How farmers, ranchers, and fishers run their operations affects workers, animals, public health, and the natural environment. Yet, in addition to being moral agents capable of bringing about good or harm for others, they are also subjects of moral concern. Their livelihoods and their ability to conduct their enterprises in ethically appropriate ways are heavily influenced by the actions of upstream players in the food system, ethical conduct in markets, and just systems of regulation.
Farmers, Ranchers, and Fishers
Both practically and ethically, farmers, ranchers, and fishers have much in common with other food chain laborers. For example, farmers, ranchers, and fishers not only operate, but also dedicate their time and contribute their labor to enterprises that produce food to satisfy the irreducible needs of other humans.1 Additionally, farmers, ranchers, and fishers are often exposed to some of the same risks and harms as other food chain laborers because they work in similar spaces, sometimes side-by-side. Nevertheless, there are key distinctions between farmers, ranchers, and fishers and other food chain laborers that should not be overlooked — differences of power, authority, autonomy, recognition, voice, and cultural position. Farmers, ranchers, and fishers are often held in the collective imagination as hardworking, honorable contributors to society possessing a laudable entrepreneurial spirit. By contrast, other food chain workers are more readily dismissed or overlooked. While farmers, ranchers, and fishers have a long history of organizing for and obtaining government protection of their interests, others who work as food chain laborers are often discouraged or barred from such organizing and have seen less success in achieving public recognition of their plight.
But to say that some farmers, ranchers, and fishers may hold a privileged position relative to many food chain laborers is to tell only part of the story. If, instead, we compare farmers, ranchers, and fishers to other food system business owners and corporate interest groups, their stature diminishes. This is, in part, because farmers, ranchers, and fishers are a large but fairly disparate group. There are over 570 million farms and ranches globally, about 500 million of which are family-run or smallholder farms operating on two hectares or less.2 These small farms exist alongside much larger operations with access to more sophisticated technologies and abilities to leverage the benefits of economies of scale. A similar dualism exists in the marine fisheries context where small-scale or artisanal fisheries forage in the same waters as large-scale or industrial fisheries, creating real disparities in types of technology used, degree of capital intensity, opportunities to hire help, and challenges to maintaining ownership.3
Concentration in the food industry is intense. In almost every sector, the differential in economic power between the top four firms and smaller players like most farmers, ranchers, and fishers is enormous.4 Ogliopolistic levels of consolidation have been observed in many sectors of the food system including, for example, input providers, commodities brokers, food processors, distributors, and retailers. By comparison, the primary production portion of the food system is far more diverse and diffuse and wields less cohesive political power and far less economic power. Differential power of this magnitude puts smaller players in a position of substantial disadvantage and makes it easier for larger players to engage in ethically problematic business practices that pose significant threats to the viability of smaller scale players. Moreover, because of this asymmetry, farmers, ranchers, and fishers are often “price-takers” with little ability to negotiate the value they receive for what they produce or the terms upon which they contract with buyers of their products. Moreover, they may find themselves at greater risk of unfair business practices. Given these dynamics, farmers, ranchers, and fishers are worthy of distinctive moral concern.
Farmers, ranchers, and fishers are in a special ethical position. How they run their operations has ethical implications for workers, animals, public health, and the natural environment. Yet, in addition to being moral agents capable of bringing about good or harm for others, they are also subjects of moral concern. The livelihoods of farmers, ranchers, and fishers and their ability to conduct their enterprises in ethically appropriate ways are heavily influenced by the actions of upstream players in the food system, ethical conduct in markets, and just systems of regulation.
