Knowledge for Development

Research ethics and agricultural innovations

Author: Dr. Annabel Fossey, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), South Africa

Date: 28/07/2008


The view that scientists are, in general, trustworthy and ethically sound, and that agricultural research leading to new technological advances is intrinsically good has been altered and more so since the advent of genetic engineering. This has culminated in an ever growing societal interest in agricultural practices and their consequences, thereby posing new challenges for agricultural research.


Agriculture, which is a key contributor to human livelihood in most parts of the world has undergone significant changes from simple cultivation of crops and rearing of livestock, and has today become intertwined with technological advances such as the "new biotechnologies" – genetic engineering, cell fusion, tissue culture and cloning. On a daily basis we encounter innovative technological discoveries which come with the promise of increased efficiency and productivity resulting from products and processes derived from research and consequently they have become high-priority issues in shaping the future of agriculture.

Today many large corporations, undertaking pioneering research, contribute to a large body of agricultural inventions. However, the implementation of these technologies has met with considerable controversy and concern to many people across the world. Not only are the views and opinions conflicting at a scientific level, but also in terms of ethical and moral issues surrounding their use. Ethical issues are of particular interest with respect to genetic engineering and animal cloning. Some critics object to the application of genetic engineering; questioning our right to “play God”. Others object because they believe that biotechnology is unnatural; in their view crossing species boundaries and creating life-forms that could not have evolved in nature, is wrong. Others ask more policy-oriented ethical questions: What specifically are the consequences of biotechnology research, development, and deployment?

Existing values and systems and traditional concepts of nature and human identity are being challenged. The pertinent question is: Will this technology and others being developed e.g. nanotechnology be able to revolutionise farming, save the environment and be profitable especially at the level of small farms; and thus address the humanitarian, environmental and business ethics simultaneously? Because agriculture is characterized by practices that involve both social and ecological systems, ethical issues and practices in agricultural research have gained prominence. With the advancements in biotechnology, that provide scientists with the means to irreversibly change ‘human nature’, ethical issues and concerns are far reaching, as they concern nature and environment, human health, animal welfare, sustainability of modern agriculture, socio-economic development, access to resources, and professional and scientific responsibility for research.


In the field of ethics, moral standards that govern the appropriate conduct for an individual or group of individuals are termed bioethics, and can be defined as: “a method, procedure, or perspective, or norms of conduct that distinguishes between acceptable and unacceptable, right or wrong, behaviour”. This subfield of ethics, known as bioethics, is an integrated discipline that addresses ethical issues in life sciences.

The four fundamental principles of bioethics include:

  1. Beneficence which refers to the practice of good deeds;
  2. Non maleficence which emphasizes an obligation to not inflict harm;
  3. Autonomy which recognises the human capacity for self-determination and independency in decision-making; and
  4. Justice which is based on the conception of fair treatment and equity through reasonable resolution of disputes.

Research ethics

Research ethics can be described in terms of ethics of the topics and findings (morality) and secondly as ethics of method and process (integrity). Institutions that practice research have adopted professional codes relating to research ethics that all include principles of honesty, objectivity, integrity, confidentiality, carefulness, openness, competence, respect for intellectual property, responsible publication, responsible mentoring, respect for colleagues, social responsibility, non-discrimination, legality and animal care. Objectivity in research gives researchers trustworthiness. This applies to both the a priori tasks of setting up the research and gathering the data and in the posteriori tasks of interpreting and publishing the results. The socialist Robert Merton published four norms of science in 1973 that are widely shared by scientists and non-scientists alike. These norms are:

  • Universalism that stipulates that scientific accomplishments must be judged by impersonal criteria;
  • Communism (as in communalism) that requires that scientific information is shared publicly;
  • Disinterestedness that cautions researchers to proceed objectively; and
  • Organised scepticism that requires that new findings are scrutinised through peer review, replication, and the testing of rival hypotheses.

It is of growing concern how often research integrity is currently being challenged, and how common “unprofessional” behaviour seems to be in research today. Research misconduct involves fabrication, falsification, plagiarism and misappropriation. Researchers knowingly or intentionally ignore some of the most fundamental rules of research. Experimental designs and analyses are biased, results are reported inaccurately or incompletely or are fabricated, and improper credit is given to colleagues. Institutions take allegations of research misconduct seriously and have formal procedures to investigate such allegations. Potential misconduct is regarded with seriousness and requires in-depth investigation. Decisions are taken concerning the presence of misconduct and its severity, and appropriate corrective actions are taken, if needed. It is expected that both the person that reports possible misconduct, the whistleblower, and the person suspected of misconduct, the responder, are treated with "fairness and respect".

In research that involves animals, adherence to a code of practice that ensures the ethical and humane care and use of animals used for scientific purposes is imperative. It is generally accepted in the scientific community that when animals are used, the principles of replacement, reduction and refinement (3Rs) should be taken into account:

  • Replacement requires that wherever possible, techniques that totally or partially replace the use of animals for scientific purposes must be sought;
  • Reduction requires that research projects must use no more than the minimum number of animals necessary to ensure scientific and statistical validity and should not be implemented at the expense of greater suffering of individual animals. The use of animals must not be repeated unless essential for the purpose or design of the project; and
  • Refinement requires that animals must be suitable for the scientific purpose and that their welfare should be of primary consideration in the provision of their care. Projects should be designed to avoid both pain and distress in animals. If this is not possible, pain or distress must be minimised.


The remarkable development and application of agricultural technologies over the past 25 years have brought about significant changes in the manner in which we conduct research in agriculture. Patenting provides the basis for licensing and selling of new inventions and a mechanism for investors to fund their research and recoup their costs. More recently, the possibility of patenting DNA sequences has seen the proliferation of claims of intellectual property rights (IPRs) in industrialized countries. Where historically, universities and public institutions have been the leaders in developing improved crops and livestock and have been responsible for knowledge and technology transfer to farmers and the agricultural industry through cooperative extension, large multinational firms are now increasingly investing in agricultural research, with the public sector contributing less and less. Although the ethical issues of research associated with the patenting of “life” are complex, it has brought about significant changes in how we view agricultural research today.

It is understood that researchers should be compensated for their inventions; however, the vast number of IPRs controlled by large firms are keeping more and more of these inventions out of the public domain. The question arises: Does patenting, for example, of DNA sequences encourage or inhibit research? It certainly encourages research in the industrial sector, but access to many of these inventions by universities and public research institutions is inhibited. Large private firms rarely direct or intend their research for the resource-poor farmers of developing countries. Research is rather directed towards crops, traits and technologies that will be of benefit to developed industrialized countries or commercial farms that can guarantee adequate returns on investment. This has met with much concern. In developing countries, with high poverty levels, the impacts of these technologies are yet to be demonstrated as they have so far performed below expectations. Although it is probably true that genetic engineering could produce numerous improved varieties, its potential role in abolishing malnutrition and in improving yields and livelihoods in developing countries is still being questioned and could ultimately jeopardize the sustainability of small-scale and rural farmers, whom are mostly the conservators of land races, adapted over thousands of years to local environments. Agricultural biotechnology research is presently concentrated in the ‘‘industrialized north,’’ research aimed at responding to food and health concerns in developing countries, led mostly by the public sector, is growing.

As most of us subscribe to “utilitarian ethics,” as scientists, we must judge according to the outcome of our actions. If our actions are for the greatest good, or for the largest number of people, then the action is deemed acceptable. It is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that agricultural research, private or public, does enhance agricultural performance and that it serves the broader society now, and in the future, in a sustainable manner.


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