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Ethical agriculture October 25th, 2015 by

It’s much easier to be an ethical consumer than an ethical farmer. I can pay more for organic and Fairtrade produce, for example, to promote ethical practices. These and other certification schemes have achieved much, but they are only available to a few farmers. Ethical agriculture faces a much more intransigent problem, namely the millions of farmers who grow illegal crops, or crops that many people would like to ban.

Sumatra disease starts in fieldI worked on a clove project in Indonesia, financed by the UK, that spent 15 years figuring out how to control a deadly disease. The clove you know is a dried, unopened flower. It’s a valuable crop for smallholder farmers and millions of others who depend on the clove trade, but much less so for human health. Cloves were historically important (and much fought over) as a spice. But this use has greatly diminished. Now most cloves are used to make kretek cigarettes. It was this link to human health that was the main reason why the clove project stopped in 1990.

Good crop, bad crop: it depends which way you look at it. Stop smoking and you improve your health, yet what happens to the clove farmers? Replacing high value crops is never easy, as many attempts to eradicate poppies in Afghanistan reveal. Jeff has written earlier about replacing coca with bananas but wholescale shifts away from valuable drug plants will never happen. Farmers will continue to grow drug crops that consumers continue to demand. As a Pakistani government minister once explained to his US counterpart: “Why do we export opium poppies? Because your citizens want them.”

Clove is a legal crop and farmers deserve technical and extension support. It’s more complicated with illegal crops, though some have legitimate medicinal uses, such as coca. During my time in charge of a diagnostic laboratory we received samples of diseased poppies from Afghanistan from an FAO project. We examined the samples, never quite clear if our main purpose was to confirm the success of a disease deliberately released by a drug-control agency or give advice to farmers on how to control the disease.

Tobacco twistedI recently wrote some fact sheets on diseases of tobacco, to help growers and field support staff identify problems and reduce pesticide use. Yes, consumers are requesting organic tobacco, and pesticide-free tobacco would arguably be less dangerous to their health, though only marginally I suspect. One of my unexpected discoveries is that tobacco companies have some of the strictest policies I know on promoting biodiversity conservation and non-chemical methods for pest control. Smoking will damage your health but growing tobacco aims to have as little environmental impact as possible.

The US has aggressive policies to reduce smoking. Walking in New York recently it sometimes felt that tobacco was an illegal drug. The US is also a big tobacco producer and federal and state governments continue to fund research and extension for tobacco farmers. At one time there were 60,000 tobacco farmers in Kentucky. There are now 4500, so many have presumably either changed crops or left agriculture. Tobacco is still an important crop in a state where not so long ago 1 in 15 jobs depended on it, but clearly the crop is in decline, at least in the US.

P1100597Is it unethical to give advice to tobacco farmers on pest control? Doctors treat all patients, even murderers, and I think agriculturists have a similar responsibility to help all honest farmers, regardless of the crops they grow. I have never smoked and I’ve had relatives and friends whose health was damaged by smoking, yet many farmers and rural communities around the world still depend on crops which rightly cause huge health concerns but are still legal.

Consumers can choose what to buy and make decisions about ethical agriculture at little or no personal cost. Farmers don’t have the luxury of changing crops that many want to ban, including those that are legal but directly linked to ill-health. The sugar tax that Paul talked about in an earlier blog is apparently coming to the UK. Is sugarcane unethical? The US is legalising marijuana. Is cannabis now an ethical crop? It’s not clear that a moralising rich world understands the implications of their ethical choices on poor farmers. Farmers deserve all support they can get to grow what the market wants in a way that minimises impact on human health and the environment. A greener cigarette for a greener world is a small step in the right direction.


Blog stories referred to

Going bananas

The sugar palms of Angkor Wat

A time to smoke

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