When we think about the interests and ethical claims of farmers, ranchers, and fishers, five interrelated sets of issues arise:
First, large players in the agrifood system sometimes engage in practices that are unfair and exploitative of smaller players and that threaten their livelihoods. This conduct is enabled by the disproportionate size and economic and political power of multinational corporations, multidivisional companies, conglomerates and trade groups. For example, as food supply chains have been restructured through horizontal and vertical integration, some integrators outsource the most risky and low margin segments of their business to growers under contract terms that many analysts have critiqued as fundamentally unfair. A prime example here is outsourcing the raising of live animals to slaughter weight. Similarly, some processors who buy from independent growers now compete with growers by raising their own “captive supply” of animals that can be slaughtered when market prices rise above what the processors want to pay.5,6
Second, even when unfair and exploitative practices are not used, small players can still be driven out of business by large players with greater power to dominate markets, influence political processes, benefit from economies of scale, and gain a competitive edge through the aggregation and use of “big ag data.”7 For example, widespread and rapid consolidation across the agrifood industry has left farmers with a scant selection of both input suppliers and potential purchasers of their products, assuming that there is choice at all. The lack of competition on both sides of their business squeezes their incomes and limits their choices about what to grow, how to grow it, and for whom.
Both the first and the second set of issues result in conditions that combine to create a third, instrumental reason why the interests of small and mid-sized producers are ethically important. These conditions make it difficult for small producers to act ethically with respect to workers, animals, public health, and the natural environment without jeopardizing their livelihoods and the viability of their own businesses. Thus, small and mid-sized producers must sometimes choose between ethically preferable conduct (i.e., using practices that are more sustainable or respectful of labor) and financial viability. Unfair arrangements for small and mid-sized producers are thus not only ethically problematic from the standpoint of the interests of small producers, but also they can result in harm to other things we care about morally when we think about the ethics of food.
Fourth, and relatedly, some believe that smaller players, especially those who truly own and operate as family enterprises and have tangible connections to the places in which food is grown or captured, are more likely than large operators to emphasize relationships in ways that yield ethically desirable conditions. A relational, rather than extractive, approach to farming lends itself to reciprocity with and care for the land and other species on which farmers, ranchers, and fishers depend. Such an approach also emphasizes community well-being and sharing of resources. Relatedly, some believe that smaller players are more apt to favor practices that are ethical, conservation-driven, and welfare promoting. Additionally, because smaller producers tend to have more diversified operations, they are more likely to produce food that can be readily consumed by humans without conversion by animals (as feed) and without intensive processing. For these reasons, some view the work of these farmers as more directly responsive and essential to meeting human needs.
Fifth, some consider small farms, farming and fishing communities, and the rural heritage they embody, to possess a combination of cultural, historical, and inherent value that makes them ethically worth preserving. The values that these land and sea-based enterprises serve and instantiate are seen as reasons to protect and promote the distinctive lifeways and communities that dominate and define many interior and coastal rural places.
Whether or to what extent small producers should be protected from economic losses, and their ways of life preserved, is a matter of debate. There is significant disagreement about the bounds of appropriate conduct in markets, and the degree to which any particular business is obligated to restrain itself or limit its opportunities for profit in the service of the welfare of smaller operators and the value they bring to neighboring communities and ways of life. There is also foundational disagreement about how markets ought to be structured. Some activists and scholars of food systems object to the globalization of the food system, object to it functioning as a relatively free market (or, alternatively, object to the use of free market rhetoric in the face of subsidies and protectionist practices), and even object to food being treated as a commodity at all. Others argue that the best way to help small farmers is to make food and agricultural markets more free, for example by reducing tariffs. Thus, the CECs in this section might be criticized as going too far — as asking too much of larger business enterprises — and also as not going nearly far enough — as failing to lodge important, foundational ethical critiques of how markets are structured.
Whatever one’s views on these foundational issues, there exists a core set of problems that we hope all can recognize and be concerned about, including: when free markets fail to function as intended, and some actors engage in unfair, exploitative, or anti-competitive action, either by design or lack of enforcement; when otherwise fair conduct within a well-functioning market nonetheless disincentivizes ethical conduct by other actors; and when otherwise fair conduct undermines people’s ability to meet their basic needs by threatening their livelihood or food security.
