Ethics in Food and Agriculture: 7 Current Challenges

An Exploration of Ethics in Food and Agriculture

The agricultural industry may once have conjured up images of wide-open spaces filled with an abundance of wholesome, safely grown foods and happily grazing animals. But, sadly, today’s associations with the sector are anything but that.

Many issues face the agricultural industry that brings some of its practices into serious ethical questioning. Unfortunately, like so many commercial enterprises, too many big players pursue profits and market dominance over basic ethical rules. 

There is plenty of room for tangible improvements that can significantly raise the standards across the industry. Still, they rely primarily on those in charge deciding to focus on what is right versus what is most profitable. 

Here are seven of the biggest ethical issues facing the agricultural industry. 

1. The Ill-Treatment of Animals

Sadly, when many think of today’s agricultural industry, they immediately picture the all-too-real images of mistreated animals. The fight against the ill-treatment of animals in this sector has been ongoing for many decades, but the problem is still significant. Some may consider that the treatment of animals destined for slaughter and consumption is therefore irrelevant. Still, many recognize that mistreating sentient beings is unacceptable regardless of their ultimate fate. In addition, practices such as using hormones and steroids to boost their growth ultimately lead to lower quality products. 

Animals commonly used in agriculture, such as cows, pigs and chickens, often live tortured lifes, suffering despicable cruelties, such as barbaric mutilations, extreme confinement and horrific, slow deaths. While some operations do take care to treat their livestock well, until the worldwide standards are raised significantly and heavily regulated for all, the worst offenders continue to bring the rest down to unspeakably low standards of ethical animal care or consideration. 

According to an ecology expert from the University of Texas, our collective demand for meat is the leading cause of the sixth mass extinction. The World Wildlife Fund also published a 2016 report with the Zoological Society of London, in which it was concluded that between 1970 and 2012, worldwide animal populations had declined by 58%, and that animal agriculture was to blame. 

2. The Safety and Quality of the Produce

Many shortcuts are often taken in the production process to boost the bottom line profitability, yet this can and does lead to compromised food quality and safety. Contaminations and questionable additives add to the sector’s food safety issues, and recalls are not uncommon. 

In addition, the extensive use of antibiotics in the sector poses some serious risk to the health of consumers. The majority of the antibiotics used in agriculture are used on perfectly healthy animals in a bid to prevent any diseases caused by unsanitary conditions. In other words, farmers pump animals with unnecessary antibiotics to protect their profits and enable them to keep the animals in unhealthy environments, again to cut costs and boost profits. 

It can also be considered that the quality of the produce – or lack thereof – contributes significantly to the overall health of the human race. The modern industrialisation of food production has become so efficient and profit-driven, that the majority of our western diet is now making us overweight and unhealthy. These increasingly efficient food production practices make food cheaper, quicker to prepare, tastier and with a higher energy content, leading to obesity, type 2 diabetes and a host of other chronic diseases. 

While the question of who is responsible for an individual’s health in relation to the food production industry is a contentious one, it is argued by many that the modern practices are ultimately creating a seismic shift in dietary habits to the detriment of our collective health. When it comes to meat consumption, again while arguments differ, the World Health Organisation has found and reported strong links between humans overconsuming red and other processed meats and the development of illness and disease, such as some cancers and heart disease. 

3. Pollution through Fertilisers and Pesticides

Another debate that has been ongoing for many years is the concern over the industry’s use of fertilisers and pesticides, with agriculture being the leading cause of pollution in many areas of the world. 

Farmers use pesticides to reduce the issues caused by pests, thus increasing production. Unfortunately, these chemical compounds are proven to cause health issues in consumers. Additionally, such pesticides kill vital native species, like the honeybee, which will have a devastating long-term impact on our environment and ecology. 

There are many pesticides that are deemed unsafe, disrupting wildlife and human’s hormonal systems. Furthermore, the runoff of fertilisers can negatively impact coral reefs and waterways. In 2017, the meat industry was blamed for the largest ‘dead zone’ ever seen, with toxins from agricultural companies blamed for pouring into the waterways and forcing marine life to migrate or die. 

Ethics in Food and Agriculture: A farm harvester seen from above
Ethics in Food and Agriculture
Photo by no one cares on Unsplash

4. Environmental Damage 

In the wake of increased awareness of the devastating impacts of climate change, the agricultural industry is heavily under the spotlight. Many agricultural businesses do not prioritise sustainability. They ruin the land they work, inadvertently harm local wildlife, and allow chemical run-offs to poison natural waterways. Perhaps most harmful, however, are the greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019 the agricultural sector accounted for 10% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. 

Many common farming practices, such as using gasoline-powered machinery and burning off fields, all significantly contribute to greenhouse gases building up in the atmosphere. In addition, the clearing of land for the purpose of agricultural production is another major contributor to the climate change crisis, as an intact forest releases all of its carbon when burned or cut down.

Furthermore, animals raised in the agricultural industry produce an estimated 7 million pounds of excrement per minute. This colossal amount of waste often pollutes nearby ecosystems and waterways, destroying habitats and killing wildlife.

The question of sustainability ultimately comes down to the ability to sustain life itself. Where and how we produce food has become one of the most crucial issues in conservation in recent times. The difficulty of sustaining life on earth as it grows increasingly crowded becomes more complex as the world’s population increases further. It is estimated that by 2050, the planet will be home to a further 2 billion people. The question of how we will be able to sustainably continue to feed such a growing population without further damaging our environment and natural resources is an alarmingly difficult one to answer.  

5. Damage to Natural Resources

In many areas of the world, the renewable natural resources that human life depends upon – such as land, air, water, vegetation, forests, and more – are being degraded at an alarming rate. Increased market penetration and population growth put considerable pressure upon ancient systems such as fisheries, and forestry. Moreover, in a constant bid for more farmland, deforestation creates a colossal and potentially irreversible impact on our environments. 

In addition, the agricultural industry is responsible for consuming approximately 69% of the Earth’s fresh water supplies. When agricultural production fails to put innovative conservation measures in place, operations consume excessive water, degrading the water quality. 

6. Employment Conditions

Questionable practices are often uncovered regarding general farm management and the treatment of farmworkers. The agricultural industry imposes specific rules that must be followed, such as the farm size and market shares. Unfortunately, many farmworkers are subjected to unethically low standards of employment conditions, many of which are dangerous. There is also an ongoing issue of workers being underpaid and not receiving appropriate benefits, such as health insurance. 

Approximately four million people work in the farming and industrial food production sector in the U.S., and play a vital role in helping to ensure that Americans can access safe and nutritious foods. Sadly, however, many of whom are expected to live on despicably low wages, not protected with adequate security technologies, work in hazardous conditions, and experience discrimination. These workers must seek legal counsel and hold their employers responsible for the industry to stand a chance of seeing any real change.

7. How Produce is Sold

Not only do the production processes come under fire for the agricultural industry, but the way in which the produce is sold can also be questionable. Again, in the pursuit of profits at the expense of sound ethical standards, some trade agreements made in the sector cannot withstand scrutiny. Many behind-the-scenes issues, such as bribes to ensure that more product is sold or that certain farms are chosen over others occur. In addition, many of the current trade rules are often brought into question, as they are seen to be unfair in their ability to be used to push out smaller businesses. 

Final Thoughts around Ethics in Food and Agriculture

The agricultural industry still has a very long way to go in rectifying these ethical issues. An increasing collective consciousness around the world regarding the impacts of climate change is signalling a new era in the breadth of demands that consumers are placing on industry giants, but it’s a slow process. Much more needs to be done to protect consumers, workers, and the planet.