NCCC209: Agricultural Bioethics

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Active

NCCC209: Agricultural Bioethics

Duration: 10/01/2014 to 09/30/2019

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Statement of Issues and Justification

Animal welfare is among the most contentious, emotionally laden, complex aspects of contemporary farm animal production. While difficult to address, it is imperative to maintain public support for and consequently, long term sustainability of animal agriculture. To that end, many important efforts are underway to promote and advance animal welfare education. Because these subjects are typically covered by talented scientists working in the Animal Sciences or elsewhere in animal agriculture, progress has been made in developing curricula covering the scientific components of animal welfare (Swanson, 1999; Siegford et al., 2007; Johnson, 2009; Siegford et al., 2010). However, because the basis for all our production and processing decisions is our personal and societal ethics, there is a growing need to create curricula that address the ethical foundations of animal welfare. Unfortunately, many agricultural faculty and administrators do not fully understand or appreciate this need, and may believe that it is sufficient to cover only aspects pertaining to the science of animal welfare or well-being in the curriculum.

This is problematic for several reasons. First, animal welfare is a broad and encompassing topic that fundamentally seeks to address the question of how animals should be treated. This is not a question that can be answered by science alone and this point must be clearly conveyed to students and all members of the agricultural community. Certainly, science is necessary to inform decision-making processes relative to the effects of adopting certain practices on animals, people and the environment. Further, ethical concerns are increasingly raised about the well-being of farm animals, the actual use of animals for human benefit, the implications of modern animal production systems on the environment, the effects of large (and smaller) scale animal
production on animal and human health, and on the structure of rural communities and family
farms. In addition, questions continue to be raised about the role of science in advising food
animal policies.

The failure to recognize and engage such ethical concerns is a fundamental problem that
has stymied the animal industries. In fact, contemporary debates about the ethics of animal
agriculture are so complex in nature that finding common ground and acceptable solutions
becomes even more challenging (Thompson, 1998; Fraser, 2000; Croney and Anthony, 2009).
Critics increasingly challenge the ethical implications of modern farming practices, and far too
often, animal agriculture is unable to present a defense of its practices or make a compelling
ethical argument for its very existence. Members of the animal agricultural community are often
more comfortable focusing on the scientific and technical aspects of their work and typically lack
the ability to objectively critique animal production practices (Schillo, 2003). Unsurprisingly
then, the impetus to regulate animal welfare both voluntarily and by way of legislation are
currently unprecedented and have manifested not just in a plethora of industry-driven quality
assurance schemes, but also numerous retail store originated certification programs, and in
animal welfare legislation that differs by state that may be challenging to implement. What these
events clearly demonstrate is a fundamental, systemic failure of animal agriculture to
acknowledge and properly address the bioethical implications of contemporary animal

In order to begin rectifying the problem, instructors in animal agriculture must
understand the constraints of science, and the role of animal bioethics in developing policy
regarding animal care and use. The case for doing so has been made by individuals working in
several disciplines. For example, agricultural ethicist, Paul Thompson, (1998) noted that animal
agriculture must become articulate in its relations with the public and that one step toward
achieving that goal is to increase the number of undergraduate and graduate courses that deal
with the ethics of animal sciences and animal agriculture. Likewise, philosopher Bernard Rollin
(1992, 1995) has long advocated for better incorporation of ethics education, reiterating in a
keynote speech at the 2003 annual meeting of the American Society for Animal Sciences that
animal agriculture must demonstrate the ethics reflected in animal husbandry that have diminished as a result of industrialized production methods (Rollin, 2004). Further, animal
scientists, such as Cheeke (1999), have recommended that animal science move beyond the
narrow focus of production efficiency, in consideration of the problems facing contemporary
animal scientists and animal agriculture. Similar arguments have been raised by Schillo (1999)
who argues that contemporary issues courses in animal agriculture should promote students and
educators abilities to critically analyze issues in ways that facilitate understanding and respect
for different moral perspectives.

Experts have appealed for ethics education to be included as a fundamental component of
the veterinary teaching and curriculum. Main et al. (2005) noted that Welfare science, ethics,
and law clearly should be an integral part of the veterinary undergraduate curriculum. Teaching
these subjects is critical if we, as a profession, are to be suitably prepared for the changing status
of animals in society and maintain our status as a caring, compassionate, and forward-thinking
professional body. Likewise, Thornton et al., (2001) and Broom (2005) highlighted the
importance of incorporating ethics into the curriculum of undergraduate and veterinary students
as a necessary means to facilitate welfare education. The NCCC 209 (Agricultural animal
bioethics, USDA regional working group) similarly argued that the interdisciplinary nature of
the scientific assessment of animal welfare means that students are not able to acquire and
understand the relevant information without receiving integrated lectures and other material on
the subject; and, second, that students need guidance on the interrelations between the underlying
ethics issues and the science.

