New Course at Colorado State Teaches Ethics in Agriculture

A new course at Colorado State University is preparing students who are pursuing careers in agriculture to discuss the ethics behind many of the issues facing the industry.

The agricultural ethics class delves into the very subjects American farmers and ranchers are asked to address by an increasingly concerned public: pesticide use, animal welfare and animal rights, sustaining land used to produce crops and managing natural resources and the environment. The class, introduced spring semester, is offered through the College of Agricultural Sciences and College of Liberal Arts.

Robert Zimdahl, professor of weed science, teaches the course with Bernard Rollin, a philosophy professor who has taught a nationally-acclaimed course in veterinary ethics since 1978 as part of Colorado State’s veterinary medicine program. Rollin also has taught a course since 1980 in ethics in animal agriculture for the department of animal sciences.

Zimdahl, who joined Colorado State in 1968, created the course and received additional support from a Mid-Career Development Grant from the university, which encourages experienced faculty to try areas of teaching or research that are significant departures from their previous experience.

After conducting research on the effects of herbicides on weeds for most of his career, Zimdahl wanted to refocus on teaching students how to understand and appreciate the values of individuals inside and outside the agricultural industry.

"Agricultural education has emphasized learning to do things that increase food and fiber production," Zimdahl said. "Many of the industry’s practioners not only lack knowledge of their ethical foundation, but are unable to articulate and defend their values. This course examines the values underlying agricultural practices and encourages students to learn and think about them." Students enrolled in the class are currently debating the ethics surrounding the explosion in biotechnology and agricultural research, preservation of the family farm, and the ethics of providing foreign countries with agricultural aid.

Speaking from his experience teaching animal and veterinary ethics classes, Rollin said that students from opposite viewpoints often realize they share a common ground and can work together to resolve differences.

"Students who will become part of the agricultural community need to be able to intelligently discuss subjects related to their industry with an urban audience," said Rollin. "The whole mentality needs to be laid bare that husbandry doesn’t just have to do with animals but also is connected to crop production and sustaining the land." A condensed version of the agricultural ethics course will be taught June 15-20 as a continuing education course offered to the public. The class for Colorado State students will be offered every spring semester.

Philosophy is an increasingly important discipline in many professions, such as engineering, research and agriculture, said Michael Losonsky, chairman of Colorado State’s philosophy department. Losonsky points out that many companies want employees who can discuss the ethics behind issues and reach a consensus about them.

"There’s a movement in the professional world to reflect on what’s right," Losonsky said. "The agricultural ethics course is a good example of the kinds of service that philosophers can perform for professions such as agriculture." Adding ethics courses reinforces and broadens students’ perspectives of agriculture, said Kirvin Knox, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences.

"Ethics is a subject found in classical liberal curricula but not common to the sciences until recent years," Knox said. "This course will enrich and expand the ethics discourse among students and faculty–another example of our commitment to high- quality education for agricultural and other students."