Core Ethical Commitments
Economies of scale brought about through consolidation and vertical integration create efficiencies and higher, more reliable profits for large players. However, for farmers, ranchers and fishers these economies of scale may not translate into manageable input costs, better choices, or prices that cover the costs of production or yield a fair profit.8 For example, from 1990-2015, the price of farm inputs in the United States rose faster than farmgate commodity prices (which equal the market value of a product minus the selling costs); seed prices rose twice as fast as farmgate commodity prices.9 Such steep price hikes pose challenges for all producers but are especially difficult for smaller scale players to shoulder. There is also increasing vertical integration in the aquaculture industry, with similar consequences as in land-based farms.10 In wild capture fisheries, consolidation of quota is causing fishers, operating on very low margins, to race to harvest as much seafood as possible and move it quickly.11 The prices for inputs commanded by powerful actors can threaten farmers, ranchers, fishers, and — by extension — the food chain laborers that work for them, the animals they raise, and the very communities in which they are based. Input providers should not engage in price gouging, nor should they create new markets by subsidizing or deflating prices to promote adoption, only to steeply raise those prices once buyers become reliant upon their products.
Beyond pricing, powerful actors should avoid practices that create producer dependency. For example, agrochemical and seed companies should avoid developing and marketing seeds whose viability or productivity is dependent upon the use of a companion chemical or other patented input that is marketed to or controlled by that company. Similarly, equipment and machinery providers should not restrict the ability of farmers, ranchers and fishers to service the products they purchase. Companies developing and marketing innovative technologies, such as remote sensing, robotics powered by artificial intelligence, and Internet of Things devices, should not restrict producers’ access to data or insights generated in connection with the producers’ operations, nor should they use such data or insights in ways that threaten the viability of farming, ranching and fishing enterprises.
When consolidated economic power is deemed anti-competitive, antitrust law and other policy techniques can be used to prevent or break-up consolidated economic power. However, even — or especially — when consolidation is not deemed anti-competitive or subject to public controls, powerful actors should be alert that their actions may threaten the viability of upstream players. To do otherwise can have the effect of reducing the number, diversity, and geographic distribution of actors in the food system. This, in turn, impairs resilience, making the food system more brittle and vulnerable to shocks. It also increases the likelihood of disruptions in supply and threats to food security.12 The narrow economic interests of powerful actors should not be advanced in ways that substantially increase the risks of food supply disruptions and food insecurity, which would have the effect of undermining the life, health, safety, and prospects for large swathes of the human population. Thus, to the extent that a diverse and diffuse (geographically distributed) population of farmers, ranchers, and fishers supports food system resilience, powerful actors should make concerted efforts to act in ways that do not unfairly imperil the viability of upstream players. At a minimum, powerful downstream actors should actively engage with and be responsive to the needs of farmers, ranchers, and fishers in an effort to support their ongoing viability and the maintenance or enhancement of food system resilience.
A handful of large agri-food corporations controls large portions of the markets for their inputs and/or their end products. This gives them tremendous, disproportionate power to dictate the terms of the contracts they enter into with other players in the chain of production and influence the regulatory environments in which they operate. These advantages preserve the ability of large agri-food corporations (often referred to as integrators) to impose onerous, sometimes unfair, contractual terms13,14,15 on farmers, ranchers, and fishers (often referred to as “growers”) that disproportionately benefit themselves at the expense of the growers.16 This kind of contracting improves profitability for integrators by decreasing integrators’ economic risk, improving efficiency, and ideally improving the quality of the final product. One way that economic risk is shifted to growers is by requiring growers to invest or debt-finance significant capital to start their contract growing operation, effectively tethering them to the integrator for many years until the investment can be recouped or the loan paid down. During this time, integrators may unilaterally impose or change terms with little or no opportunity for the growers to object. These contracts can also leave contract growers vulnerable to shifts in the market, susceptible to reduced demand for their products, obligated to adapt to changes in contractors’ requirements, and subject to non-negotiable pricing structures. These contracts can leave growers with minimal autonomy or decision-making authority to control the conditions, practices, and timing of production (a concern at the heart of Commitment #21).17
When large companies are so dominant (globally or regionally) that growers have no alternative but to contract with them, they are able to dictate terms that producers must accept, even when these terms deny growers a fair price and disproportionately shift economic risk onto them. This commitment enjoins companies to negotiate equitable contracts with growers, in particular ones that include fair sharing of risk.