However, few instructors charged with teaching animal welfare (and related subjects) feel
sufficiently knowledgeable about animal bioethics to even attempt to address these topics in their
courses. In the summer of 2009, a discussion at the annual meeting of NCCC 209 (Agricultural
animal bioethics, USDA regional working group) revealed that most of its members, many of
whom are also members of NC 1029 (USDA regional working group, Animal Behavior and
Welfare) who teach animal welfare and contemporary issues courses were interested in covering
bioethics but felt unprepared to competently do so. Thus, there is a shortage of U.S. faculty with
training and expertise in both animal welfare and bioethics and few readily accessible
mechanisms in place to address their needs and those of their students, especially in regard to
bioethics instruction. In light of this, and given the increased number of courses and curricula on
farm animal production being developed and offered by opponents of animal agriculture, it is
essential for a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional collaboration to create and disseminate sound, trans-disciplinary curricula in animal bioethics that are consistent in content and delivery across institutions so as to support the goal of promoting and sustaining animal agriculture.

The results of not undertaking these efforts include failure to properly prepare undergraduate, graduate and veterinary students to address the ethical and societal issues underlying growing public concerns relative to food animal production, and ultimately, underserving key stakeholders in animal agriculture (all sectors of food animal production and retail, consumers, and policy-makers) who are faced with these new challenges.

The technical feasibility is high. Several of the current members of NCC 209 have been awarded a USDA Higher Education Challenge grant create bioethics education modules, cases and to coordinate outreach efforts (a website, workshops and symposia) to communicate and disseminate the developed materials. Preliminary efforts to accomplish these goals are currently underway.

Impacts include facilitation of improved student, faculty and stakeholder understanding of the diversity of perspectives that must be considered when addressing problems such as appropriate farm animal welfare practices and standards. This project will facilitate instructor ability to enhance student understanding of the diversity of stakeholders in animal agriculture and their respective needs and value. This can then be integrated with the available scientific information in critical analyses of animal production that should lead to greater appreciation of the complexities of responsible decision-making relative to animal production practices and their implications which will greatly the student learning experience in animal agriculture.


  1. Develop teaching and extension activities and materials dealing with agricultural bioethics.
  2. Provide a coordinated means for ongoing critical analysis of the animal science profession in the context of its ability to address moral and socio-political issues.
  3. Develop mechanisms of outreach that facilitate useful and open discussion between animal scientists and members of the public concerned about contemporary animal agriculture and its impacts.
  4. Develop a problem statement on integrating animal welfare with information on economic, environmental and social dimensions of livestock production as well as the ethical significance of species typical behaviors in livestock production

Procedures and Activities

1. The group will develop and maintain a current web page that provides resources for teaching, extension and research activities in bioethics. Resources will be developed through projects researching the scientific literature and summarizing current knowledge in animal bioethics and related ethical issues. The group will also develop bioethics teaching modules suitable for use within the Animal Sciences curriculum that can be made available via the website. A subgroup has been developing instructional materials on animal ethics that would be suitable for animal science classroom use. These materials include basic introductions to key ethical concepts, readings that discuss how these concepts are applicable to livestock production and animal science, and a series of case studies that illustrate ethical issues typical of livestock production and that may be faced by producers, veterinarians, professional animal scientists and other food industry professionals. Once these activities are complete, a workshop will be developed to help faculty from animal science and other agricultural disciplines become familiar with these materials and to provide tips and pedagogical suggestions on how they might be applied in undergraduate and graduate training.

2. The committee will build on past and current successes with symposia at professional meetings of animal scientists will be a goal of the committee, to stimulate further analysis of ethical responsibilities of those in the animal science profession. In addition, participants will continue to engage in open forums on ethical issues related to animal agriculture held by concerned members of other disciplines.

3. The committee's internet web page will be maintained in order to provide society with credible information on highly contentious issues in animal agriculture.

4. Authors writing on the ethics livestock welfare have always recognized that livestock production must be evaluated with respect to multiple dimensions, including the cost and availability of animal products, impacts on consumer health, worker health and safety and on the broader natural environment in which livestock production takes place. However, there has been very little work on how the diverse values that are associated with each of these dimensions of livestock production should be integrated to provide an overall ethical assessment of alternative production methods. In general, economic methods of valuation and integrative decision making provide a general approach that is broadly consistent with the utilitarian tradition in ethics. However, utilitarianism is vulnerable a number of well-known problems that have also been tied to critiques of economic methods for values integration. Little to no work has been done extending these critiques to economics based methods for assessing livestock production, however. Activities are to recruit a team and to work either on e-mail or in person to craft a problem statement. The statement will be reviewed at an annual meeting of NCC2009, and an appropriate venue for publication will be sought.

