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{Excerpts of my presentation on African Agribusiness Leadership and Ethics Conference held at Kigali,Rwanda.}

By Bernard Wainaina
CEO,Profarms Consultants®

When I announced to my Agribusiness colleagues that I had received an American National Science Foundation sponsorship to study the ethics of Agribusiness, slow, gentle smiles spread over their faces as they asked: “What ethics?

Last week,as a beneficiary of this sponsorship,I attended an African Agribusiness Leadership and Ethics Conference in Kigali,Rwanda where several issues regarding agribusiness leadership,ethics,agricultural information dissemination and agricultural journalism were discussed by a variety of stakeholders in agribusiness,including Banks,Media,Farmers,Agricultural economists,insurance,charity organisations,leaders in business sector,religious organisations etc.

This conference gave me a clearer perspective on how Agribusiness is interwoven with almost all other sectors of human enterprise by one principal item;healthy human food.

This article explores the development history of Agribusiness Ethics from the onset of agrarian revolution of commrcial agriculture in early 1960’s up to now in order to give a clear context of what is Agribusiness Ethics in follow up articles later in these pages.

To provide healthy human food to the society,agribusiness sector has to follow some ethics so as not to endanger human health by providing “harmful food”!

There it is now. My agribusiness coleagues who disdainfully asked “What ethics?” Should find an answer in this preamble.

Clearly, an agricultural ethics will not normally be so broadly conceived as to take on the responsibility of leading a society toward happiness.

Its ethics will deal with its defining values: food and the means of production.

But if someone proposes that the convenient use and regulation of agriculture requires that we treat seriously substantial harm to
and death of farm workers or food consumers only when six have been harmed in a single incident, an unacceptable norm will have been established.

Those deaths are completely unnecessary in the first place,if they were to used as a justification of prove to the harm resulting from unethical practices in food production.

They should have been prevented in the first place by following good ethics that prevent production of harmful food.

This is what we are referring to as Agribusiness Ethics.

The medieval first principle of ethics
can be stated as: “The good is to be done” or “Harm is to be avoided.”

Good or harm are not moral good or moral evil but some kind of natural good/harm, including physical, social, psychological,emotional, or economic.

Policies are morally good because they protect or create what is physically good.

Each profession or vocation,agribusiness, for example, dealing with basic needs has a conventionally assigned portion of human needs as it basic goal values for which it is responsible.

No one professional enterprise is responsible for the whole of the human good.

However, other ethical norms arise, as we have seen, when the means by which the profession attains its goal values begin to impact on important
other values.

Farmers, farm workers and their
families, and the conditions in which they live and work because of their involvement in agriculture are
among the principal values that arise with production values and conflict with them.

The “rural life” values are equally urgent with production goals, as we
discover in any other profession when the rewards are so bad that the professionals leave the profession
in large numbers.

It struck me at the time of this conference that many agricultural practitioners were like doctors all of whose patients were dead or
dying and who then decided they were not doctors after all.

If all our educated rural youth flee the agricultural rural areas which feed our nations for other non-agricultural jobs in towns,(ironically,they still need food in towns),then we must be doing this agribusiness thing the wrong way!

Our patient is dead.

We can be good “doctors” if all our patients face imminent death in our hands.

And sadly,this seems to be the trend of our rural small holder agriculture in the rural areas.

With the exception of a few mavericks, the agriculture as a profession was of little help to the philosophers.

And it was not as if they did not care about multiple values in farming.

It was simply that the idea that a
distinctly ethical set of norms in agriculture/agribusiness might direct them that seemed odd.

“Part of the cost of doing business is the cost of doing business safely,” suggests some sort of moral
inferiority in agriculture.

When an agriculture dean came to review an agriculture ethics course we were building in the mid 1980s during my college days, he asked: “Why agriculture? Why now? Is there some special scandal you and your colleagues are focusing on?”

I answered truthfully “Any mature discipline or enterprise has its
professional ethics.”

I spoke somewhat disingenuously because agriculture is the most mature profession/vocation and it has wended it way through a myriad of value conflicts without an explicit ethics until now.

The problem is that the religious norms that worked powerfully in the past were felt by many as ill suited to the “pluralism” of public education.

Furthermore, economists seemed
to claim access to a neutral, “objective” norm not requiring ethics.

Apart from any human kindness, “A
living wage for full-time agricultural workers is not obligatory” will lead to counties burdened with a huge poverty class, costly public health problems, and a generally depressed local economy, all in the form of a subsidy of slightly cheaper food in some distant city.

But human kindness counts as well.

Or does it?

As Cesar Chavez’s successful grape boycott in the mid 1960s revealed, long before there was an “agricultural ethics,” significant portions of the U.S. population held to the normative premise:
“Agriculture should organize itself so that it can pay its workers decently.”

In the early formative days of agribusiness ethics,Environmental values, like other values, required a strong constituency to flourish and, in short order,the nature lovers were joined by consumers as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),which in modern day terminology is now reffered to as Environmental Impact Assessment(EIA), mandated animal feeding tests of popular biocides.

These tests showed considerable chronic as well as acute toxicity
for vertebrates.

