Contemporary animal agriculture is increasingly criticized on ethical grounds. Consequently, current policy and legislative discussions have become highly controversial as decision makers attempt to reconcile concerns about the impacts of animal production on animal welfare, the environment, and on the efficacy of antibiotics required to ensure human health with demands for abundant, affordable, safe food.
Clearly, the broad implications for US animal agriculture of what appears to be a burgeoning movement relative to ethical food production must be understood by animal agriculture stakeholders. The potential effects of such developments on animal agricultural practices, corporate marketing strategies, and public perceptions of the ethics of animal production must also be clarified.
To that end, it is essential to acknowledge that people’s beliefs about which food production practices are appropriate are tied to diverse, latent value systems. Thus, relying solely on scientific information as a means to resolve current debates about animal agriculture is unlikely to be effective.
The problem is compounded when scientific information is used inappropriately or strategically to advance a political agenda. Examples of the interface between science and ethics in regards to addressing currently contentious aspects of food animal production (animal welfare, antimicrobial use, and impacts of animal production practices on the environment) are reviewed.
The roles of scientists and science in public debates about animal agricultural practices are also examined. It is suggested that scientists have a duty to contribute to the development of sound policy by providing clear and objectively presented information, by clarifying misinterpretations of science, and by recognizing the differences between presenting data vs. promoting their own value judgments in regard to how and which data should be used to establish policy.
Finally, the role of the media in shaping public opinions on key issues pertaining to animal agriculture is also discussed.