Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

Published by Springer Nature

Online ISSN: 1573-322X


Print ISSN: 1187-7863


Exploiting Abstract Possibilities: A Critique of the Concept and Practice of Product Patenting
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February 2004


57 Reads

Developments in biotechnology and genomics have moved the issue of patenting scientific and technological inventions toward the center of interest. In particular, the patentability of genes of plants, animals, or humans and of genetically modified (parts of) living organisms has been discussed, and questioned, from various normative perspectives. This paper aims to contribute to this debate. For this purpose, it first explains a number of relevant aspects of the theory and practice of patenting. The focus is on a special and increasingly significant type of patents, namely product patents. The paper provides three general arguments against the concept and practice of product patenting. The first argument briefly considers the claim that patents are legitimate because they promote socially useful innovation. Against this claim, it is argued that product patents may hamper rather than promote such innovation. The second and main argument concludes that product patents are not adequately based on actual technological inventions, as they should be according to the usual criteria of patentability. The principal moral issue is that product patents tend to reward patentees for inventions they have not really made available. The final argument proposes a method for patenting the heat of the sun. Assuming that granting this patent will be generally considered absurd, the argument exposes a further, fundamental problem of the concept and practice of product patenting.

Are Life Patents Ethical? Conflict between Catholic Social Teaching and Agricultural Biotechnology's Patent Regime

October 2001


71 Reads

Patents for genetic material in the industrialized North have expanded significantly over the past twenty years, playing a crucial role in the current configuration of the agricultural biotechnology industries, and raising significant ethical issues. Patents have been claimed for genes, gene sequences, engineered crop species, and the technical processes to engineer them. Most critics have addressed the human and ecosystem health implications of genetically engineered crops, but these broad patents raise economic issues as well. The Catholic social teaching tradition offers guidelines for critiquing the economic implications of this new patent regime. The Catholic principle of the universal destination of goods implies that genes, gene sequences, and engineered crop varieties are ineligible for patent protection, although the processes to engineer these should be eligible. Religious leaders are likely to make a more substantive contribution to debates about agricultural biotechnology by addressing these life patents than by speculating that genetic engineering is "playing God."

Minimizing Harm in Agricultural Animal Experiments in New Zealand

February 2003


55 Reads

Intrusive agricultural experiments published in New Zealand in the last five years are reviewed in terms of the degree of animal suffering involved, and the necessity for this suffering in relation to research findings. When measured against animal welfare criteria of the Ministry of Agriculture, thirty-six studies inflicted "severe" or "very severe" suffering. Many of these experiments had questionable short-term applications, had an application restricted to agricultural production or economic growth, or could have been modified to prevent or reduce suffering.

Do Regulators of Animal Welfare Need to Develop a Theory of Psychological Well-Being?

July 2001


27 Reads

The quest for a ``theory of nonhuman minds'' to assessclaims about the moral status of animals is misguided. Misframedquestions about animal minds facilitate the appropriation ofanimal welfare by the animal user industry. When misframed, thesequestions shift the burden of proof unreasonably to animalwelfare regulators. An illustrative instance of misframing can befound in the US National Research Council's 1998 publication thatreports professional efforts to define the psychologicalwell-being of nonhuman primates, a condition that the US 1985animal welfare act requires users of primates to promote. Thereport claims that ``psychological well-being'' is a hypotheticalconstruct whose validity can only be determined by a theory thatdefines its properties and links it to observed data. Thisconception is used to contest common knowledge about animalwelfare by treating psychological well-being as a mentalcondition whose properties are difficult to discover. Thisframework limits regulatory efforts to treat animal subjects lessoppressively and serves the interests of the user industry. A more liberatory framework can be constructed by recognizing thecontested nature of welfare norms, where competing conceptions ofanimal welfare have implications about norm-setting authority, asit does in other regulatory contexts, e.g., food safety. Properlyconceptualized welfare should include both the avoidance ofdistressful circumstances and the relationship between ananimal's capacities to engage in enjoyable activities and itsopportunities to exercise these capacities. This conception ofanimal welfare avoids appropriation by scientific experts. The development of the psychological well-being regulation is agood illustration of how social norms are contested and thenappropriated, and a critique of this appropriation shows how itcan be challenged.

