Ethics of Agriculture

Scholarly discourse about the values and norms associated with agriculture and the food system—farming, resource management, food processing, distribution, trade, and consumption—is referred to as agricultural ethics. This incorporates elements of philosophical analysis with concerns about particular issue areas that arise in connection with farm practices and the structure of the agri-food system.

Over the past few decades, social science researchers and academics have applied ethical analysis to agricultural production and use of the natural environment. The Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society, for instance, was formed in 1987 to promote the study of values issues associated with the production, consumption, and distribution of food, fiber, and natural resources. The Society sponsors an annual conference and publishes a refereed quarterly journal, Agriculture and Human Values.

Researchers and academics have applied ethical concepts and tools to address several issue areas in the food system. Their objective is to help practitioners and others interested in these issues to navigate through the topic of ethics as applied to the world of agriculture. Considerable public discussion and academic analysis have focused on the following topics:

Farm Structure refers to the general social and economic features of agriculture in a given society. These features include the average size of farms, relative market shares of different-sized farms, numbers of people employed in farming, and whether or not farms are owner-operated. The situation and rights of farmworkers can also be included here.

Animal Ethics focuses on the use of animals, the intensive production of meat and poultry, extensive production of feedstuffs for animals, and impacts on the environment due to intensive and concentrated production. The “happiness” or welfare of animals would also be included here.

Food Safety is an issue because of modern food production-transportation-processing-marketing chains that expose consumers to chemical additives, microbial pathogens and other human health concerns. Inspection and transparency in how food is produced is included here.

Environmental Impacts are a great concern and raises many questions in how crop agriculture and livestock production is managed: locally, nationally and globally. Areas of concern include chemical residues on food, pesticide exposure on workers, wasteful use of soil and water resources, and untargeted yet obvious impacts on the natural ecosystem and wildlife.

International Trade is a question of fairness in how rules are set, who sets the rules and who benefits versus those who are pushed out of the market. The ethical questions revolve around human rights and the equitable distribution of benefits and harms.

Food Security is a broad term and covers many aspects of the global food system. The essential question deals with hunger and how to provide sufficient food for all. The ethical debate swirls around the balance of global trade (and food relief) with widespread agricultural development. Bioterrorism is also a concern here.

Agricultural Biotechnology is debated in terms of food safety and consumer consent, the broader environmental effects of its use in crop and livestock production, its impact on the structure of agriculture, and its potential to address problems of hunger on a global basis.

Research Ethics in agriculture used to focus on the use of animals as research subject. Now it is coming to be seen in terms of control over the research agenda and the proper role of self-interested actors (namely, corporations) in supporting public-sector scientific research.

These issues and debates are taking place within various forums, ranging from disciplined academics to various farm associations to public advocacy campaigns. But there does not appear to be a broadly agreed upon “Code of Ethics” to refer to: science conducts its studies, agricultural leaders make market-based policies, and ethics are left to every person’s responsibility. How to institutionalize ethics in the food system remains to be determined.


Key Reports and Studies

  • Agricultural Ethics. Issue Paper No. 29. Jeffrey Burkhardt, Task Force Chair. Ames, Iowa: Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, Feb. 2005.

In this paper, the Task Force authors examine the nature of ethics as applied to agriculture, discuss briefly how ethical concepts and tools can address several issue areas in the food system, comment on how consideration of agricultural ethics might be institutionalized, and provide a glossary to help those interested in these issues navigate through the topic of ethics as applied to the world of agriculture. The main topics covered in this issue paper are the ones listed above.



  • Finding Common Ground on Environmentally Sound Economically Viable Agriculture. Healthy Farms Healthy People Coalition & ChangeLab Solutions, May 2013.

This issue brief commissioned by the Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition highlights food and farming issues in which agriculture and health stakeholders have shared interest. The realities of farming practices on the environment and human health have opened the door for discussion about alternative farming practices. This brief identifies and describes some of the more commonly cited concerns farmers and health professionals share.



  • Soul of Agriculture: Towards a New Production Ethic. (This initiative originated in 1996, but appears to have expired; some of their documents can still be found at

The Soul of Agriculture was initiated by the Center for Respect of Life & Environment in 1996. A committee of representatives of agricultural, environmental and animal protection organizations drafted a vision statement for a shared farming ethic, which was revised in a major conference in Minneapolis in November 1997. A variety of religious and local conferences also took place in California, Iowa, Wisconsin and New Hampshire. The draft statement, “Creating a New Vision of Farming,” is found at



  • Agricultural Ethics. Paul Thompson. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1998.