Farmers, ranchers, and fishers may find themselves with little autonomy or no meaningful and economically viable options when it comes to important aspects of their work. They may have little control over what species to catch, breeds to raise, or varieties to produce. They also may have little control over land use, production, capture, husbandry, or labor practices. For example, some livestock growers are contractually obligated to house, surgically modify, medicate, and/or feed animals in accordance with terms dictated by the integrators with which they contract;18 these terms may require them to run afoul of Core Ethical Commitments regarding animal welfare, public health, and environmental impact. Additionally, some commodity growers are compelled to use chemically intensive and ecologically destructive production practices to generate the kind of yields necessary to remain viable in a market where they are takers of commodity prices that are controlled by powers, policies, and financial markets well beyond their sphere of influence. In such circumstances, contractual obligation or economic necessity may compel owner-operators to carry out their work in ways that bring about or exacerbate unethical harms.
Farmers, ranchers, and fishers should be able to negotiate business arrangements, contractual terms, and prices that make it possible for them to participate in advancing the interests and welfare of objects of moral concern (including other humans, animals, and ecosystems) affected by their work. In the absence of such autonomy, farmers, ranchers, and fishers are sharply limited in their ability to function as stewards or otherwise operate in ways that are ethically acceptable. The resultant farm, ranch, and sea products may fall far short of ethical standards and may diminish the ethical acceptability of any value-added foodstuffs made from them. (An earlier example of downstream extension of ethical duty can be found in CEC #16, which addresses just compensation and benefits for workers.) This commitment encourages downstream players to recognize the foundational and substantial role that farmers, ranchers, and fishers play in shaping the overall ethical value of finished food products and to empower producers to participate in making improvements at the production or capture stages of the food system. Downstream players may do so by offering prices that cover closer to the true costs of production (rather than prices that only appear sensible when eco-social costs are externalized), by offering price premiums to farmers, ranchers, and fishers who meet buyer-established or third party standards, or by engaging directly with relevant farmers, ranchers, and fishers to examine barriers to implementing more ethical production practices and collaborating on ways to overcome the same.
Downstream players have the power to either promote or stymie ethical improvement in the food system through their purchasing practices, patterns, and preferences. When downstream players seek out or favor less ethical products solely because such products can be obtained more affordably than their more ethical counterparts, downstream players are both endorsing the ethical downsides associated with the cheapest products and furthering the externalization of costs and harms associated with these ethical downsides. While selecting products with higher ethical value may increase costs, downstream players should consciously assess the true costs of the products and services and endeavor to source products in line with identified values. Additionally, downstream players should work (independently and in collaboration with other entities) to stimulate demand for more ethically produced raw and minimally processed commodities and to build capacity for ethical enhancement of supply chains.
Additionally, downstream players who source from farmers, ranchers, and fishers who prioritize ethical practices should avoid undermining the viability of their suppliers by simultaneously marketing and profiting from competitive products with dramatically lower ethical value. For example, a coffee roaster who sources beans from fair trade, shade-grown, and bird friendly farms, and then markets a premium product by touting those attributes, should consider whether simultaneously marketing and profiting from a competitive line of conventionally sourced coffee shrinks the market for the more ethical product. If so, the roaster should develop a plan to transition more of its supply to products with a greater ethical value. However, in the case of nutritionally important staple foods, the appropriateness of this strategy for promoting the viability of more ethical producers should be assessed and may need to be tempered out of concern for the accessibility and affordability of foods and attendant effects on food security.
Land Access & Tenure
This commitment concerns the ability of smallholder and peasant producers and qualified beginning producers (including those who aspire and are reasonably prepared to undertake the important work of land and water-based food production) to access productive land, water, forests and associated resources, with the right to maintain that access so long as they continue to rely upon and steward such resources. Qualified beginning producers are early career, generally young, aspiring producers who have made a good faith effort to prepare for a career in food production. For purposes of Commitment 23, the term producers should be interpreted as encompassing not only independent, smallholder, peasant, and qualified beginning producers, but also foragers and hunters who rely on secure access to land, water, and associated resources to meet their own food needs or to engage in subsistence-level market activities.