Measuring Biotechnology Employees’ Ethical Attitudes towards a Controversial Transgenic Cattle Project: The Ethical Valence Matrix

September 2005


18 Reads

What is the relationship between biotechnology employees' beliefs about the moral outcomes of a controversial transgenic research project and their attitudes of acceptance towards the project? To answer this question, employees (n=466) of a New Zealand company, AgResearch Ltd., were surveyed regarding a project to create transgenic cattle containing a synthetic copy of the human myelin basic protein gene (hMBP). Although diversity existed amongst employees' attitudes of acceptance, they were generally: in favor of the project, believed that it should be allowed to proceed to completion, and that it is acceptable to use transgenic cattle to produce medicines for humans. These three items were aggregated to form a project acceptance score. Scales were developed to measure respondents' beliefs about the moral outcomes of the project for identified stakeholders in terms of the four principles of common morality (benefit, non-harm, justice, and autonomy). These data were statistically aggregated into an Ethical Valence Matrix fo the project. The respondents' project Ethical Valence Scores correlated significantly with their project acceptance scores (r=0.64, p<0.001), accounting for 41% of the variance in respondents' acceptance attitudes. Of the four principles, non-harm had the strongest correlation with attitude to the project (r=0.59), followed by benefit and justice (both r=0.54), then autonomy (r=0.44). These results indicate that beliefs about the moral outcomes of a research project, in terms of the four principles approach, are strongly related to, and may be significant determinants of, attitudes to the research project. This suggests that, for employees of a biotechnology organization, ethical reasoning could be a central mechanism for the evaluation of the acceptability of a project. We propose that the Ethical Valence Matrix may be used as a tool to measure ethical attitudes towards controversial issues, providing a metric for comparison of perceived ethical consequences for multiple stakeholder groups and for the evaluation and comparison of the ethical consequences of competing alternative issues or projects. The tool could be used to measure both public and special interest groups' ethical attitudes and results used for the development of socially responsible policy or by science organizations as a democratizing decision aid to selection amongst projects competing for scarce research funds.

Including Public Perspectives in Industrial Biotechnology and the Biobased Economy

February 2006


26 Reads

Industrial ("white") biotechnology promises to contribute to a more sustainable future. Compared to current production processes, cases have been identified where industrial biotechnology can decrease the amount of energy and raw materials used to make products and also reduce the amount of emissions and waste produced during production. However, switching from products based on chemical production processes and fossil fuels towards "biobased" products is at present not necessarily economically viable. This is especially true for bulk products, for example ethanol production from biomass. Therefore, scientists are also turning to genetic modification as a means to develop organisms that can produce at lower costs. These include not only micro-organisms, but also organisms used in agriculture for food and feed. The use of genetic modification for "deliberate release" purposes, in particular, has met great opposition in Europe. Many industrial biotechnology applications may, due to their scale, entail deliberate releases of GM organisms. Thus, the biobased economy brings back a familiar question; is it ethically justifiable, and acceptable to citizens, to expose the environment and society to the risks associated with GM, in order to protect that same environment and to sustain our affluent way of life? For a successful innovation towards a biobased economy, its proponents, especially producers, need to take into account (take responsibility for) such issues when developing new products and processes. These issues, and how scientists can interact with citizens about them in a timely way, are further explored in projects at Delft University and Leiden University, also in collaboration with Utrecht University.

Ethical Issues in Livestock Cloning

February 1999


173 Reads

Although cloning may eventually become an important technology for livestock production, four ethical issues must be addressed before the practice becomes widespread. First, researchers must establish that the procedure is not detrimental to the health or well-being of affected animals. Second, animal research institutions should evaluate the net social benefits to livestock producers by weighing the benefits to producers against the opportunity cost of research capacity lost to biomedical projects. Third, scientists should consider the indirect effects of cloning research on the larger ethical issues surrounding human cloning. Finally, the market structure for products of cloned animals should protect individual choice, and should recognize that many individuals find the prospect of cloning (or consuming cloned animals) repugnant. Analysis of these four issues is complicated by spurious arguments alleging that cloning will have a negative impact on environment and genetic diversity.

