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Towards A New Production Ethic

*Click here for a complete draft of Creating a New Vision of Farming in PDF format.


Executive Summary of the Draft:

State of the Question, Farmers, the Public and the Future:

The Danger
We are all familiar with the dominant model of agriculture which threatens to be the future of agriculture and to be the horror of many, both farmers and the public. It is agriculture of astonishing production, intense concentration of ownership, mechanization of the relationships between humans, animals and the products of the soil, and alienation of food producers from consumers. It generates great wealth from the countryside and returns poverty to farmers and workers, harm to nature, depopulation and disintegration of its communities, churches and civic organizations. It is industrial agriculture.

Early in 1996, a group of us, farmers and others concerned about this future, were struck by a theme in Paul Thompson's Spirit of the Soil: the industrial "paradigm" shores up its internal contradictions and excuses its external harms by appeals to the ethical and religious ideals and traditional values of conventional agriculture. Hard-work, practicality, efficiency, prosperity as evidence of God's favor, all these are colored as virtue beyond question, and are called upon as the very reason for the rush toward industrialization.

Our Response:
But many of us who hold deeply many of those same ethical and religious ideals do question its virtues. Industrial agriculture was not defined or created by the ethics which shores it up and rationalizes its destructive potential. The ethics of industrial agriculture is cobbled together to rationalize an institution whose design is based on non-ethical forces, market and technical. It uses the undoubted value of abundant food to justify the neglect and harm of many other values. Abundance in the service of human needs sounds so invincibly noble. Yet it is not that service, but the manner of achieving it which threatens so many other human and natural values. A noble end still demands the responsible use of means!

Some have found this appeal to a noble end so abusive that that they seem tempted to deny its nobility and question the very rightness of the soil producing a rich and delightful harvest. It is as if our very sitting with all other creatures at the banquet of life which does such harm to nature rather than the tools and institutions of industrial agriculture. We are somehow in the middle, sharing values of both sides. We want to produce abundant and healthy food on our farms and do so responsibly. We want to construct an ethics of farming which can avoid the irresponsible destruction of any important values whether of tools or goals of farming; whether of its means or its ends. And we are suspicious of those who tell us: "There is no other way to fill the table."

A New Way, A Renewed Ethics
We want to find another way. Thompson's writing convinced us that this new way would have to be based on a more responsible ethics. It would respect the principle that "the end cannot justify the means." The costs of the means do matter. And on the common sense principle that if a means, a technology or an economic dogma, imposes great sacrifices, those sacrifices must be really required by a truly urgent end. It must be true that "there is no other way." We object to those policies and institutions which tie food production to the destruction of farm families, the impoverishment of labor, abuse of animals, or poisoning of the environment. There are many ways to do farming without such harms, but first we should reflect on what the outlines of a true farming ethics would be. Rationalizing bad farming damaged the ethics of farming. Now we need a renewed ethics to be the foundation of good farming and of all the social institutions needed for good farming.

Our Proposal: Four Tasks
We seek to engage all of you in stating clearly the values which are the goals of agriculture, and values which are well or badly impacted by the choice of farming tools and policies. The final purpose is practical: A better agriculture. Hence we must:

1. Attain clarity and consensus on the values of the means and goals of agriculture.

2. State clearly and attain consensus on the ethical principles which can protect those values.

3. Depict attractive real and potential examples of models, institutions and practices which put those principles into action and make a better agriculture.

4. Face clearly the most painful questions about the present state of agriculture and the institutions which shape it. Get these questions discussed in the churches, farm organizations, civic societies and environmental groups. Encourage these groups to consider why they have not acted in concert before and what can be done to overcome obstacles to cooperation and communication.

The Process
In our Vision Statement we deal each of the four points above in an exploratory fashion in order to provide farm and other public groups a starting point or framework for guiding their deliberations toward an active and practical ethics. What we provide is not our view of what the consensus on values, principles and new models or institutions should be. It is our view of the kind of work that all of us need to do to express ethical guides toward a better future for farming and for those impacted by it. A few samples of what the Vision Statement provides follow.

