Technologies emerging from current bioengineering research areas may have a substantial impact on society and raise many ethical issues. Consequentially, there is a significant interest amongst public and private organisations to identify ethical issues, improve stakeholder participation, and develop frameworks and assessment procedures to aid decision-makers evaluate these complex issues. This paper explores a form of bioethical analysis that has been developed to aid decision-makers in the agricultural and food sectors. Two agricultural technologies will be used as case studies to examine the application of this form of bioethical analysis in technology assessment, viz automatic milking systems (AMS) and bovine somatotrophin (bST). The bioethical framework applied, the Ethical Matrix developed by Mepham (e.g. 1996; 2000), is based on a principled approach drawn from the concept of the ‘common morality’ where the ‘impacts’ of a technology are assessed in terms of respect for three ethical principles (wellbeing, autonomy and justice) as they apply to various interest groups.
To explore stakeholder issues raised by the technologies, two workshops and separate postal surveys of farmers, consumers and retailers were conducted to examine the attitudes to the two technologies. Each survey included matched questions, so that attitudes could be cross-compared, with the Ethical Matrix used as a guiding framework. The three surveys highlighted specific attitudes of consumers, farmers and retailers to bST and AMS (response rates were 19.3%, 27.3% and 69% respectively), as well as identifying general trends in attitudes to technological development. Consumers distinguished clearly between what they considered to be more acceptable (AMS was largely acceptable with some caveats) and less acceptable technologies (bST). bST use in the UK was unacceptable to the majority of UK farmers whereas AMS was accepted with caution. Retailers, overall, had a cautious but considered approach to the technologies, applying a precautionary approach in their policies.
Applying the Ethical Matrix aided the clarification of ethical issues which underlie differences in opinion on the acceptability and required legal control of the two technologies. In summary, bST supporters placed a greater emphasis on productivity and prosperity, whereas sceptics focused on perceived risks, and on producers' and consumers' lack of autonomy. Potential positive impacts of AMS were identified as improvements in dairy production efficiency and enhancement of dairy farmer and cow welfare, while concerns included impacts on rural employment, milk quality and the increasingly instrumental use of animals.
The incorporation of bioethical analysis into technology assessment, specifically in the form of the Ethical Matrix, was generally regarded as providing a useful and valuable tool, helping to clarifying issues and encourage dialogue. Individuals with contrasting worldviews can use it effectively, allowing any conflicts and consistencies of the arguments to be cross-compared. This is particularly important for policy makers who need to be explicit and transparent and to justify their decisions by reference to widely accepted ethical norms. At a simplistic level, this method may act merely as a comprehensive check-list, but when applied more comprehensively it can encourage stakeholder dialogue and clarify the interactions of scientific and ethical aspects of a particular issue.