Practical Moral Codes In the Transgenic Organism Debate

February 2004


20 Reads

In one study funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, people from North Dakota were interviewed to discover which moral principles they use in evaluating the morality of transgenic organisms and their introduction into markets. It was found that although the moral codes the human subjects employed were very similar, their views on transgenics were vastly different. In this paper, the codes that were used by the respondents are developed, compared to that of the academically composed Belmont Report, and then modified to create the more practical Common Moral Code. At the end, it is shown that the Common Moral Code has inherent inconsistency flaws that might be resolvable, but would require extensive work on the definition of terms and principles. However, the effort is worthwhile, especially if it results in a common moral code that all those involved in the debate are willing to use in negotiating a resolution to their differences.

Genetic engineering and the Moral Status of Non-Human Species

February 2004


134 Reads

Genetic modification leads to several important moral issues. Up until now they have been discussed from the viewpoint that only individual living beings, above all animals, are morally considerable. The standpoint that also collective entities such as species belong to the moral sphere have seldom been taken into account in a more thorough way, although it is advocated by several important environmental ethicists. The main purpose of this article is to analyze in more detail than often has been done what the practical consequences of this ethical position would be for the use of genetic engineering on animals and plants. The practical consequences of the holistic standpoint (focused on collective entities) of Holmes Rolson, III, is compared with the practical consequences of the individualistic standpoints (focused on individual living beings) of Bernard E. Rollin and Philipp Balzer, Klaus Peter Rippe, and Peter Schaber, respectively. The article also discusses whether the claim that species are morally considerable is tenable as a foundation for policy decisions on genetic engineering.

Journalism and Science: How to Erode the Idea of Knowledge

February 2006


38 Reads

This paper discusses aspects of the relationship between the scientific community and the public at large. Inspired by the European public debate on genetically modified crops and food, ethical challenges to the scientific community are highlighted. This is done by a discussion of changes that are likely to occur to journalistic attitudes--mirroring changing attitudes in the wider society--towards science and scientific researchers. Two journalistic conventions--those of science transmission and of investigative journalism--are presented and discussed in relation to the present drive towards commercialization within the world of science: how are journalists from these different schools of thought likely to respond to the trend of commercialization? Likely journalistic reactions could, while maintaining the authority of the scientific method, be expected to undermine public trust in scientists. In the long term, this may lead to an erosion of the idea of knowledge as something that cannot simply be reduced to the outcome of negotiation between stakeholders. It is argued that science is likely to be depicted as a fallen angel. This may be countered, it is posited, by science turning human, by recognizing its membership of society, and by recognizing that such membership entails more than just commercial relations. To rethink its relationship with the public at large--and, in particular, to rethink the ideal of disinterested science--is an ethical challenge facing the scientific community.

The Moral Difference Between Intragenic and Transgenic Modification of Plants

February 2006


1,396 Reads

Public policy on the development and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has mainly been concerned with defining proper strategies of risk management. However, surveys and focus group interviews show that although lay people are concerned with risks, they also emphasize that genetic modification is ethically questionable in itself. Many people feel that this technology "tampers with nature" in an unacceptable manner. This is often identified as an objection to the crossing of species borders in producing transgenic organisms. Most scientists reject these opinions as based on insufficient knowledge about biotechnology, the concept of species, and nature in general. Some recent projects of genetic modification aim to accommodate the above mentioned concerns by altering the expression of endogenous genes rather than introducing genes from other species. There can be good scientific reasons for this approach, in addition to strategic reasons related to greater public acceptability. But are there also moral reasons for choosing intragenic rather than transgenic modification? I suggest three interrelated moral reasons for giving priority to intragenic modification. First, we should respect the opinions of lay people even when their view is contrary to scientific consensus; they express an alternative world-view, not scientific ignorance. Second, staying within species borders by strengthening endogenous traits reduces the risks and scientific uncertainty. Third, we should show respect for nature as a complex system of laws and interconnections that we cannot fully control. The main moral reason for intragenic modification, in our view, is the need to respect the "otherness" of nature.