First Task, Values:
We propose values of farming for discussion, distinguishing those which are the unchanging basic goals of farming from those other basic values which can be harmed or preserved by the choice of its tools or practices and other social institutions which define and limit its choices of tools. In short, the values of the ends of farming and the values of its means.

a.) Under the ends or goals of agriculture we take pride in our principal product: safe, nutritious and abundant food and fiber supplies.

b.) Under the means we value achieving these abundant food supplies in ways that are efficient sustainable and safe. Our environmentalism is both close to our hearts and practical. The importance of intimate knowledge and caring for the local soils and environment leads to various gives value to the maintenance of local presence and continuity of farm personnel, owners, renters, managers and workers.

c.) Under both we express how the means and end values of farming coincide with those of the public in just rewards for farmers and workers, esthetic and practical environmentalism, and care for animals.

Second Task, Principles:
We propose basic and derived ethical principles for the vocation of farming. Ethics is the orderly and consistent expression of the principles and practices which can secure valued ends by good means, Therefore we attempt to make explicit from the wealth of implicit moral convictions of reasonable and mature humans some of those which apply to and can secure the values of farming. We express these principles in terms general enough to embrace a wide range of more precise locally conditioned practical principles. The list is incomplete and suggestive. In this manner discussion, development, consensus and finally creative action on a locally effective level will be promoted.

a.) Principles which secure the ends of agriculture:

1. The dedication of land, water and other critical resources to farming is fitting in nature and to be presumed moral unless, in special cases, circumstances show otherwise.

2. The conditions of farming for farmers and farm-worker must be rewarding and healthy enough to assure that the vocation will not be abandoned or seriously damaged.

b.) Principles which guide the means of agriculture:

1. Although used and even consumed in production, natural beings, plants and animals are the sacred gifts of Creation, given for our use, not abuse. They are worthy in themselves of being treated with respect. Their diversity and the harmony of their coexistence is prima facie good and should be protected .

2. Serious harm to nature's balance in both wild and cultivated states and serious suffering imposed on animals must be measured with humble estimates of the importance of the human utility achieved.

3. It is morally abusive to regard trivial increases in human utility as a justification for serious harm to nature or animals.

4. Our use of resources must be conditioned by the humble recognition that our generation's needs are not inherently superior to those same needs for future generations. The pursuit of sustainability is a moral obligation.

We suggest many additional principles on the limits of free market forces, on protecting the value of ownership and consensus principles for managers, on local knowledge and decision making and on the obligation to continually seek more benign and sustainable technologies

Third Task, Models:
We then suggest, in thumbnail sketches of the ethical principles being applied, in imaginative scenarios as a stimulus to discussion and action. These are word- pictures of farms highly diversified in crops, value-added enterprises, animals, marketing, integrating whole farm planning into closed nutrient and energy cycles approaching independence in these basic resources. Owner operated or managed by farmers committed to the new ethic, these beautiful farms draw freely and in different degrees from benign farming alternatives whose productivity and reliability are becoming accepted.

There is pictured a growing diversity of marketing practices with those favored which increase the consumer-farmer relationship, with farmers gaining confidence in the public's desire for a wider variety of especially nutritious and delightful crops. Consumers and local stores will grow in loyalty to local growers.

Farmers will join together in cooperative sharing of information, experience with alternatives, in cooperatively owned processing and value added enterprises, and in utilizing each other's resources as by-products of diversified systems and good rotations. And together they will advocate in policy arenas for the continuation of this progress. They will join with local communities in spreading the knowledge of the benefits and delight in the new changes through farm tours and internships, school presentations, religious festivals and community celebrations.

Fourth Task, Hard Questions and Actions:
We list questions to engage new thinking and actions to promote a new future. This document is intended to enlist the help of persons and groups interested in the well-being of farmers, the excellence of farming, in its products, the rural environment and its communities. We suggest actions and study questions which can assist farm and community organizations, church, environmental and consumer groups in bringing a new production ethic into active existence. It is such groups who will use this document to promote the expression and adoption of a consensus ethics.. But, as laid out in the beginning, ethics is a means to the preservation of cherished values--the value here being the survival of the family farm and with it the rural community. The groups addressed: environmentalists, rural churches and farm organization, will all themselves either pass out of existence with the loss of the farming communities, or will find that farmers have been replaced by industrial managers with no power to alter corporate policies. We ask these groups a series of painful questions about the obstacles to our coming together to establish a shared farming ethic to restore trust and promote communication.