A question of ethics down on the farm

31 May 2018

Nick Munn for web
Dr Nick Munn's research will be on show at Fieldays.

Communication technology allows for a much quicker and greater flow of information. And for users of new technologies, there are opportunities and risks.

University of Waikato’s Dr Nick Munn is a philosopher who studies the ethics of new technology, and the challenges technology generates for our existing ethical systems. He’ll be on the University of Waikato stand at this year’s National Agricultural Fieldays at Mystery Creek.

“Drones and biometric scanning of stock are set to change the face of farming,” says Dr Munn. “And I can see the advantages for a farmer to be a first mover with this type of technology.”

Drones are being used to manage and assess stock, scan, survey and map land, and even spray crops, but Dr Munn says there are ethics to be considered regarding their use -- where they might go, how high, and the potential to violate other people’s privacy.

The ethical issues around drones centre on the intentions of the user, and how their actions with a drone affect others. Dr Munn says before designing any legal standards or best-practice guidelines around drones and other new technologies, lawmakers would first need to determine the ethics of these new technologies and write laws that respect them.

“On the upside, agricultural drones are quickly able to access difficult-to-reach areas on farm, reveal any stock in trouble, and send information back to the farmer wherever he or she may be, inside or out,” he says.

“But it will require farmers to upskill, in some cases to change their mind-sets and see the cost efficiencies to be gained by using this new technology. On the other hand, it costs money to introduce new technologies, it costs time and money to upskill and I’m aware farmers have little spare time. They’ll need to prioritise.”

Dr Munn says farming is already an isolated industry, but he doesn’t think technology has to contribute to even more isolation. “Young farmers are forming online discussion groups and forums to discuss farming issues. These are great for making connections and friendships, as well as being useful professionally. Online friendships can provide the same important benefits as physical friendships. It’s a matter of what you do online. We do know that the bonds formed working and interacting collaboratively, either physically or online, help to keep you mentally healthy.”

Another aspect of Dr Munn’s research focuses on alternative farming – artificial meat and milk and the implications around “clean meat” and “brewed milk”, foods created in the lab, as opposed to the farm. It’s seen as a means to feed the world’s hungry. “It’s not what can be done, because it’s happening already in the United States, for example, but it’s what people will accept,” says Dr Munn. “Something will have to give in our present food culture. Will it change the way we define meat? Is it really meat at all? Will vegetarians and vegans be able to eat it?”

Dr Munn thinks farmers will need to be open to changes in the structure of their industry, and be willing to change the products they’re supplying to markets, or their livelihoods could be seriously threatened. Exactly how this will occur depends on how these new technologies develop, and how the New Zealand government, farming industry and public respond to them, both immediately, and as the products develop.

“People say they want healthier meat and milk from happier animals, but the reality is that price is a strong determinant for many people. So, at the low end, the biggest risk for farmers is if these new alternatives become price-competitive,” Dr Munn says.

“One possibility is that the government and the sector try to develop a national footprint in the new areas, so that the income from them stays in New Zealand rather than going to international corporations. This would be good to see, and I don’t think it is a particularly big risk.”

Fieldays runs 13-16 June.