Equity and morality in food and technology - biofuels or food?

Community concern about food ranges from food safety at home to the world’s undernourished. This diverse context for our technology is further compounded by, as ever, wealth and knowledge.

In the technological food sector wealth is today concentrated in corporations, as knowledge may be, although much applied scientific knowledge rests in the minds of persons such as ATSE Academicians. Balancing these competing forces is always the task of responsible managers of technology, and relies on objective understanding of the public’s and scientists’ concerns about equity and morality in food and its related technology.

For many scientists the inseparability of technological development from morality became clear with Oppenheimer’s angst over his role in creating the atom bomb – “I am still aware of the terrifying new age that we scientists had complicitly helped set about in motion”.

And, as the fallout of our food technologies becomes more difficult to foresee, we too are faced with increasingly complex moral issues. We may espouse such values as ‘equity’, but unless we are vigilant of our motivations and aware of the implications of our work, we are easily drawn into checklist approaches, which pass for ethics in some businesses.

‘Equity’ in technology usually aspires to benefits being evenly available across social strata. This is critical for essential foods. But ‘morality’ adds a personal perspective to the social perspective – which is why some scientists refuse to accept research funds from, for example, military corporations.

Social values can also clash with personal values, for example when a country protects its agriculture by refusing to give grain surpluses to hungry nations. As an essential of life that increasingly relies on technology for incremental production, such as through genetic manipulation, food should be a focus of equity and morality.

If this sounds like philosophy, it is – and all scientists are expected to understand this much philosophy. After all, what is a PhD?

Economic philosophy once labelled the factors of food production as land, labour and capital. But since Ester Boserup argued that technology continually expands possibilities, we have seen it widen our resource base. Her ideas dramatically trounced our tendency toward Malthusian fear of famine in the 1960s, when technological successes fed the world through the Green Revolution.

Current fears about water and oil should similarly stimulate technological solutions, as should this decade’s frenzy about food in a changing climate. Of course we expect some disasters, as there always has been! And many of these will, as ever, relate not to technological failure, but to inequitable political and commercial actions.

So, if technology provides the answer, why worry? Unacceptable inequities in access to technology might be our social answer, but this immediately conflicts with demonstrable personal values when we acknowledge that our home comforts rely on existing global inequities.

One uncommon response to this, which I espouse, is to recognise that basic foods differ from non-essential commodities and cannot ethically be commercially limited in supply, especially on the so-called free-market basis proposed by some owners of essential technologies. The right to food is a simple extension of the widely accepted and ancient principle of ensuring basic minimum needs.

However, it is more practical to consider how things are than how they might be – not revolution, but incremental improvement by successive and objective decisions – and this becomes the responsibility of scientists and policy-makers.

Hence we rely on such models as that of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) to predict average national food availability, and from this we know that the proportion of underfed persons in the world continues to fall. But now grain prices are rising at the same time that Third World demographic shifts have led to more poor people being urban consumers than rural smallholders.

The smallholder farmer who feeds his family is better off than his poor urban cousin because he is cushioned against food-price variations. But when food is priced as no more special than toilet paper, malnourishment may be expected to rise again.

Will this sort itself out? One way or another it will – painfully, if technological benefits are inequitable and our values do not extend past our shores. It will be painful enough if all other things remain equal, but with climate change and proposals to convert agricultural land to biofuel production, we should expect some severe hardship.

Why isn’t Bosrup’s technological innovation saving the day? Because technology is similarly commoditised, and the poor cannot pay for either food or technology.

We muddle along, occasionally creating more suffering than necessary. Climate change is inevitable, but biofuels replacing food production, and thereby increasing food prices further, is not. In such cases, scientists easily offend their own morals and support inequitable commercial ends.

But this does not make biofuel technology wrong. For example, if biofuel crops were grown on non-agricultural land, the food versus fuel argument would cool, although an environmental argument may well heat up.

Let’s look a little closer. It is said that biomass energy production reduces food production by competing for investment, infrastructure, water, fertilisers and labour? It seems to be true, at least for the current approaches to growing corn to produce ethanol as practiced in the US.

But corn might not be the first choice for anyone but the subsidised corn industry, for it is not a rich net energy source, and even its low production to date (less than 20 billion litres in 2006) has already affected food grain prices. Subsidies always distort, but the issue is greater than subsidies: growing corn for fuel in place of food crops is simply illogical in all but monopolistic financial terms. It reduces food equity and offends personal morality.

Technologically, biofuels (cellulosic ethanol) can be produced from inedible plants and agricultural wastes. It is the same argument long ignored, but no less true, that applies to much ruminant production in the Third World and extensive systems such as in Australia. That is, non-arable lands can be converted into useful products (wool, milk, meat, leather etc) by ruminants.

In the case of biofuels, one US study suggests that cellulosic ethanol production can be five times as efficient in net (that is, including all energy inputs) fuel production as corn ethanol, while also being almost carbon neutral. Too good to be true? Probably – but it is certainly better than replacing food by biofuel production on good agricultural land.

So by shifting the trade-off from essential food to ruminant products we must ask what are essential foods and, contrary to popular belief, we find that ruminants continue to nourish many in the Third World including most vegetarians. Taken further, the argument about equity and morality seems to pivot on essential versus luxury consumption, which relates to both food and oil.

Technology is not the only answer in the food argument. If we seek equity, secure access to essential food as a universal right needs more than a naïve trust in markets. If we seek to be moral, we must support the approaches devised by our best objective minds, rather than the vested interests that unfortunately sometime also capture we scientists.
Professor Lindsay Falvey FTSE holds both a PhD in Asian agriculture from Queensland Unviersity, and a DAgrSc (based on 30 years’ consideration of the need for integrating practical research for global development) from the University of Melbourne, where he was Dean of Australia’s largest agricultural and natural resources faculty. Among his 11 books and more than 120 papers are the books, Religion and Agriculture and Wise Environmental Intervention. He has worked in more than 30 countries, managed international development consultancies in more than 60 countries as CEO of Coffey-MPW, and maintains an active profile in equitable international development and sustainability.

Editor's Note: This article was first published in the August 2008 edition of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering's (ATSE) Focus Magazine (number 151, Food for the World). This article is under copyright, for permission to reproduce please contact ATSE.