The chapters of this book are based on 13 essays written over a 15-year period. Thompson’s aim is to help non-philosophers to comprehend and value agricultural and food distribution practices, with the ultimate aim of animating an inquiry into the moral and cultural relevance of these practices in American society. The book begins with basic concepts, then gets more deeply into key ethical issues related to agriculture, and ends with a discussion of what this means for a democratic nation in respect to sustaining agriculture and culture.



  • Ikerd, John E. (retired ag economist from University of Missouri; has written multiple papers on a new paradigm for agricultural production)

John Ikerd, professor emeritus of Agricultural & Applied Economics at the University of Missouri-Columbia, continues to write and present his views on sustainable agriculture. A collection of his papers, including links to audio & video files, is found at A listing of his books is also shown.



  • The New Agrarian Mind. Allan Carlson. Transaction Publishers, 2004.

The New Agrarian Mind synthesizes the thought of twentieth-century agrarian writers. It weaves together discussions of major representative figures, such as Liberty Hyde Bailey, Carle Zimmerman, and Wendell Berry, and analyses the movement’s cultural diversity, intellectual influence, and ideological complexity. Collectively labeled the “New Agrarians” to distinguish them from the simpler Jeffersonianism of the nineteenth century, they shared a coherent set of goals that were at once socially conservative and economically radical.



  • The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture and the Community of Life. Eric T. Freyfogle. Island Press, 2001.

The writings gathered in this book explore an important but little-publicized movement in American culture: resurgence of agrarian practices and values in rural areas, suburbs, and even cities. It is a movement that in widely varied ways is attempting to strengthen society’s roots in the land while bringing greater health to families, neighborhoods and communities. “The New Agrarianism” displays the movement’s breadth, with selections by notable writers as Wendell Berry, William Kittredge, Stephanie Mills, David Orr, Scott Russell Sanders and Donald Worster. Many of the selections illustrate agrarian practitioners in action: restoring prairies, promoting community forests and farms, reducing resource consumption, reshaping the built environment. Other selections offer pointed critiques of contemporary American culture and its market-driven, resource-depleting competitiveness. The book is meant for social critics, community activists, organic gardeners, conservationists and those seeking to forge sustaining ties with the entire community of life.



  •  The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture. Wendell Berry. 3rd Edition. Sierra Club Books, 1996.

First published in 1977, this seminal work by Wendell Berry explains the erosive fissures in industrial agriculture, or “agribusiness” as it is known in his book. He takes a critical look at the policies and practices of the “get big, or get out” era of farm consolidation during the 1970s which caused a landslide in the numbers of small farmers and a consequential detriment to the quality of the farms and food they produce. His book is a scathing account of how farms have been forced into our cultural impression of a successful capitalist business, to take any means necessary to gain the highest possible profit margins at the expense of all else: health of the land, health of the food, health of the people, and even the health of our modern culture.



  • Is there a Moral Obligation to Save the Family Farm? Gary Comstock, ed. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1987

More than two dozen writers – farmers, economists, historians, sociologists, politicians, and others – contribute to this collection of essays that examine the history, current state and future of the family farm. The writings focus on moral and ethical issues and a variety of approaches to be considered in guiding America in how we think about policy, food prices, corporate monopolies, market structure and proper use of the land. The reader is challenged to examine their own value judgments and positions regarding the farm crisis. (Specific reference here to the 1980s period of agricultural recession, low crop prices and low farm incomes, leading to loss of family farms and other grave consequences.)



  • Fighting for the Farm: Rural America Transformed. Jane Adams, ed. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

In this edited volume, Jane Adams and contributors—anthropologists and political scientists among them—analyze the political dynamics that have transformed agriculture in the United States and Canada since the 1920s. The contributors demonstrate that people become politically active in arenas that range from the state to public discourse to relations between growers and their contractors or laborers. The various chapters describe the intersection of structure and agency, including both powerful actors who alter structures in their own interests and grassroots movements that set up alternative structures with the hope of harmony with humanity and nature. Two notable chapters are: (1) “Eating in the Gardens of Gaia: Envisioning Polycultural Communities” (Ch. 14) by Harriet Friedmann; (2) “The Entrepreneurial Self: Identity and Morality in a Midwestern Farming Community” (Ch. 10) by Kathryn Marie Dudley.


The industrialization of agriculture not only alters the ways in which agricultural production occurs, but it also impacts the decisions farmers make in important ways. First, constraints created by the economic environment of farming limit what options farmers have available to them. Second, because of these constraints and economic pressures, farmers are facing ethical challenges. The researchers discuss the implications of constrained choice and show that it increases the likelihood that farmers will consider unethical behavior.