Chronic Toxicity of 1080 and its Implications for Conservation Management: A New Zealand Case Study

August 2006


477 Reads

Sodium monofluoroacetate (1080) is a mammalian pesticide used in different parts of the world for the control of mammalian pest species. In New Zealand it is used extensively and very successfully as a conservation management tool for the control of brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula) – an introduced marsupial that has become a substantial agricultural and conservation management pest. Possums pose a threat to cattle farming in New Zealand as they are a vector for bovine tuberculosis. In protected natural areas, possum browsing is responsible for large scale defoliation of native vegetation. As with many other pesticides, there has been some degree of popular concern about the use of this toxin and its safety, with particular reference to non-target effects. These concerns have been associated with potential non-target effects on human health, and the health of animals of recreational value (e.g., hunting dogs and game animals). This has led to the development of a strong “anti-1080” lobby in New Zealand. In contrast, this study encompasses a science-based risk analysis focusing on the potential risks to non-target native wildlife with a particular focus on chronic toxicity. It finds that there is evidence that 1080 may have endocrine disrupting capabilities (with potential relevance for non-target wildlife) but that this still needs more detailed investigation. This can be clarified by further targeted research. Further research is also needed to test the degradation rates of 1080 and its breakdown products at ecologically-relevant temperatures (i.e., winter stream temperatures – below 11°C). Such research may demonstrate that some adjustment to 1080 risk management is warranted in New Zealand, or it may help to put to rest the current controversy over the use of this cost effective conservation management tool.

Table 4 Attitudes regarding the benefits of farming
Table 6 Attitudes regarding the drawbacks of farming
Table 7 Attitudes regarding satisfaction with farm life
Table 8 Attitudes regarding relationship with the land
Farmers’ Attitudes About Farming and the Environment: A Survey of Conventional and Organic Farmers. Journal of Agriculture & Environmental Ethics 9: 123-143

January 1996


3,605 Reads

Farmers have been characterized as people whose ties to the land have given them a deep awareness of natural cycles, appreciation for natural beauty and sense of responsibility as stewards. At the same time, their relationship to the land has been characterized as more utilitarian than that of others who are less directly dependent on its bounty. This paper explores this tension by comparing the attitudes and beliefs of a group of conventional farmers to those of a group of organic farmers. It was found that while both groups reject the idea that a farmer’s role is to conquer nature, organic farmers were significantly more supportive of the notion that humans should live in harmony with nature. Organic farmers also reported a greater awareness of and appreciation for nature in their relationship with the land. Both groups view independence as a main benefit of farming and a lack of financial reward as its main drawback. Overall, conventional farmers report more stress in their lives although they also view themselves in a caretaker role for the land more than do the organic farmers. In contrast, organic farmers report more satisfaction with their lives, a greater concern for living ethically, and a stronger perception of community. Finally, both groups are willing to have their rights limited (organic farmers somewhat more so) but they do not trust the government to do so.

Why Slaughter? The Cultural Dimensions of Britain's Foot and Mouth Disease Control Policy, 1892–2001

January 2004


47 Reads

In 1892, the British agricultural authorities introduced a policy of slaughtering animals infected with foot and mouth disease (FMD). This measure endured throughout the 20th century and formed a base line upon which officials superimposed the controversial "contiguous cull" policy during the devastating 2001 epidemic. Proponents of the slaughter frequently emphasized its capacity to eliminate FMD from Britain, and claimed that it was both cheaper and more effective than the alternative policies of isolation and vaccination. However, their discussions reveal that a less obvious but nonetheless important reason for maintaining the slaughter policy was the conviction that in its manner of operation and its outcomes, it benefited the state and status of the British nation. To its supporters, slaughter was far more than a method of disease control; it acted also as a moralizing and civilizing force, an indicator of veterinary ability and a "virility symbol" of British international leadership. This "cultural" rationale for FMD control by slaughter declined during the late 20th century and was wholly undermined by the 2001 epidemic, when extensive culling failed to convey the intended image of an organized, enlightened Britain.

Friends of the land and the rise of environmentalism, 1940–1954

January 1995


114 Reads

The rise of the postwar environmental movement is rooted in the development of ecological consciousness within intellectual circles as well as the general public. Though many commentators cite the 1960s as the focal point of the new environmentalism, the ecological ethic had actually evolved by the 1930s in the writings and speeches of both scientists and public commentators. Agricultural conservationists led the way in broadcasting the message of ecology. Friends of the Land, an agriculturally-oriented conservation organization formed in 1940 and active through the 1950s, is an interesting example of how the agricultural community was an integral component in the rise of environmentalism. While Friends of the Land flourished only for a brief period, its goals and the ideas that the group represented illustrate how the ecological ethic was burgeoning by the early-1950s. Furthermore, the history of Friends of the Land is an important chapter in the ongoing quest for ecological agriculture and societal permanence.

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