There is considerable debate about the conditions under which the acquisition of land and other resources that threaten or disrupt the livelihoods of small scale producers are morally unacceptable. From the standpoint of smallholder and peasant producers, a central concern is the pattern of investment activity by wealthy nations, multinational corporations and foreign/institutional investors acquiring vast areas of land in developing nations. This phenomenon, sometimes referred to as “land-grabbing,” is problematic because it enables powerful actors to control land and its associated resources (e.g., water, minerals, forests, native species) and reap the financial benefits of their exploitation, often at the expense of far less powerful persons and communities who rely upon the land and its resources, sometimes for many generations. These large land deals can forcibly remove or displace local populations from the land upon which they depend without sufficient opportunity to voice their concerns for self, community, and natural resource stocks. Moreover, land-grabbing typically causes a shift in the nature and intensity of land use, and can prompt the involuntary cessation of small-scale, labor-intensive uses like foraging and subsistence agriculture (which may, in some cases, improve life prospects and support collective self-determination and cultural continuance), without the consent of affected communities. Livelihoods and ways of life may be lost, access to traditional food sources interrupted, and poverty exacerbated.19
These are not all the reasons why some view land acquisitions of this type to be of moral concern. In addition to the independent historical and cultural value that makes threatened ways of life ethically worth preserving, some would also argue that smallholders have moral claims to remain on the land. These claims are based on the individual history of smallholders with the land, or because their communities have a moral claim to preserve their way of life and that requires remaining on the land. Indigenous groups, in particular, may have moral claims to self-determination and preservation of ways of life that derive in part from a history of dispossession and violent oppression.
At the same time, there is moral disagreement about when individuals and groups have moral claims to remain on land and continue farming, ranching, fishing and foraging on it, and how these claims should be balanced against other ethically important considerations. Some argue that elimination of ways of life is often an inevitable consequence of disruptive technological or economic innovation, and that the proper moral response is not to constrain innovation but to mitigate hardships for those whose lives are negatively affected.
Land access and tenure are, to a large degree, creatures of local law and community practices, which vary widely across the globe. Accordingly, the policies and practices necessary to sustain or reclaim land, water, and resource access will be context-dependent. Actions of downstream players, and particularly those with financial strength, political influence, or demand-side market power play a major role in disrupting land tenure and the burdening or preventing of land access.
This commitment calls upon multinational corporations and foreign/institutional investors (working in concert with governments where appropriate) to carefully examine the land, water, resource, livelihood, food access, and community viability implications of anticipated changes in property rights or planned development of land to understand how the land and resources have historically been and are currently being used, identify stakeholders with prior claims to and dependency on the land and resources, and plan for an appropriate sharing or transition of land and resource use.
This commitment requires that land and property rights acquisitions — particularly those involving multinational corporations, foreign and institutional investors, and governments — do not involve unfair tactics. Unfair tactics include the use of violence, coercion, and threats of harm, collusion and graft, or fraud. They also include attempts to silence, suppress or interrupt persons or groups who oppose these acquisitions. Although small producers who have a moral claim to land or resources may not have legal title, where small holders do have legal title, agri-food system actors who wish to acquire land and resources must proactively ensure that these have been legally accessed, purchased, or leased with the free, prior, and informed consent of the persons or communities who have legal title.
In the United States, some other wealthy nations, and some economically robust parts of middle and low income nations, another group whose interests are included in this commitment is “qualified beginning” farmers, ranchers, and fishers. Qualified beginning producers are early career, generally young, aspiring producers who have made a good faith effort to prepare for a career in food production. Some up-and-coming producers seek to produce food in familiar ways, while others are attempting to innovate new forms of food production (e.g., vertical farming, controlled environment agriculture, ocean and tidal farming, cellular agriculture). Regardless, beginning producers qualify for special consideration both because of their preparatory efforts and ethical commitments and because in the near-future food production and food security hinge on the existence, viability, engagement and skill of coming generations of farmers, ranchers, and fishers.
Large acquisitions and foreign and speculative investment are among the hurdles that stand between qualified beginning producers and the realization of their aspirations to produce food and steward natural resources.
