New Bioeconomy Not without Ethical Quandaries

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Paul Thompson, W.K. Kellogg chair in agricultural, food and community ethics, states ethical issues regarding the bioeconomy. (view larger image)

Until the Industrial Revolution, wind, water, animals and biomass - such as wood for fuel - met humans’ primary energy needs. The emerging bioeconomy, led initially by the biofuels industry, will put increased demands on agriculture to produce both food and fuel.

Using land for biofuels creates pressure that has to be thought through ethically on two fronts - displacing land used for agrifood production and displacing land used for nature, according to Paul Thompson, AgBio philosophy researcher, who holds the W.K. Kellogg chair in agricultural, food and community ethics.

Thompson and five other scientists reviewed various technical, political and ethical aspects of the emerging bioeconomy at a symposium titled “Energy, Agriculture and People: Global Implications for Science and Policy” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting on Feb. 15.

Thompson conducted an extensive scientific literature search and several workshops to garner input on the ethical implications of biofuel production.

“In the case of agrifood production, there are some important ways that such issues are framed and debated,” Thompson said. “One is a ‘God’s-eye’ perspective that looks at society and counts numbers—it focuses on the aggregate, not individuals. The other approach stresses individual rights and sees anything that deprives one person of food as ethically problematic.

“In the case of nature, the boundaries are very ambiguous,” he continued. “Some people see farms as a part of nature—they connect to nature through farms. Others see nature as being about national parks and wildlife areas. Although this view doesn’t encompass crop-based biofuels, it does include issues—such as creating cellulosic biofuels from timber in forestlands - that can prove ethically controversial.”

Thompson contends that, though there are no easy answers, inclusive, deliberative dialogue is critical to the success of biobased technologies and practices.

“It’s not something that, as a philosopher, I can sit in my office and sort out,” Thompson said. “Philosophers can help frame the issue, but that’s the limit of what we can do.”

Thompson’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

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