and obligations of different actors, such as governments, farmers, retailers, food manufacturers, food service companies, research funding bodies and institutions, scientists, and individuals.

That is a challenging list to address, compounded by a range of problems identified at the workshop. For example, participants took the view that while identifying food sustainability challenges themselves is not difficult, there appears to be: a lack of strong, trusted leadership; no clear agreement on core goals and principles; no scientific consensus on what constitutes a sustainable diet; a recognised difficulty in encouraging people to change their diets; and significant disputes over the pros and cons of eating meat.

With respect to the role of biological and cross-sector research and innovation in seeking to meet sustainable food challenges, participants highlighted: the need to connect farmers and researchers; the value of multidisciplinary approaches; the uncertain impact of genome editing; the importance of tackling social and political issues rather than over-playing ‘high-tech’ solutions; and the need for innovation across all areas of the food system.

We are now considering what role we might play in this extensive arena. Shortly to start, following a general report Genome editing: an ethical review, and Genome editing and human reproduction: social and ethical issues, is a study on Genome editing in livestock. Inevitably, many of the issues raised in the workshop will be relevant to this work. Arising out of the workshop itself, and for future consideration, is the possibility of a focused study on the ethics of meat consumption. With the advent of technology to grow artificial meat in the laboratory, and the increasing significance of vegetarianism and veganism, allied to the broader questions of land use and food sustainability, this might be one topic where we can make a distinctive contribution. We would be interested to know what our readers think – if you have a view on whether we should prioritise this, or any other particular issues raised in the broad area of food sustainability, please comment below.

Roland Jackson is a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and chair of the Council’s Horizon Scanning Advisory Group

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