At minimum, more powerful downstream and upstream actors should not resist or otherwise seek to undermine public and civil society efforts to help qualified beginning farmers, ranchers and fishers get started and succeed, including policies that conserve agricultural lands or important marine environments or promote farmland access for qualified beginning producers. Where possible, powerful actors should also actively engage in activities that support qualified beginning farmers, ranchers and fishers.
1 Because the CECs are primarily a tool for market-based change of the food system, the CECs in this section place particular emphasis on farmers, ranchers and fishers who intend that at least some of their land-and-water derived products will be sold in local or international markets. Yet, not all people who coax food from the land and seascape neatly fit the common understanding of farmers, ranchers, and fishers. Some are more accurately described as foragers and hunters, who may market their products or use these food provisioning strategies for personal, familial or close community subsistence. Foragers and hunters may participate in the global food system, but do so in ways that differ substantially from commercial farmers, ranchers, and fishers. While the interests of foragers and hunters are certainly worthy of moral consideration, because they do not substantially engage with the market they are not a primary focus of most of the commitments in this section. Foragers and hunters do figure prominently in CEC #23, however, which addresses access to and use of land, water, and associated resources.
2 Sarah K. Lowder, Jakob Skoet, and Terri Raney, “The Number, Size, and Distribution of Farms, Smallholder Farms, and Family Farms Worldwide,” World Development 87 (November 2016): 16-29.
3 Theodore Panayotou, Management Concepts for Small-Scale Fisheries: Economic and Social Aspects (FAO Rome, 1982).
4 IPES-Food, “Too Big to Feed: Exploring the Impacts of Mega-Mergers, Consolidation and Concentration of Power in the Agri-Food Sector,” 2017, http://www.ipes-food.org/_img/upload/files/Concentration_FullReport.pdf.
5 Angela Huffman, Joe Maxwell, and Andres Salerno, “Consolidation, Globalization, and the American Family Farm,” Organization for Competitive Markets, August 2017, https://competitivemarkets.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Consolidation-Globalization-and-the-American-Family-Farm.pdf.
6 Organization for Competitive Markets, “Distorted Incentives: The Simple Arithmetic of Captive Supply,” November 2016, https://competitivemarkets.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Distorted-Incentives.pdf.
7 IPES-Food, “Too Big to Feed.”
8 Huffman, Maxwell, and Salerno, “Consolidation.”
9 IPES-Food, “Too Big to Feed.”
10 Michael Phillips et al., “Aquaculture Big Numbers,” FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper 601, 2016, http://www.fao.org/3/a-i6317e.pdf.
11 Robert Donald Dawson, “Vertical Integration in Commercial Fisheries,” PhD diss., Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2003, https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/28627/Dawson_Dissertation.pdf?sequence=2.
12 Nicole Civita, “Resilience: The Food Policy Imperative for a Volatile Future” (July 2015), https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2628202.
13 IPES-Food, “Too Big to Feed.”
14 Diana L. Moss and C. Robert Taylor, “Short Ends of the Stick: The Plight of Growers and Consumers in Concentrated Agricultural Supply Chains,” Wisconsin Law Review, 2014, 337.
15 C. Robert Taylor, “The Many Faces of Power in the Food System,” Presented at the DoJ/FTC Workshop on Merger Enforcement, February 17, 2004, https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/atr/legacy/2007/08/30/202608.pdf.
16 Moss and Taylor, “Short Ends.”
17 Glenn A. Hegar Jr, “Adhesion Contracts, Debt, Low Returns and Frustration-Can America’s Independent Contract Farmer Overcome the Odds,” Hamline Law Review 22 (1998): 213.
18 Neil Hamilton, “A Current Broiler Contract Analysis Addressing Legal Issues and Grower Concerns,” In Assessing the Impact of Integrator Practices on Contract Poultry Growers, 2001, http://www.flaginc.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/poultrypt3.pdf.
19 Transnational Institute, “The Global Land Grab: A Primer,” October 11, 2012, https://www.tni.org/en/publication/the-global-land-grab.