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

  • Increased agricultural faculty knowledge of animal bioethics content and enhanced ability to facilitate bioethical discussions.
  • Increased student knowledge of how to conduct ethical assessments of contemporary production practices that reflect synthesis of both scientific and ethical information.
  • Increased collaborative efforts between Animal Scientists, social scientists and philosophers to design and support new bioethics education programs
  • Increased credible dialog between science and non-scientist community about contentious social issues.
  • Expansion of cross-disciplinary networks to include a wider range of expertise and to foster agricultural animal bioethics research.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan

Develop agricultural bioethics modules and cases suitable for use in the Animal Sciences (and other Agricultural and Veterinary Sciences) curriculum;

Create and maintain a web site for sharing of materials developed by participants;

Create and deliver a workshop to facilitate educators success in using bioethics teaching materials;

Collaborate with colleagues teaching existing or proposed courses on animal bioethics in other disciplines (such as philosophy or sociology) to integrate relevant scientific information and perspectives that would enhance credible dialogue on animal bioethics;

Develop and coordinate symposia at professional meetings that highlight the ethical responsibilities of scientists. The group's efforts will include continuation and expansion of agricultural bioethics symposia and presentations at national and international meetings (e.g., joint annual ASAS/ADSA meeting or Agriculture, Food and Human Values conference) for both animal scientist and animal producer groups; engage in cross-disciplinary forums on contentious ethical issues in animal agriculture;

Produce peer-reviewed agricultural bioethics publications (journal and/or popular press articles).


A Chair, a Vice-chair, and a Secretary will be will be elected by the committee annually. All officers will be elected for one-year terms. Administrative guidance will be provided by an assigned Administrative Advisor and a CSREES Representative.

Literature Cited

Broom, D.M. 2005. Animal Welfare Education: Development and Prospects. J. Vet. Med. Educ. 32 (4): 438-441.

Cheeke, P.R. 1999. Shrinking membership in the American Society of Animal Science: does the discipline of poultry science give us some clues? J. Animal Sci. 77:2031-2038.

Croney, C.C. and Anthony, R. 2009. Engaging science in a climate of values: tools for animal scientists tasked with addressing ethical problems. J. Animal Sci. 88:E75-E81.

Fraser, D. 2000. Animal Ethics and Animal Welfare Science: Bridging the Two Cultures. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 65: 171189.

Johnson, A. K. 2009. ASAS Centennial Paper: Farm animal welfare science in the United States. J. Anim Sci. 87:2175-2179.

Main, D.C.J., Thornton, P., and Kerr, K. 2005. Teaching animal welfare science, ethics, and law to veterinary students in the United Kingdom. J. Vet. Med. Educ. 32 (4):505-508.

Rollin, B.E. 1992. Animal Rights and Human Morality. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY.

Rollin, B.E. 1995. Farm animal welfare. Social, bioethical and research issues. Iowa State University Press, Ames, IA.

Rollin, B. 1999. An Introduction to Veterinary Medical Ethics: Theory and Cases. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa.

Rollin, B.E. 2004. Annual meeting keynote address: animal agriculture and emerging social ethics for animals. J. Animal Sci. 82:955-964.

Schillo, K.K. 1999. An Appropriate Role for Ethics in Teaching Contemporary Issues. J Anim Sci. 77:154-162.

Schillo, K.K. 2003. Critical perspectives of animal agriculture: Introduction. J. Anim. Sci. 2003. 81:2880-2886.

Siegford, J.M., Zanella, A.J., Bernardo, T., Wickens, C.L., Laughlin, K., and Malinowski R. 2007. Leveraging expertise in animal welfare to create educational equity. Animal Welfare. 16(2):241-244.

Siegford, J.M., Yue Cottee, S., and Widowski, T.M. 2010. Opportunities for learning about animal welfare from online courses to graduate degrees. J Vet Med Educ. 37(1), 49-55.

Swanson, J.C. 1999. What are animal science departments doing to address contemporary issues? J. Animal Sci. 77:354-360.

Thompson, P.B. 1998. From a philosopher's perspective, how should animal scientists meet the challenge of contemporary issues? J. Animal Sci. 77:372-377.

Thornton, P.D., Morton, D.B., Main, D.C., Kirkwood, J.K., and Wright, B. 2001. Veterinary ethics: filling a gap in undergraduate education. Vet Rec. 148(7):214-216.


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Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

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