The EPA set up the Office of Pesticide
Programs in 1970 to oversee the safety evaluation of agricultural chemicals.

The short story is that most of
the chemicals are not safe—they are toxic and therefore risky to use and to have in the environment or on our food.

So, as the National Research Council
(NRC) summary, Regulating Pesticides (National Research Council, 1980) puts it, the issue is one of “weighing those risks against the benefits of pesticide use in agriculture”.

Economists at the time were drafting some rather unconvincing formats for risk/benefit analysis and evaluation as if loss of human life and environmental destruction was a “profit and loss” accounting exercise.

To be fair, it is hard to imagine how any format would have been workable even if a convincing one were found.

As the NRC described the
issue: “The benefits are largely, but not entirely, an increase in the availability of foods and natural fibers and a reduction in the amounts of resources needed to produce them…. The benefits, for the most part, are the monetary equivalent of economic resources.”

These benefits are to be weighed against the risks of pesticides, which include “increases in [human]
mortality and morbidity and impairment of environmental vitality and amenities of all kinds.”

Wisely, this NRC report recognized that this would not really be an “economic” calculation, as it goes on
to say, “The risks concern depends partly on the [EPA] Administrator’s personal scale of values and partly on his or her perception of the values held by the society in whose behalf he or she acts.

That is to say, it is partly a moral and partly a political judgment” (emphasis added; National Research
Council, 1980).

More than one reader would summarize this as: “They are asking us to accept small amounts of poison in our foods to save themselves production costs through crop pest damage.”

And to admit to such thoughts is to be identified as an “activist.”

Without needing any ethicist to point it out, agriculturalists always knew that their moral, i.e. ethical, responsibility in their vocation was the production of healthy (nutritious and not poisonous)food, in the same way that doctors knew they should
not cause sickness in curing disease.

But now, like doctors who knew that clean-looking hands could carry deadly infections and needed careful washing between each patient, agriculturalists had a new
explicit value to pursue: food cleanliness and food hygiene.

However,unlike medicine’s decision to avoid any and all known sources of infection danger, agriculture was allowed a different standard.

Any effort to measure benefits was dropped and agriculture was allowed to simply minimize risk by a system of tolerated levels of toxicity on foods resulting from residual chemicals from pesticide use.

The benefits, successful suppression of pests, were assumed to exist, and to be known by farmers.

Among the benefits was not seriously included any social need for increased production, but only reduced production management/costs.

That the food safety issue is a kind of uncomfortable multifunctionality (which is not to suggest that farmers do not care whether their food is safe) is illustrated by how the benefits to farmers were treated.

EPA abandoned fairly early on any
mandatory reporting of the “efficacy” (whether it killed the pests) of compounds, and when, in testing for safety under EPA contracts, university researchers
who discovered little or no efficacy, these researchers found no ear at EPA.

The EPA was not interested in
benefits, which left economists nothing to calculate and ethicists much to wonder about ( National
Research Council, 1987).

Meanwhile, the foundations for organic agriculture had been laid.

SUFFICIENT FOOD MEANS AFFORDABLE FOOD

As early as the mid-sixties, agricultural school administrators became aware that the noble task of
the United States Agency for Agricultural Development (USAID) to bring about agricultural development in developing countries sometimes
resulted in increased production by means which increased rural poverty, so no one was able to buy the food.

A little history would have helped avoid this problem. Hilgard in California and Henry in Wisconsin
who, at the turn of the century (1898), started Agricultural Extension Programs stated that there was little that they could do to help the poor farmers.

The problem with USAID’s task is that the poor farmers they impacted were the people in a way that was not true in California or Wisconsin.

It became fairly common for political scientists to assist or even lead the international agricultural development programs in agriculture schools.

No one really liked the idea of agriculture causing hunger, but the
changes needed to produce an agriculture that could really relieve poverty and hunger were often beyond the capacity of our land-grant universities.

This is not merely due to their being familiar only with capital and energy intensive agriculture, but also because the kind of learning required was not something land-grant university faculty had time for.

Peace Corps volunteers had more time, greater insights and freedom from publish-or-perish pressures and they were unleashed to Africa under USAID to revolutionalise subsistenc agriculture mainly through unfettered and liberalised use of pesticides like the now banned DDT without considering their harmful effects to african farmers,agricultural workers and end use food consumers.

However, there were many other obstacles, in the way the big
foundations worked and in the way USAID justified its expenditures to Congress, that threw up barriers
to really effective development assistance.

Perfectly rational bureaucratic structures in foundations
( Korten, 1982) and perfectly rational structures of “accountability” in government foreign aid projects
( Tendler, 1975) were demonstrably (and demonstrated) destined to cause development projects to fail in reducing local hunger or increasing
“effective demand” (the ability to buy) for food.

Given the human suffering at stake, it became impossible not to judge in stark moral terms the need for agriculture to innovate far beyond mere production goals (Dundon, 1991b).

Agriculture without social science was positively dangerous to
the hungry of the Third World.

This is where Agribusiness Ethics come in.

I will discuss more specific Agribusiness Ethics in future follow articles in these pages.

Keep it here for more information on Kigali Conference!

“The African Story as told by Africans”.©African News Digest®

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